Attila the Hus

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Rules of the Game: Sir Oswald and Lady Cynthia Mosley 1896-1933 by Nicholas Mosley
    Secker, 274 pp, £8.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 436 28849 4

Nicholas Mosley’s parents, Cynthia Curzon and Oswald Mosley, were married in the Chapel Royal, St James’s on 11 May 1920: ‘Cimmie’s wedding dress had a design of green leaves in it, in defiance of a superstition that green at a wedding was unlucky: there was also a superstition that it was unlucky to be married in May. Cimmie herself chose the music: during the handing-over of the ring the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde was played; though the organist, a newspaper reported, did his best to make it inaudible.’ She was 21 and sometimes described as ‘wild’; her father, Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India, fearing what he called her ‘bolshevick’ tendencies, was relieved that she had chosen a reasonably promising young man whose family he knew. Mosley, Robert Cecil reported to Curzon, was ‘not in the first flight’ but had ‘a good future before him’. He was two years older than Cimmie; very dashing (though Curzon at once remarked on his ‘rather Jewish appearance’), and the youngest MP in the House. He was then a Tory. Cimmie had wanted a small, quiet wedding, but the King and Queen were present, as were the King and Queen of the Belgians, who were flown across the Channel in two two-seater aeroplanes for the occasion. The marriage lasted 13 years and there were three children – Nicholas was the eldest son. In May 1933 Cimmie died. A memorial service was held at St Margaret’s, Westminster, where, once again, the Liebestod was played.

‘It became fashionable in later life,’ Nicholas Mosley records, ‘for people to say that my father was responsible for my mother’s death.’ Whether or not they were right to say this, superstition in the end was vindicated: Cimmie proved to be an unlucky wife. When she died, her sister, who had never much liked Mosley, consoled herself with the thought that ‘she had gone to suffer no more at Tom’s hands.’ (Mosley was always known as ‘Tom’ just as Cynthia was known as ‘Cimmie’.) Mosley himself, in his autobiography, described his marriage to Cimmie as ‘an event in my life of outstanding happiness’ – which leaves open the question of what sort of ‘event’ it was for her. There is no reason to suppose that things would have turned out differently if she hadn’t had those green leaves embroidered into her wedding dress but the gesture was a small indication of her dangerous belief that the marriage would be unlike any others. On the other hand, no one who chooses to have the Liebestod played at their wedding is likely to be interested in happy endings.

It was his nanny who first suggested to Nicholas Mosley that his father might have been responsible for Cimmie’s death; and although he didn’t believe her – ‘I had, for years, thought that much of the grown-up world was mad’ – the remark made him realise how much Mosley was hated. ‘I was glad,’ he says, ‘that he seemed so impervious to this.’ At the time no doubt he was glad, especially since his nanny seemed to be saying that his mother had died because her feelings were hurt. Mosley’s imperviousness to how people felt about him was, of course, one good reason for hating him. His son – ‘not my sort of person,’ Mosley barked as he cut him out of his will – is a great deal less impervious to such things and it might be said that Rules of the Game is the latest – and the best – of many books in which he had tried to come to terms with his parents and their curious ways of behaving.

Mosley himself didn’t believe in complicated explanations of human behaviour: ‘Some odd combination of the genes in this strong country stock made me ... what I am,’ he says in My Life.’ The basic constitution is given to us ... Afterwards the development or atrophy of the constitution depends on continual exertion of the will.’ The strength of the stock, and of the will, was evident in the careers both of Mosley’s father and of his grandfather, though in his father’s case the will was continually exerted in the direction of enjoying himself. He was a bounder, a rake and a gambler, a man with a sadistic sense of humour, whose wife left him after bearing him three sons – of whom Mosley was the eldest – on the grounds, according to family legend, of ‘his insatiable and promiscuous sexual habits’. His grandfather, too, described here as an ‘imposing patriarchal figure’, lived apart from his wife. Robert Skidelsky, Mosley’s respectful biographer, oddly doesn’t mention this fact, stressing instead the grandfather’s Victorian sense of obligation. Both his mother and his grandfather ‘idolised’ the young Mosley: to his mother ‘Tom was God,’ noted a contemporary, her ‘man-child’, as she called him, a substitute for a husband; to his grandfather he was a substitute son. ‘In these relationships,’ Skidelsky suggests, ‘may be found a clue to Mosley’s supreme self-esteem.’

He didn’t do well at school or at Sandhurst; nor did he distinguish himself during the war. Although he did the élite thing in volunteering for the Royal Flying Corps, he won no medals – a matter of some regret for a man who passionately believed in individual heroism. (One of the very few things Mosley says about his son in My Life is that he had a ‘good war’, and in the index to that book Nicholas is listed as ‘Mosley, Nicholas, MC.’) When the war ended Mosley set about making his mark in society, starting with the ladies, at whose parties he met and impressed all the politicians he needed to. He had made some study of history and thought of going to university. In order to decide whether it was worth it, he ‘interrogated’ his Oxford and Cambridge contemporaries ‘to discover if they knew much that I didn’t. The results were reasonably satisfactory,’ so he didn’t bother; and when both the Tories and the Liberals invited him to stand for Parliament he yielded to the greater pressure of the Tories. In December 1918, he was elected MP for Harrow with a majority of 10,000. It hadn’t really mattered to him which party he joined: he went into Parliament, as Nicholas Mosley puts it, ‘to represent the war generation – or himself.’

Mosley fell in love with Cimmie at the end of the following year, when they were both in Plymouth helping Nancy Astor in her campaign to become the first woman MP. There is no reason beyond the obvious ones – she was good-looking, Curzon’s daughter and had an unusual interest in politics – why he should have taken to her. On the other hand, Mosley, with his ‘supreme self-esteem’, was clearly the man Cimmie had been waiting for. When Curzon was appointed Viceroy, Cimmie’s mother, an American heiress (sometimes, wrongly, thought to be Jewish), who also died at least in part of discouragement when her children were very young, had written home to say that she was about to fill ‘the greatest place ever held by an American abroad’. Cimmie, who disliked social pomp, had another kind of greatness very much on her mind. As a young girl, she had written in her diary that what she wanted above all was ‘a Big Solemn Comprehensive idea that holds you and me and all the world together in one great grand universal scheme’. Asking her father for permission to marry Mosley, she assured him – so Curzon wrote to his second wife (another foreign heiress) – that she and Mosley ‘were going to have a great career together’, that ‘he was destined to climb to the very top – with her aid.’ Elinor Glyn, a former mistress of Curzon’s, prophesied that, having married Mosley, Cimmie would ‘one day ... rule England’.

‘In love, as elsewhere,’ Skidelsky remarks, Mosley ‘showed a marked preference for the swift attack’. He proposed within a week of their meeting in Plymouth. Cimmie refused and went off on a skiing holiday, but three months later – after going to bed with him – she accepted. In the first letter he ever wrote to her Mosley had said, ominously: ‘I would surrender the present with the ages to come and those past, just once to make you cry as I have made others cry; and then instead of leaving as I have always left tears, to kiss those tears away.’ No cosmic surrender was necessary. Their marriage was one long bout of crying and kissing.

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