Sunday, 1 March 2015

A Conversation with Lyndsy Spence about Her Book Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford

Perhaps no other set of sisters had an impact on the 20th Century as the Mitford sisters. Beautiful, intelligent, and more often than not controversial, the Mitfords may well be the most famous sisters of all time short of the Brontës. They spanned nearly the entire political spectrum, from a Nazi sympathiser to a Communist. And they achieved a good deal in a wide range of various fields, everything from best selling novels to muckracking journalism. It should be no surprise that there is a great deal of interest in them to this day.

Perhaps no one is as interested in the Mitfords as author Lyndsy Spence. She is founder of the Mitford Society, which boasts over 1700 members. She wrote the highly successful book The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life and edited the Mitford Society's two annuals. She has been published in everything from The Lady Magazine to BBC Magazine. Her latest book, Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford, comes out tomorrow. It details the early life of one of the most controversial of the Mitford sisters, Diana, who married brewing heir and future peer Bryan Guinness only to leave him for British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Following is an interview with Miss Spence regarding her latest book

A Shroud of Thoughts: Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford is your second book related to the Mitford Sisters. How did you become interested in the Mitfords?

Lyndsy Spence: I am drawn to the inter-war era and I am fascinated by the relationships sisters and female friends have with one another. Any female relationship is complex and with six sisters you get a variety of personalities and the complexities behind them. The Mitfords seemed to be connected to everyone both through friendship and by blood. They really did have a front row seat to the key events of the last century.

A Shroud of Thoughts: What drew you to Diana Mitford as a subject for a biography?

Lyndsy Spence: Diana always provokes conversation and debate, and people either love her or loathe her. I wanted to discover the woman behind the public profiles that have been labelled on her. The thing that I admire about Diana is that whether the choices she made were right or wrong, she committed herself entirely and she never complained or played the victim. Her attitude was very much "I wanted to do it, so I did it".

A Shroud of Thoughts:  How did you go about researching Diana's early life?

Lyndsy Spence: I wanted to take her out of the Mitford circle, if you will, and look at her without the influence of her sisters. Naturally Nancy and Unity played significant parts in her life, but as far as her growing up was concerned, I wanted to explore Diana's friendships with the men who influenced her outlook on life. I was interested in the dynamic of her relationships with the men who worshipped her and how it shaped her as a person. The letters between James Lees-Milne and Diana were very revealing, and her frame of mind as a teenager did not change as she matured. So that, to me, confirmed Diana's self-belief and her opinions on how she believed people should interact with one another was very strong. Her fundamental principles as a 14 year old did not change when she reached adulthood, and it affirmed - to me at least - that Diana knew what she wanted. It was a good foundation to build on.

A Shroud of Thoughts: The Mitfords seem to have been a diverse lot, including everything from a best selling novelist and biographer (Nancy) to a Nazi sympathiser (Unity) to a political activist and muckraking journalist (Jessica). That having been said, how do you think the sisters were alike?

Lyndsy Spence: They were alike in their freethinking ways and in their independence. Granted they all married, except for Unity, and lived in an age when men dominated society, but they knew their own minds and they lived by their own rules. I think their bond ran deeper than blood, and although Decca could not forgive Diana's fascist leanings, the passion they had for their causes and the men whom they loved were alike, albeit on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

A Shroud of Thoughts:  This next question will take a bit of speculation on your part. How do you think Diana's life would have been different had she remained married to Bryan Guinness?

Bryan and Diana Guinness
Lyndsy Spence: When I was trying to imagine what Diana's life was like with Bryan Guinness, whom everyone said was so kind and loving toward her, I wondered if it hadn't have been Mosley, would she have left him for somebody else? It's difficult to say what her life might have been like because, as we know, when the girls felt strongly about something they committed themselves one-hundred-percent. So, when Diana began to feel disenchanted around 1930 with the economic depression and how her set seemed to move through life relatively unscathed, she was kicking against the gilded world Bryan afforded her. I don't think her passion, at the time, for righting the wrongs of society would have passed and perhaps had she stayed with Bryan she would have been restless. I think, although Bryan adored her and was a good husband and father, he was also striving for something Diana could never give him. He was poetic and had a gentle nature, and the men she seemed attracted to - think Mosley - were almost clones of her father aka Farve. The woman Bryan ended up with was probably the type of wife he hoped Diana would become. His second wife was content to live a country life and give him lots of children. As Diana said, "A better wife for him than I was." Had she stayed with Bryan I think she might have been miserable, for it would have meant fooling herself into believing she was truly happy with her situation. But then again, we don't know!

A Shroud of Thoughts:  Could you tell us about any of your upcoming projects?

Lyndsy Spence: I'm writing a biography of the British film star Margaret Lockwood to mark her centenary next September (2016) and I am working on a television project that's in development. I'm also writing a fiction novel (I've been doing this in-between projects), which has been a dream of mine for so long. I'm always busy!

Mrs. Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford is available at Amazon UK and in Kindle format at Amazon US.

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