WAG: What first attracted you to Diana Mosley
as a biographical subject?
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.
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?
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.
Did the fact that Lady Mosley was alive complicate
your work in any way?
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!
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?
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
Is there a particular lesson you would like
readers to learn from your biography?
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.
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?
I love them all.
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?
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.
What is your next project?
I haven't decided. I'm just digging my