Mrs Stitch in Time

Clive James

  • Lady Diana Cooper by Philip Ziegler
    Hamish Hamilton, 336 pp, £9.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 241 10659 1

Either she was the biggest tease in the universe, or else well-born young ladies did not fall into bed quite so easily then as they are widely supposed to do now. The author of this biography favours the first explanation, writing as if the lady had told him about it herself, but he doesn’t say why he believes her. She might be just saying that she was a tease. From my own admittedly limited experience, Lady Diana Cooper is capable of saying anything, if she thinks you are dumb enough to swallow it. Philip Ziegler has reason to consider himself astute, but he perhaps ruled out too soon the possibility that the queen of the put-on had spotted the ideal patsy. The chief lacuna in an otherwise interesting book is its failure adequately to convey the heroine’s play of wit, which even today can leave everybody else in the room sounding retarded.

Anyway, there can be no doubt that before and during the Great War all the golden young men who were to be cut down in battle resolutely besieged her. The most they could hope for, apparently, was to lie chastely beside her, but they were ready to settle for that. They knew what sex was and some of them were even accustomed to getting it, not necessarily from ladies of less exalted provenance than Lady Diana Manners. It follows, if they did not get that from her, that they got something else. In this book it is assumed throughout that she satisfied nobody’s physical desires, least of all those of her beloved husband, the notoriously amorous Duff Cooper. It seems a fair inference that she satisfied the imagination.

A long time later she still satisfies the imagination, or at least stimulates it. The present reviewer wasn’t exactly fresh in from the sticks when he first bumped into her at dinner, but, his education in the ways of the beau monde still had a long way to go. No doubt finding that my initial pleasantries indicated a certain chippiness begging to be put down, she volunteered the opinion that the best thing to do with the poor was to kill them. ‘After all,’ she assured me, ‘we are the best people.’ I took this view seriously enough to argue against it for the next half hour, at the end of which she assured me that she had a phial of poison beside her bed and that when the indignities of old age became too great she would end it all. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this threat might have been a comment on the forensic quality of what she had just been listening to. But here again one doubtless overrates one’s own impact. She probably had her hearing aid turned off. I had made the elementary mistake of trying to impress her.

As this book reveals, men have been doing that since the turn of the century, but the wise ones have always realised sooner or later that if she puts up with your presence at all then she is impressed enough already, so the thing to do is adopt a light tone or, failing that, pipe down and listen. Even at her present advanced age she enjoys the benefit of total recall, a characteristic which has stood Philip Ziegler in good stead.

For large stretches of the book he has been faced with no greater challenge than to transcribe her memories in grammatical English. Indeed for the opening fanfares of her life the job was already done, since The rainbow comes and goes, the first volume of her autobiography, would be hard to better as a portrait of her young self or of any other bright young thing in that generation. As a writer she had energy, verbal invention, natural comic timing and a fastidious ear which would have ruled out the possibility of her ever using, as Mr Ziegler does, such a cloddish term as ‘lifestyle’ – something he must have learned at Oxford, or perhaps at Eton. With the proviso that suppressio veri and vis comica are both ever-present likelihoods, anything Lady Diana writes or says is as transparent as Malvern Water. Whether at the start of the story or anywhere else during its long course, the most Mr Ziegler could decently add to his subject’s clear stream of reminiscence was a few extra beams of light from odd angles.

One of the odd angles is necessarily the sex angle. Lady Diana Cooper can be included in few categories but one of them is undoubtedly the category of those who don’t mind being gossiped about in print – a category which the professional gossips would have us believe includes everybody. Thus it is possible to read this book without feeling like an accomplice to a robbery. Not that the facts here revealed would have been particularly embarrassing even had she wanted them withheld. She is no more likely to embarrass us in the sexual department than in any other. She is never strident. What she does seem, on this evidence, is a bit unreal. Continually and chastely in love with the one man while he and all around her are successively consumed by more or less ephemeral passions, she is starring in a play by Shaw while everybody else is in a play by Schnitzler.

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