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Diana Mosley
Jan Dalley
Alfred A. Knopf
318 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
Jan Dalley

Biographer Jan Dalley discusses the difficulties of writing about a living person and tells us why she doesn't enjoy books that wag their finger in disapproval on every page.

What first attracted you to Diana Mosley as a biographical subject?

Dalley: I didn't come up with the idea myself—it was suggested to me, when I was thinking about a subject, by my agent, Carol Heaton, who had got the idea from Roland Phillips, a publisher who is the grandson of Rosamond Lehmann and Wogan Phillips, who were acquaintances of Diana's in the 1920s. At first, I was pretty unsure about the idea—given the enormous disparity between my political beliefs and Diana's—but after I had read a little about Diana, and read her own memoir A Life of Contrasts, I realized that there was not only a fantastic story here, waiting to be told, but also a life that would inform us about all sorts of important themes of the 20th century, and some of the "forgotten history" of Britain—that is, the bits of our history that we don't much like to think about.

WAG: As a biographer, you were in a privileged position, of sorts: your subject was still alive and willing to talk to you. How did you first establish contact with Lady Mosley? And how did she react to the idea of being the subject of a biography?

Dalley: I established contact with Diana by getting in touch with Selina Hastings, who had written an excellent biography of Nancy Mitford, Diana's eldest sister. During the course of Selina's research in France (where Nancy lived for many years, and where Diana still lives) she had become friendly with Diana, and she told me more about the potential of the story. She encouraged Diana to see me and we took it from there. Diana reacted very generously to the idea of my writing about her. Before long it became clear that we did not think alike—although she never questioned me directly about my politics or beliefs or about what use I might make of her life-story—but she continued to see me and talk to me over a long period of time. She did, however, decide not to give me permission to see personal letters, diaries and so on—all that will have to wait until after her death. When the book was finally finished she read it, and corrected quite a few factual errors. She also asked me if I would change one or two small things—mostly about her mother and her sister Unity (nothing about herself). She made it clear that she doesn't see her past in the same light as I do, but she didn't try to make me change the tenor of the book or prevent me from publishing it—we merely agreed to put a note in the Acknowledgements to say that my view was not hers. So overall I think her behaviour was very generous.

WAG: Did the fact that Lady Mosley was alive complicate your work in any way?

Dalley: Immensely. I certainly wouldn't write about anyone living again, and I wouldn't recommend anyone else to do so. I'm really not one of nature's biographers, I discovered, if that term includes a fierce desire to find out hidden truths—and a part of me came to believe that it's actually wrong to do so if the subject doesn't want you to. But I suppose that's just because I'd so hate it to be done to me!

WAG: You pointedly avoid passing judgement on Lady Mosley in your biography, writing that "there is an essential difference between reasons and excuses" for a subject's behavior, and that your biography "tries to provide reasons, but offers no excuses." Did you ever regret drawing this line between your subject and her acts?

Dalley: No, I don't regret it—though I was surprised that so many British reviewers failed to understand the method (U.S. reviewers, I must say, have been far more even-handed). Obviously, there is no such thing as a completely dispassionate account of anything, and of course my text is in fact steeped in my point of view—but as a reader I hate it when biographers tell me what they think all the time. It seems to me that if they aren't sufficiently skillful as writers to put across their ideas without waving a banner on which it is written in letters five feet high, then they just aren't very good. But apart from that, there are two main reasons why I felt that such a separation was essential. The first: a book that went tut-tut and wagged its finger in disapproval on every page would be very boring to read. The second (and more important): I felt that some important things I wanted the story to tell us would be obscured by my passing judgement too fiercely—that is what conventional history has done anyway, and I wanted to try to make people look at the history unconventionally.

WAG: Is there a particular lesson you would like readers to learn from your biography?

Dalley: Yes, although I wanted to make the point lightly and hoped that the "lesson" would seep through. The Holocaust is such a huge, looming, overwhelmingly horrifying fact of our collective past that it is hard to make the imaginative leap back beyond it, before it happened or could even have been imagined, and to see with any clarity what went before it. But if we don't, we won't see the reasons why it could have come about, and we won't see how such things could come again. Yet neo-fascism is on the rise all over Europe, and in different ways in the U.S.—a very dangerous reality that no one wants to confront. So here I am telling the story of a highly intelligent young woman who became a fascist (a word which had, at the time, none of the genocidal connotations which are now irrevocably attached to it) out of idealism, out of genuine hope for the future, out of belief that it was a system that could cure unemployment and poverty and achieve a better life for most people. You may laugh, but it's true—and there are places in the world right now in which the textbook conditions for the growth of fascism apply—for instance, Russia. It is a scary prospect. But anyone who thinks that only sub-human monsters can turn to totalitarian systems is someone who has never lived in conditions of deprivation or danger, or in places where the governmental processes we take pretty much for granted are so powerless that extreme measures seem the only way to stop the growth of poverty, misery, organized crime and the like.

WAG: In addition to writing the Diana Mosley biography, you have translated books from French and worked as a book editor, and you are now the literary editor of the Financial Times. Of that impressive list of activities, which do you find most satisfying?

Dalley: I love them all.

WAG: Your husband is himself a biographer and a poet. Did you show him the manuscript of Diana Mosley as you worked? And does he likewise ask for criticism on his works-in-progress?

Dalley: I didn't show Andrew much of the Mosley book as I went along, as it's not really his sort of thing, but his comments towards the end were really helpful. Sometimes he shows me his prose work practically every day (as with his book on Philip Larkin), sometimes not until a later stage (as with his latest, Wainewright the Poisoner). But we usually talk about his poems-in-progress, and sometimes I work on them, suggest cuts or changes. Or just do simple editorial stuff like pointing out repeat words and other small technicalities. People tend to think that poems are just hatched like an egg, ready-formed and untouchable, but in fact poems can be and usually should be edited: every writer needs a tuned-up reader, or several (I'm certainly not Andrew's only one). Sometimes he asks for suggestions, and sometimes even uses them—when he was asked to produce a short poem about the death of the Princess of Wales, he had a slight struggle with the image of Diana-the-huntress hunted down by her own hounds, the press pack, and I said (rather unhelpfully) "but you haven't said she died" and he said "Okay, so what's a two-syllable word meaning dead?" and I said "breathless." So "breathless" went in. And once when we were in the car driving to the second performance of his long poem that accompanies a string quartet playing Hayden's Seven last Words from the Cross, we agreed that the previous performance had been a bit of a marathon, though wonderful, so we sat in the car in the parking lot and cut dozens and dozens of lines. So I learn a huge amount about writing from him, though I am probably more talented as an editor than I ever will be as a writer.

WAG: What is your next project?

Dalley: I haven't decided. I'm just digging my garden.

—Interview conducted by Woody Arbunkle

Posted September 1, 2000


Photo Credit: Jason Bell

Jan Dalley is the author of the biography, Diana Mosley. She is also the literary editor of the Financial Times. She lives in London with her three children and her husband, the poet and biographer Andrew Motion.



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