Evelyn Waugh had made up his mind to dislike Diana Guinness, the third-born and most beautiful of the six Mitford girls. As the young wife of the brewing scion Bryan Guinness, Diana had already established herself as a dazzling society hostess. She was the epitome of what Evelyn (at that time) despised: rich, frivolous and, as he privately imagined, not very bright.
During Evelyn’s years of friendship with Nancy Mitford, Diana had become a phantom presence in his life. He had read about her antics in popular magazines of the day: Tatler, Bystander and The Sketch, and he did not fail to recognise that her celebrity was in ascent – a dizzying element for a girl who had spent her childhood as the scapegoat for Nancy’s teases and vitriolic putdowns. Evelyn himself was plotting his own coup-de-main in the form of a novel that would parody Diana and her disciples.
Knowing of Evelyn’s desire to witness this set first hand, Nancy invited him and his wife, Evelyn Gardner (they went by the monickers of He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn), to Diana’s tropical party on board the Friendship, a riverboat permanently moored at Charing Cross Pier. Out of place in the gaiety of the Friendship, Evelyn observed the misbehaving guests dressed in Zulu costumes and in sarongs, as ordinary commuters scurried along the embankment to catch the last train home. From this first evening with Diana, Evelyn felt he had gained substantial material for his novel. But, most importantly, he had achieved his ambition of catching snippets of how the Bright Young Things spoke – “too, too divine”, “utterly sick-making”, etcetera. The bonus, of which, was hearing Diana’s “Mitford Voice” in person with its swooping intonations, the shrillness of her laughter and the private language she and Nancy indulged in. To Evelyn’s astonishment – and his horror – he found himself captivated by her.
If, at the age of nineteen, Diana was prone to immaturity her generosity more than made up for this juvenile streak. Since the abandonment of She-Evelyn two days after the celebrated Tropical Party, Evelyn was consumed by the breakup of his marriage. And his depressed demeanour, exasperated by the need to stay at his parents’ house in Hampstead, was proving to be a distraction to his writing. So, Diana offered him the solitude of Poole Place, the Guinness family’s seaside home in Climping, Sussex, as an ideal retreat to finish his novel.
Warned by Diana of its “ugliness”, Evelyn set forth to Poole Place in late autumn, undeterred by the freezing coastal winds and the noisy ferocity of the English Channel. Poole Place fascinated him, and he was equally intrigued by the work going on in the nearby fields, where Diana’s mother-in-law, Lady Evelyn, was constructing her vision of a Medieval house. She wanted gnarled trees for the newly built house to nestle in, and they were bought and transferred from afar, carefully replanted in the best soil, bound together in straightjackets of thick straw and tied down with great cables and pegs. The architect, Mr. Phillips, obeyed Lady Evelyn’s strict orders, and he imported squirrels and field mice to give the new trees a touch of authenticity. Eccentricity tickled Evelyn, and the sight of armies of men, lorries and cranes required for the trees was no exception.
When Diana and Bryan motored down to Poole Place to visit Evelyn, he insisted on being driven over to Bramber to see the museum curated by a “disgusting clergyman” who had killed and stuffed tiny animals, modelling them into a variety of bizarre poses, such as a kitten pushing a guinea pig in a pram. Always a lover of animals, it made Diana feel sick, but Evelyn seemed to enjoy the grotesque spectacle. Upon observing his taste for the macabre, she said, “There was sometimes menace in his brilliant eyes.”
The friendship with Diana was formed before Evelyn’s conversion to Catholicism, an act which baffled those closest to him. He must have spoken to Diana about his interest in religion, for she remarked to Lord Berners: “Evelyn prays for me.” The phrase struck a chord of ridiculousness, prompting Berners to scoff: “God doesn’t listen to Evelyn.” At this point in their friendship, Evelyn could see no fault in Diana, and if she was prone to a waspish remark, he did not take it to heart.
In the summer of 1929, Diana was expecting her first baby, and in the cheerful company of Evelyn and Nancy, the Guinnesses set forth to their flat in Paris, where Diana would begin her dreaded confinement. Although Evelyn confessed to feeling shattered by the unexpected ending of his relatively short marriage, Diana sensed that he showed no signs of heartbreak. He cavorted around the Rue de Poitiers in high spirits, enchanting her with witty stories and doing all he could to keep her entertained.
Inside the flat, Diana relaxed in the quiet splendour of watching Bryan, Evelyn and Nancy work on their manuscripts. Evelyn was struggling to meet his deadline for his travel book, Labels. Bryan was composing Singing Out of Tune, the plot inspired by the failed marriage of the Waughs. And Nancy worked on her first novel, Highland Fling. In her fifth month of pregnancy and overcome with fatigue, Diana spent most of her time in bed, reading their work and dispensing critique, whether it was required or not. When she felt lonely, Bryan, Evelyn and Nancy moved their writing stations into her bedroom. But it was hardly an ideal setting, as demonstrated by Bryan when he shook his pen so violently that the ink spattered the delicate silk curtains.
When Diana experienced a fleeting burst of energy, Evelyn was ready to fulfill his role of dutiful companion. They went for short walks, drives through the French countryside, and to the cinema. But behind Evelyn’s exuberance, he concealed a deepening love that had been growing since Diana fascinated him at the Tropical Party. Ever a trusting friend, Bryan did not think it strange when Evelyn adopted the odd practice of lying in bed next to Diana during her afternoon naps. And, Diana, on her behalf, thought his attentiveness was strictly platonic. She was touched when Evelyn worried about the birth of the baby – hers being the first pregnancy he had observed. “I don’t know what to say about the imminence of Baby G. Dear Diana it seems all wrong that you should ever have to be at all ill or have a pain.”
In London, the close relationship with Evelyn continued. Diana and Bryan treated him to a birthday luncheon at the Ritz, but as her pregnancy advanced, her social life wilted. With Bryan occupied with his career as a barrister, Diana and Evelyn grew closer, and he succeeded in gaining her undivided attention. It was an unusual set-up for its time, but Diana’s condition made it somewhat acceptable for them to spend so much time alone. Diana had a table installed in her bedroom, and she and Evelyn enjoyed private, though miniscule, supper parties. They went to luncheons at his parents’ house in Hampstead, and took silly little trips to the zoo. All too often, Diana grew bored with the confines of Buckingham Street and she called on Evelyn to accompany her on some “carriage exercise” in her chauffeur driven Daimler.
Some years later, Evelyn drew on this unique experience when he wrote Work Suspended. The narrator falls in love with Lucy, the pregnant wife of his friend, who spent her days “lying in bed in a chaos of newspapers, letters and manicure tools”. It was an age suited to parody, and his imagination smouldered with all sorts of silly manifestations. Still, Evelyn peddled on with his novel, naming it Vile Bodies – the title of which became synonymous with the inter-war foolishness of the Bright Young Things. He finished it in time to present the dedication to Diana and Bryan on Christmas morning: “To B.G and D.G” it read. In return, Diana and Bryan gave him a gold pocket watch.
The following month, Evelyn presented the Guinnesses with the complete manuscript of Vile Bodies, bound in leather with its title stamped in gold. But having discovered that his young friend was quite unlike the protagonist of his novel, he wrote to Diana: “I am now convinced that Vile Bodies is very vulgar and I am sorry for dedicating it to you but I will write many more exalted works and dedicate them to you.” The fictional portrayal of Diana played on his mind, and Evelyn wrote to their mutual friend, Dig Yorke: “She seems the one encouraging figure in this generation – particularly now she is pregnant – a great vat of potentiality like the vats I saw at their brewery.”
Inspired by his plans to stay in Dublin to complete his latest manuscript, a biography of Jonathan Swift (it was never written), Evelyn encouraged Diana to recuperate from the birth of her baby at Knockmaroon, the Guinness family’s country house on the outskirts of Dublin, where they “could have fun”.
On the 16th of March 1930, Jonathan Bryan Guinness was born. Evelyn was touched when Diana and Bryan agreed to his suggestion of Jonathan as a name, and he was further elated when Diana asked him to be godfather to her son. The other godfather, Diana’s cousin Randolph Churchill, became embroiled in a bitter feud with Evelyn – a feud which only ended when death separated the two men.
In early summer, London’s social events were in full swing, and with youthful gaiety, Diana launched herself back on the scene. Bryan had reservations about parties, balls, tea at the Ritz and endless trips to the theatre once again consuming their lives. Evelyn, too, disapproved of her eagerness to indulge in such frivolity, and it caused friction between the two. Like Bryan, he preferred to have Diana all to himself, to sit in a quiet corner where they could talk. But Diana, by her own admission, was “pleasure loving”. Evelyn’s jealously transferred on to Bryan, and he was not happy when Diana began passing over his luncheon invitations in favour of her husband, with whom she dined at the Savoy Grill during his afternoon break from his barrister duties at the Temple.
The former close friends were reunited on Diana’s twentieth birthday that June when Evelyn presented her with a charming Briggs umbrella. However, inspired by his feelings of resentfulness, he recorded in his diary that she broke the umbrella the following day – an untrue account; she cherished it for years until it was stolen. Two weeks later, at a supper party given at Buckingham Street, Evelyn continued with his unusual behaviour. He instigated a fight with Randolph Churchill in the servants’ hall, resulting in both men punching one another until the brawl was broken up. Diary entries written by Evelyn detail the breakdown of his friendship with Diana, and reveal the bitterness which blighted their meetings:
“D and I quarreled at luncheon.”
“D and I quarreled at dinner.”
“Quarreled with D again and left.”
Four days after recording the last event in his diary, Evelyn avoided Diana at Cecil Beaton’s cocktail party. It pained her when he did not lapse into their old, familiar rapport and he simply bid her goodnight and left. Diana must have featured heavily on his mind, for later that evening, Evelyn sent a letter to Buckingham Street. His bad behaviour, he wrote, was due to his unease with himself, and the parting words “don’t bother to answer” left Diana with little doubt as to how she should proceed. His petty behaviour enforced her firm belief that “in friendship there must be neither possessiveness nor jealousy. Either would wreck it”.
Thirty-six years later, a month before his death on the 10th of April 1966, Evelyn offered Diana some closure when he wrote to her, shouldering the blame for the ending of their friendship. He broke it off out of “pure jealousy”, provoked by an infatuation with her. She had shown him kindness and empathy during a turbulent time in his life, and this inspired him to see Diana in a romantic light. She had become the “unobtainable object” of his desires, and even though a sexual relationship was off limits, he wanted her all to himself as an “especial confidante and comrade”. That, as Evelyn told her, was “the sad and sordid truth”. Except for his letter, they never spoke again.
Abridged extract from Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford, The Thirties Socialite. Originally printed in The Mitford Society: Vol. II.