Extracted from The Mitford Society: Vol. III
Diana was 14-years-old when she first met James Lees-Milne, known to his friends as ‘Jim’. He had come down to Asthall Manor, the family home in Oxfordshire that was said to be haunted by a poltergeist, with Tom Mitford in the summer of 1924.
Both Diana and Jim were intrigued by one another, and he was bewitched by her beauty as he silently observed her sitting next to Tom as he played the piano. Diana, too, thought Jim the cleverest person she had met. She was impressed by his loathing of games and his preference for sitting indoors, listening to classical music and conversing about art and literature. Tom appeared to share an easy-going, brotherly type of affection with Jim, but their schoolboy camaraderie concealed a discreet affair that had taken place at Eton. The close bond between Diana and Tom reminded Jim of his loneliness and lack of familial ties – he despised his father, saw little of his mother, and had nothing in common with his siblings. Adding to his misery, all through his childhood and early adolescent years, Jim wished he were a girl. Society’s expectations placed on Jim as a boy, and his countrified father’s disapproval, conspired to make him ‘feel desperately ashamed’ of his wish. Adding to Jim’s feelings of shame was the guilt of his affair with Tom, and he desired to replace him with Diana, a socially acceptable catalyst for romance.
After Jim departed Asthall, he immediately wrote Diana a letter, asking her: ‘May I treat you as a much cherished sister to whom I can say everything? You don’t realise how essential they are to boys. Why are you so amazingly sympathique as well as charming?’ Diana, who was surrounded by six sisters and an all-female staff, was unsure how to respond to such flattery. She acted with indifference, which could have been mistaken as modesty – an appealing attribute in one so beautiful.
Jim returned to Asthall, and he, Tom and Diana became a peculiar trio. When the other Mitford children were outside riding and hunting, they spent their days indoors, lapping up joyous hours in the library where Jim expressed his devotion by teaching Diana to read the classics. They read poetry and fantasised about going to live in Greece, where they ‘would scorn material things and live on a handful of grapes by the sea’. Around this period, Jim had appointed himself as Diana’s faithful correspondent and the letters exchanged during this precarious time provide an insight into her outlook. As her intellect developed, she felt comfortable to confide her innermost thoughts to Jim. She told him: ‘There will never be another Shelley. I wish I had been alive then to marry him. He was more beautiful physically and mentally than an angel.’ And her philosophy on life was extremely modern for a sheltered teenager in the 1920s: ‘Why on earth should two souls (I wish there was a better word, I think SPIRIT is better). Why on earth should two spirits who are in love a bit have to marry … and renounce all other men and women?’ Monogamy, to Diana, was ‘SUPREMELY foolish’, but she was quick to acknowledge that speaking of ‘free love is almost a sin’. However, to dispel any hint of romance, she quickly informed Jim of his platonic place in her life: ‘I sometimes feel that I love you too much, but you are my spiritual brother.’
In 1926, Diana left for Paris to spend a year studying art at the Cours Fénelon, and during this period her letters to Jim became few and far between. She had fallen in love with the city, and had formed a circle of admirers who were a world away from Jim and his shy advances disguised by the written word. The ageing artist Paul César Helleu feted Diana, and this form of flattery coming from an adult turned her head more than Jim’s romantic prose.
After Diana’s departure for Paris, Jim had become morbidly obsessed with a recent divorcee, Joanie, the daughter of his mother’s cousin. Jim sent her love poetry – the typical gesture he would use time and time again with those he admired – and Joanie responded by driving down to Eton to take him to tea. In the New Year of 1926, they eventually began an affair, resulting in Joanie becoming pregnant. However, there is no certainty that Jim fathered the child, for she had so many casual affairs. The baby was stillborn, and Jim was haunted by guilt, stemming from his view that he had caused a human life, conceived in sin, to perish. Deeply disturbed by the incident, Jim fled England for Grenoble, where he studied a university course in French. His thoughts turned to Diana and the memories he held from their happier days in the library at Asthall Manor. The notion of being in love with an unworldly teenager was less troublesome than his love affair with the older Joanie, whose life came to a tragic end when she drowned herself at Monte Carlo.
Overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia, Jim wrote to Diana, in which he played to her frivolous vanity by addressing her as ‘Mona’ (after the Mona Lisa). Her letter, after a spell of silence, ‘dropped here today like the gentle dew from heaven. I cannot express my delight but imagine it as being intense … How I would adore to have a picture of you by M. Helleu’. He implored Diana to send him a memento; a snapshot of her Parisian self so he could see for himself if she had retained her Raphael face. ‘You can’t imagine what a joy it is to me the thought of having your face with me.’ Diana had become accustomed to receiving compliments on her beauty, rather than her brains, and the tokens dispelled in his letters were not a rarity. Jim confessed: ‘One can never love a friend too much,’ though by now he thought of Diana as something ‘higher than a friend’.
As for Diana, she was secretly pleased with Jim’s infatuation and had begun to recognise her power over the opposite sex, using it to exploit those who cared about her. Her letters adopted a priggish tone, boasting of her liaisons with French boys, after which, she warned Jim: ‘Don’t feel jealous’. It thrilled her to evoke feelings of jealousy, to torment the poor love-sick Jim, and she made it clear that she only confided in him because he was ‘so far from England’s green and pleasant land, where scandal travels fast’.
The hedonistic atmosphere was not to last and Diana suffered a bitter blow when Helleu died, suddenly, of peritonitis. The man she worshipped, and who for 3 months had worshipped her, was dead. She turned to Jim for comfort. ‘I shall never see him again …’ her letter ached with melancholy ‘… never hear his voice saying, “Sweetheart, comme tu es belle.”’ In another letter, she confessed: ‘Nobody will admire me again as he did.’ Jim might have disagreed, but he refrained from telling her otherwise, and wrote only to comfort her.
When Diana returned to England for the Easter holidays she was disheartened by the family’s new home, Swinbrook House – a grey, rectangular building designed by her father and decorated in mock rustic charm. Perhaps longing for a sense of familiarity, she wrote to Jim. ‘I have grown a little older, and more intense in my passions of love, sorrow and worship of beauty. To look at, I am the same. Pray for me, to your gods whatever they are. I am very unhappy.’ But, somewhere beneath her morbid facade, Diana was still a romantic at heart.
Jim’s letters from that time, although an escape from the dullness of everyday life, drew her attention to his love for her. In a sophisticated manner, she declared: ‘Sex is after all so unimportant in life. Beauty and art are what matter. Older people do not see my point of view.’ Diana failed to elaborate on the ‘older people’, surely a jibe at Jim, who was 2 years her senior. She did not, however, discourage the correspondence. In a similar light as Helleu, Jim praised her looks. ‘I have got dark skin and light hair and eyes which is an unattractive paradox,’ she dismissed his compliment. In the same sentence, Diana asked if he had seen the various beauties: Mary Thynne, Lettice Lygon and Georgie Curzon, to name a few. Jim’s passion could not be quelled, and Diana accepted his gifts of books, though she often critiqued his poetry when he sent it.
Finally, Jim was reunited with Diana in person. The sight of her in the flesh stunned him at first. She was no longer the sweet natured 14-year-old girl he had mentored in the library at Asthall. The long hair, which he had admired and likened to Botticelli’s Seaborne Venus, had been cut short. Although not outwardly fashionable, she began to alter her looks to appear more grown-up in her appearance. This adult version of Diana inspired the same feelings of passion he had felt for Joanie, who wore chic clothes and Parisian scent.
Hoping to instigate a romance with Diana, though from afar, Jim impulsively sent her a poem. Diana’s response was not what he had anticipated, and with a critical eye she advised him: ‘Read Alice Meynell’s short essay on false impressionism called The Point of Honour. This is not meant to be rude …’ Adopting an intellectual tone, she confidently told him: ‘Byron was a selfish, beautiful genius and not really more selfish than many men and most artists. As to Augusta, she was of the same temperament as I am, and just about as silly.’
Diana’s letters to Jim fizzled out, and tormented by her lack of communication, he turned his attention to Diana’s cousin and friend, Diana Churchill, whom he had met that summer. The other Diana, ‘like a fairy’ with her puny frame, pale complexion and red hair, was a haphazard substitute for his original love interest. In September, Diana invited him to the Churchill family home, Chartwell, and he readily accepted once he learned that Diana Mitford would also be staying with her brother, Tom. Unlike at Asthall and Swinbrook, where Jim could escape with Diana and Tom, the ‘brats’ (a Churchillian term of endearment) congregated in the drawing room and at the dining table. They listened to Winston Churchill’s monologue on the Battle of Jutland as he shifted decanters and wine glasses, in place of the ships, around the table, furiously puffing on his cigar to represent the gun smoke. With Churchill’s attention fixed on the children, his boisterous son Randolph seized an opportunity to flatter Diana, with whom he was madly in love. ‘Papa,’ he mischievously asked his father, ‘guess who is older, our Diana or Diana M?’
‘Our Diana,’ came the reply from Churchill, spoiling Randolph’s plan.
‘Oh, Papa, nobody else thinks so but you!’
During the stay, Diana was surrounded by her two most ardent admirers and Jim noticed that she outwardly relished being in Randolph’s company, despite her frequent protests about his immature behaviour. Jim could only look on, his hopes and feelings deflated.
In the new year of 1928, Jim returned to Swinbrook to stay for the weekend. Diana hoped to corner him for a congenial chat about literature, but the pleasant visit took a turn for the worse when, over dinner, Nancy praised an anti-German film she had watched at the cinema. Still harbouring a strong dislike for Germans, their father, Lord Redesdale, made his usual offensive remark: ‘The only good German is a dead German.’
Leaping to the defence of the film and of the German people, Jim said: ‘Anyhow, talking of atrocities, the worst in the whole war were committed by the Australians.’
‘Be quiet and don’t talk about what you don’t understand. Young swine!’ Lord Redesdale exploded.
Mortified by her father’s outburst, Diana broke the heavy silence when she haughtily announced: ‘I wish people needn’t be so rude to their guests!’
Flexing his authority as master of the household, Lord Redesdale ordered Jim from Swinbrook. Frogmarched to the front door, he was thrown outside where it was teeming with rain. After several failed attempts to start up his motorcycle, he sneaked back into the house and crept up to bed.
Awaking at 6 o’clock the next morning, Jim bumped into Lord Redesdale, stalking the hallway, as he did every morning, wearing his paisley print robe and drinking tea from a thermos. Anticipating another scene, Jim was pleasantly surprised when Lord Redesdale appeared to have forgotten the offensive exchange and greeted him warmly.
The turbulent visit settled into a bittersweet memory for Jim and, although he did not know it at the time, it would be his last visit with Diana at Swinbrook. He rightly sensed that Diana’s mind was focused on finding a suitable husband to rescue her from the great boredom of family life. With his ‘impecunious and melancholic’ nature, Jim knew he was not an ideal candidate, and long after he had departed from her life, Diana remained ‘the unattainable object of his desire’.
In 1928, Diana met and became engaged to Bryan Guinness. Jim received the news of Diana’s engagement with little enthusiasm. It came like a ‘cruel blow’ which greatly upset him. Diana attempted to console him with a short, but sweet, letter: ‘I know you will like him [Bryan] because he is too angelic and not rough and loathes shooting and loves travelling and all the things I love.’ She was preoccupied with a glamorous, materialistic world, and given Bryan’s wealth, it served to make Jim feel worthless. ‘When we are married and live in London, you must often come and see us,’ she gently coaxed him. He sent Diana a wedding present of books, and apart from her customary thank you note, he did not set eyes on her for the next 25 years.
Quotations from the letters between Diana Mitford and James Lees-Milne were taken from James Lees-Milne: The Life by Michael Bloch (John Murray, 2009) and reprinted with permission in Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford (The History Press, 2015).