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.

The libidinous cyclone of which she has perennially functioned as the calm eye was already whirling before she was born. Probably, her real father was the angelically handsome seducer Henry Cust, who played tennis in the nude. Her mother, Violet, Duchess of Rutland, sculpted so well that Rodin compared her with Donatello. Watts said she drew like Holbein. But the first thing to say about Violet was that she was supremely beautiful. (Had she not been, and not been a duchess, Rodin and Watts might not have placed their comparisons quite so high, but let that pass.) It was fated that the Duke of Rutland should linger on the sidelines while Henry and Violet reproduced their kind. The result was the Platonic ideal of beauty who until very recent times held the unchallenged title of Lady Diana. Lately she has taken to introducing herself as ‘the wrong Lady Diana’ but it is unlikely she believes it. There were any number of princes she might have married, and the same might well have been true if she had been born without a bean.

By the standards of her class she was neither rich nor idle. To envy her as a member of the upper crust, however, is probably easier on the nerves than to appreciate her for what she was and is – the natural centre of the action. In those last years of the old world a party would have formed around her whatever her origins, and her unique personality could have come from anywhere. Class divisions can be wiped out but not even Mrs Mao was able to produce a society of such homogeneity that it had nobody left in it whom people thought more highly of than they did of her. The more society is levelled down, the more glaring the disparity between the attractive and the unattractive, the vivid and the dull. For Lady Diana’s mother there could have been no question of dabbling in show business. Lady Diana found herself drawn to it by what seemed like a natural impulse. Probably it was, but it was a social impulse too. At the same time as the stars set out to acquire class, it became permissible for members of the ruling class to seek stardom. Lady Diana’s knack forgetting herself into the newspapers instead of keeping her name out of them, for making a spectacle of herself on stage and screen instead of taking up her natural position as a power behind a throne, might have had something to do with an instinctive recognition that high society was no longer big enough to contain her, and that her proper stamping-ground was society itself.

Anyway, Mr Ziegler does not spend much time exploring his heroine’s unconscious motives, and perhaps he is right. The conscious motives are interesting enough. ‘Goodbye, my darling,’ wrote her future husband Duff Cooper in 1914, ‘I hope everyone you like better than me will die very soon.’ At the time it must have sounded like a joke. Before the machine-guns started chattering the young men had all sat around in country houses and London drawing-rooms fancying themselves for their own brilliance. Privileged by birth, they allowed themselves the double privilege of tempering their philistine heritage with bohemian pursuits. But their puffed-up chests could not keep out bullets. Lady Diana worked as a nurse at Guy’s while one by one they were killed off. After the battles the hospitals filled up with enough realism to cure romance for ever. That was how she learned not to cry. She could easily have reneged on her self-imposed duty but she stuck it out. Whatever her subsequent shenanigans took their inspiration from, it wasn’t from lack of knowledge about life. Probably she knew too much. In later years she was famous for seeming unsympathetic when friends injured themselves but having had to treat young children for burns during the war she had perhaps been obliged to take a detached view of pain, or at any rate seem to. The favoured treatment for burns at that time was to pour hot wax on them.

The nightmare over, she married Duff and the party was on again, never really to slow down until his death. Mr Ziegler is obviously aware that his readers might smile at the Coopers’ idea of penury. Duff had £10,000 out of a trust, a £600-a-year allowance from his mother and his Foreign Office salary of £520 per annum as a bonne bouche. Multiply the figures by the appropriate factor – twenty at least, I should have thought – and you might decide that they weren’t exactly scraping along. But her mother was not being wholly irrational when she called Duff penniless. By the standards of Diana’s legitimate expectations he was broke to the wide. It was a love-match, right enough, even if between a ram and a freemartin. Men who had missed out called Lady, Diana either a nymphomaniac or a lesbian, but the truth, if that is what she is telling, seems to have been that her inclinations were simply not very strong. Such a deficiency, if deficiency it is, brought with it at least one unarguable benefit. She was without jealousy. Duff spent his whole married life running after, and usually catching up with, every presentable female in the area. Diana either turned a blind eye or, when things threatened to get out of hand, marshalled the traffic. Students of the domestic arrangements prevailing among the British upper orders are used to hearing about weird ménages. Here is another. Less kinky than the alliance between Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, it was even more remarkable. Very few men did not fall for Lady Diana in short order, but her devotion to her husband never wavered. The conundrum is made even more puzzling by the fact that it is not easy, at this distance, to be sure of what it was that Duff Cooper actually did, apart from being Ambassador to France.

But that lay in the future. First the Coopers had to be poor in Gower Street, with nobody except Rubinstein to play the piano, while Chaliapin sang and rose-petals descended on the guests. Getting to know absolutely everybody is not as good as absolutely everybody wanting to know you. With Lady Diana the second condition always applied, so there was never any call to give the first a moment’s thought. The result was complete lack of affectation. Which is not to say complete lack of histrionics: Max Reinhardt having made her a star in The Miracle, she showed no great desire to get her light back under the bushel, especially since Duff needed the money. Mr Ziegler is quite right when he says that even now she has the presence to command any room she is in. Some of her friends would say that he is not so right when he suggests, on the subject of cash, that Lady Diana was ruthless about extorting it from rich admirers such as Beaverbrook. Plainly she would skin them without a qualm, but it was usually for the benefit of a friend in need, not for her own. Even her biographer, who ought to be saturated with his subject’s personality, sometimes seems unaware of the full extent to which she defied convention. Behind her show of independence there was real independence.

As an aristocrat with talent she was bound to elicit plaudits from successful artists making their way in the great world. They hailed her as an actress in the same way that Rodin hailed her mother as a sculptor. But there was nothing condescending about the way they admired her self-assurance, or what they thought was her self-assurance. Evelyn Waugh is the most prominent case in point. Far from being impressed by the creative gifts of well-born ladies, he wasn’t even impressed by his own. He wanted to be accepted as a gentleman, not as a genius. Turning the factual Lady Diana into a fiction called Mrs Stitch, he had no lack of material to make the character vivid. But her capacity for driving small cars down the steps of public toilets is only the surface of the character. The real point of Mrs Stitch was the same as the real point of Lady Circumference – the ability to do the right thing from sheer breeding. Lady Circumference is an unalloyed philistine yet she reaches the right conclusion about Mrs Melrose Ape merely from listening to her preach. But Lady Circumference is a figure only in the early, avowedly comic novels. Mrs Stitch is still there in Sword of Honour, still the dotty but authoritative incarnation of noblesse oblige.

Mr Ziegler tells a revealing story of how Waugh tried to impress Lady Diana by misdirecting a suitcase-laden stranger so that he would miss his train. Lady Diana straightened the stranger out and then dressed her admirer down, as well she might have. The incident would probably have added itself to Waugh’s towering burden of guilt even if his crime had not been pointed out to him by so telling a finger. Waugh knew all about his own interior drama. His name came up the second time I met Lady Diana, at a fancy-dress ball. Once more I was lucky enough to draw her as a dinner partner. I was pretending to be an Australian in a black tie while she was in her standard outfit as a nun. On her right she had the Arab who was financing the party. He was dressed as a sheik but that was because he was a sheik.

On my left sat the sheik’s girlfriend, a Japanese model who kept saying that her favourite city was New York because on the telebision she could watch the moobies until dawn. Of necessity Lady Diana and the present writer were thrown together. She started by telling me that all the poor people ought to be killed but this time I had wits enough about me to quiz her about Evelyn Waugh. She has met almost every prominent writer since Meredith, who gave her an inscribed copy of his poems, but there is no doubt in my own mind, and probably not in hers, that her friendship with Waugh constitutes her closest involvement with genius. She told me that Waugh apologised to her in advance for Mrs Stitch’s behaviour in Sword of Honour. (Mrs Stitch, it will be remembered, shelters Ivor and tries to pull strings for him after he shows cowardice during the debacle on Crete.) After Lady Diana read the passage in question, she told Waugh that she didn’t know why he was apologising: in real life she would have done exactly what Mrs Stitch did in the story.

By her own principles, which are the only ones that have ever mattered to her, she would have been right. Perhaps Waugh guessed it and generously ascribed to her, out of his sure instinct for character, conduct that to his intellect seemed equivocal. There is no telling. But the mere existence of Mrs Stitch is enough to give us some idea of how much he got from the original. He idealised her as he idealised all the aristocracy, but it must have been a solace to him that he did not have to idealise her very hard. She put as much energy into the ephemeral gestures of sociability as he put into a work of art. Artists who admire aristocrats are often unduly receptive to the aristocrat’s traditional disdain for artistic seriousness. According to Montherlant, Saint-Simon left his sentences untidy because to neaten them up would have been beneath him. Waugh was too much of an artist to be that gentlemanly, but he could still dream of what it must feel like to be carefree and at ease. Lady Diana was a key figure in his dreams. Theirs was an instructive friendship, which Mr Ziegler could have made more of.

But there is not much time for social analysis when you are drowning in a plethora of upper-crust anecdotes. Another war having begun, on to Algiers, where she transforms their residence from a shanty into the social hub of the Mediterranean. Gide shows up and refuses to leave. Lady Diana arranges a meeting between de Gaulle and Churchill, tiptoeing away at just the right moment, so that they are soon canoodling. Onward to Paris, where the Coopers arrive in September 1944 escorted by 48 Spitfires.

As chatelaine of the smartest of all British embassies she attracted a lot of flak at the time for having Collaborators on the premises. Some of the criticism has still not died down, but it should be clearer by now that the question is one the French themselves find by no means simple. A lot of writers and intellectuals who had not been in very much danger suddenly put on berets, called themselves Resistance fighters, and pointed the finger at such butterflies as Cocteau. Lady Diana received Cocteau, perhaps recognising that he had done the Resistance a favour by staying out of it. Meanwhile the real Collaborators were continuing their plush lives unharmed. ‘Vile denouncing traitors and traitoresses,’ she noted, ‘get off scotters.’ Her refusal to take the artists seriously while they adopted holier-than-thou postures seems like the right response at this distance. Nor did she care anything for precedence, arranging the placement as it suited her, which left a lot of French ladies scandalised. But scandalised people have a lot to talk about and there was soon no other subject of conversation except the permanent picnic she was running on the Embassy premises. On summer nights the picnic shifted to Chantilly, where select parties of hikers, led by Lady Diana, would take shelter in a pavilion beside the lake and find it providentially equipped with a cold buffet and champagne. When Ernest Bevin came to visit he pounced on her in a corridor. All things, except that, to all men, she sang ‘Wotcher, all the neighbours cried’ while swerving adroitly out of reach. Both she and her husband, the book says, were in love with Louise de Vilmorin, but since only Duff was getting any satisfaction from the relationship, nerves on his wife’s part would have been understandable. She sailed on, doing nothing ordinary and everything right. The only lastingly wrong note she struck was through staying on too long. After Duff was replaced as Ambassador they should have left Paris but ran a rival embassy instead, throwing unofficial parties that put the official ones in the shade and generating bad blood which is understandably still boiling.

Siegfried posed a philosophical problem which not even Nietzsche could quite settle. It is all very well to say that somebody might do all the right things from instinct, but how can the rest of us tell? Nevertheless it can be said that Lady Diana, with the glaring exception of the alternative Paris embassy caper, waived the rules to the general benefit. Arrogance is self-questioning deep down. True self-assurance has no such doubts. She suffered always from nervousness and often from severe depression, but never from anxiety about how she stood. When thieves broke into her London flat and tied her up, Evelyn Waugh said that the loss of dignity must have been awful. This time he had really misunderstood completely: by her standards, dignity was not something you could lose through mere circumstances.

As the years advanced, they made alterations to her famous face. She had the damage repaired but without pretending that time did not exist. Always to live without self-deception was at the centre of her appeal: an object of fantasy for others, she was a realist herself. She thinks, as several Roman poets thought, that life has little to offer after the senses go. Even without the contrary evidence provided by how much fun she is obviously having while saying such things, there would be reason to call this a limited view, but it would take a brave man to be certain that he will not reach the same conclusion in the end. The third and latest time I sat beside her, which was the night after I finished reading this book, I was all set to ask her about Chaliapin when suddenly a howl arose from an Austrian of advanced years sitting on her left. He had turned up the volume too high on his hearing aid, a clever means of securing her attention. She revved up her own hearing aid and drowned him out. So much for him. At her age, she said, only the little pleasures were left. Any time now she would have to uncork that phial of poison. Senile dementia would be a blessing but unfortunately in her case the brain was the last thing to go. Standing on your head when young makes the brain strong. Could I stand on my head?

A minute later I was upside down. Duly clarified, my brain registered the fact that Lady Diana Cooper had not lost her ability to make men show off. Whether they are the better for it is one of the many questions this book does not settle. Mr Ziegler might have done more to analyse Britain’s class structure but only at the cost of telling us less about someone who does not fit into it. Lady Diana Cooper has never represented the ruling class, the upper class or any other class, since a class is represented by its mediocrities if it is represented by anyone. An extreme case, her example might help to remind her countrymen that classes are composed of individuals.

A social class is an abstract concept. The penalty for treating abstractions as realities is to succumb to the aberration which White-head called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Britain’s lingering political curse, the class war is fought between phantom armies which have real casualties. At the moment, with the rise of a central Parliamentary alliance, there are signs of a let-up. Ten or even five years ago, many more of the reviews this book has received would have been derisive condemnations of an alleged anachronism. Now there is perhaps a more general recognition that a just society can be arrived at only by correcting specific injustices in the society we already have. Hence the welcome new air of tolerance. Which is not to say subservience. Indeed it was the old rancour that was subservient, for ever complaining about the life of uninterrupted pleasure that the best people were supposedly enjoying. If they were, then they weren’t the best people, and if it was uninterrupted, then it wasn’t pleasure. We must judge the worth of our own lives according to our own lights. Lady Diana Cooper has never felt any other way, so it is no mystery that waverers from all walks of life buck up when she is around.