The destination for history

Mrs Guinness: The rise and fall of Diana Mitford


Born at the turn of the twentieth century when votes for women were a distant dream, Diana Mitford’s strive for independence was provocative and courageous.

Her father, David, the 2nd Baron Redesdale had his own ideas on modern womanhood – he detested makeup and similar artifices – and he declared the presence of a woman in the House of Commons to be ‘lower than the belly of a snake’. Thus, when Diana asked for the same privileges her brother, Tom, so freely enjoyed, she was told no. No, she could not take German lessons or study music; no, she was not to cut her hair or have friends to stay; and no, she must not dream of an independent life away from the constraints of marriage and the home. So, when older, worldlier men showed an interest in Diana and praised her intellect, it is easy to see why she put all of her faith in them.

As a child, she and her six sisters were continuously reminded of their father’s lack of personal wealth and, as such, they would have to support themselves. Their mother showed little concern for her daughters’ future, and she agreed with the traditional rules of inheritance: ‘Of course, girls don’t expect it.’ Diana was reminded by her father to set her sights on a career. This career, however, was marriage.

If she was going to forsake her freedom, Diana decided she might as well find a man who would provide her with the means to travel and to buy beautiful things. The brewery heir, Bryan Guinness, proposed to her, and she realised his gentle nature and willingness to please her could be the key to happiness. Until she grew bored, that is. This was in 1928, the year Amelia Earhart made history by being the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, and although blighted by the death of the Suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst, it still gave modern woman the hope that they could do anything. And, less than a year later, the General Election would become known as the ‘Flapper Election’ when women over the age of twenty-one were given the right to vote. But Diana was still too young to cast her ballot.

Marriage to Bryan, who smothered Diana with his kindness, could not fill a void that was deepening in her life, and in her conscience. The economic depression of the early 1930s and the vast gulf between the rich and the poor startled her. She sought answers for the ills of society, and at the age of twenty-one she met a man who claimed to have all the answers, and who convinced her to leave her privileged life. It was a decision that angered those who loved her, and she became a social pariah. But she cared little for scorn, for it seemed at last she would live on her own and have an independent life.

Diana, a product of the patriarchal society that existed between the world wars and long after, never achieved the independence she craved and she allied herself with Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. Hers was a life of controversy and, in years to come, infamy. However, she never passed the blame or played the victim. Her determination to live as she pleased would become a double-edge sword. With her fearless attitude and strong, individual character, Diana took responsibility for her choices in life. This independence was not achieved in her lifestyle, but in her mind.  

By Lyndsy Spence

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books