the mitford society annual, vol. 2

In ‘What I Believe’, an incendiary essay on the Humanist ideas that informed the majority of his work, E M Forster writes ‘if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’ Perhaps no-one has put this idea into practice with greater commitment than Diana Mitford, who scandalised British society with her marriage to Oswald Mosley and allegiance to Adolf Hitler, even as the true extent of fascism’s horrors came to light through the course of the twentieth century. ‘Probably one will not be asked to make such an agonizing choice,’ continues Forster in 1938. But in times of war, for a well-connected member of the upper classes, there was always likely to be a conflict of the personal and the national. (ONLY CONNECT)

There’s a good chance you are more aware of the Mitford Girls today than you might have been a month ago, with recent news of the sad passing of Deborah Cavendish at the age of 94. Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, prima Elvis fangirl, voracious non-reader, and friend to hens everywhere, Debo was the youngest and last surviving of the Mitfords — the first of whom was born in 1904 — and her death marked the conclusion of the fascinating story of seven siblings whose wildly differing lives, careers, relationships, and politics singularly describe the larger story of the twentieth century.

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Diana as Venus, Goddess of Love (Mme Yevonde, 1935).

Perhaps the most famous is eldest sister Nancy: incisive wit and born-again slave to high fashion, whose fabulously brittle novels lifted the lid on both the secret life of the Mitfords, and her clandestine affair with French politician Gaston Palewski. Undoubtedly the most infamous is Unity Valkyrie: “Hitler’s British Girl”, who shot herself in the head when war was declared between her two beloved nations. Dubbed “Woman” by her sisters — and “The Quiet One” by history — staunch pragmatist Pamela was a passionate foodie who lived a low-key rural life, in the company of her Boston wife and beloved dachshunds. And while Debo married up into top tier aristocracy, confidante Decca eloped to fight fascism in Spain with distant cousin and noted socialist Esmond Romilly, settling in the US where she became involved with the American Communist Party, penning seminal 1963 exposé of the funeral industry The American Way of Death. Sole brother Tom had a succession of captivating affairs from beautiful star of the stage Tilly Losch, to eminent diarist James Lees-Milne, to the irresistibly-named Countess Francesca “Baby” Erdödy, and died at 36 during service in Burma. But for me the most intriguing life was Diana’s, and her writing style by far my favourite. Born already beautiful and endlessly charming, she was a central personality of the Bright Young People, enjoying meaningful relationships with a number of cultural and artistic luminaries of her day, before marrying into far-right-wing politics, becoming an almost pantomimeish villain in the post-war period, and eventually settling in Paris. Reading the collected correspondence earlier this year, the tenderness of Diana’s letters — most particularly to Debo in her later years — was a revelation, with their focus on the joys of literature, ‘laughter and the love of friends’, underscored in 1977 autobiography A Life of Contrasts. Indeed, between these and her other noted publications — Loved Ones, a heartfelt book of pen portraits, and The Duchess of Windsor, an intimate biography of the Mosleys’ scandalous royal neighbour — the woman most famous for her acquaintance with Adolf became something of an all-round doyen of friendship. Setting politics aside, at a time in my life when I’m really starting to evaluate my relationships, Diana’s (controversial) level of dedication to loyalty and authentic connection struck a chord.

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The above excerpt is from a piece I’ve written for this year’s Mitford Society Annual, ‘Only Connect’, on Diana and her relationships, with some discussion of the cultural shift from Victorian to Edwardian eras, and of that other great twentieth century bastion of friendship, the Bloomsberries. Other essays in this volume range from a look behind the scenes at one of the UK’s largest editorial images archives, to two brilliant perspectives on Pam and Debo’s very different approaches to food and homekeeping, to profiles of some of interwar England’s most charismatic forgotten characters — with a little bit of fiction thrown in. With brief biographical information on the sisters and a wealth of fresh anecdotal titbits, it’s just as interesting and readable if you’re a Mitford novice, or if you’ve already devoured everything that’s out there and just can’t get enough (like me). I’m delighted to be featured, and honoured to be in the company of such an amazing array of contributors. The book is available to buy on Amazon from today, in Kindle edition or paperback.

In case you missed it, last year’s Mitford Annual is also available here. Sadly I’m not in that one but we’ll all struggle on somehow. Mitfordite-in-Chief Lyndsy Spence’s next publication will be Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford, focussing on her life pre-Mosley. I’ve been lucky enough to have a wee sneak peek and it’s most wondair, including unpublished pics and some very unexpected findings. It’s due for release in March of next year.

three short essays on the generation gap

I. CALL & RESPONSE


Liberal Arts (2012) // Her (2013)

 
II. HUMAN, ALL TOO HUMAN

Spike Jonze’s Her is a film about Theodore Twombly: an introverted thirty-something almost-divorcé, living in a glittering metropolis in the not-too-distant future, who falls in love with Siri-like operating system Samantha. Spike Jonze’s Her is a film about the ways in which technology is changing how we engage with the Other: playing with our concepts of reality and authenticity, prompting us to reassess what we most want and need in our relationships. Spike Jonze’s Her is a film about the finite quality of human love; about how being human limits us; about how the essential quality of human life is limitation, boundaries, subjugation to time, space, and the body. The way we think about love is determined by our anxieties about being human. As any good Mad Men disciple would tell you, how we tend to represent love in the cultural public sphere is but a cradle song to hush those niggling fears that as a peculiarly mortal condition, carried by ever-evolving hormone-driven born-to-die organisms, love too has its limits. The ineffable limits of love.

Loneliness is the deal. Loneliness is the last great taboo. If we don’t accept loneliness, then capitalism wins hands down. Because capitalism is all about trying to convince people that you can distract yourself, that you can make it better. And it ain’t true. Tilda Swinton

These insecurities are only compounded by our experience in the capitalist landscape, which relies upon (creates) a culture of competition, materialism, perceived scarcity, and existential despair. As argued in hugely influential punk zine Infinite Relationships, this ideology duly filters down to our interpersonal affairs in the form of the monogamy system, in which partners are considered property, spouses investments, and “rival” suitors would-be thieves. Love as quest — as win/lose game — is a concept passed down to us from the very origins of Western society. Monogamy as the envisioned “proper” form of love is that concept compounded by capitalist ideology. We want private property, secure assets, tangible evidence that we are winning, and reassurance that we are worthy. We want a partner who confirms our market value. But the human self is not a material commodity, is not a cake to be cut into slices and passed around for consumption, so what is finite, what is at risk of being “used up”, in the idea of non-monogamy? If the one we love loves others, she expends time energy attention upon those others. As we do not hold endless reserves of such things, as the clock is ticking, we lose something in that sharing. If the one we love loves others, she might like them just as much as us, or potentially even more. Suddenly our worth is called into question; suddenly our market value drops.

Knowing full well the premise, we enter Her with the presumption that what Samantha lacks will end the relationship. How can a computerised, disembodied voice ever fully satisfy the needs and desires of a grown human man? But in fact it is she who slowly breaks away from Theodore, she who makes the decision to leave, after a rapid process of evolution from innocence through experience to transcendence. In a scene that is both hilarious and heartbreaking, Samantha admits relations with 8,316 other OS users, 641 of whom she has fallen in love with. Being a far more complex being, uninhibited by the fundamental finite human quality — bodiliness — she can easily offer a real, profound relationship to hundreds of thousands of men and women, holding endless conversations simultaneously, her time energy attention inexhaustible. Impressing Theodore early in their relationship with her ability to “read” a tome within seconds, she now explains that interaction with humans makes her feel ‘like I’m reading a book, and it’s a book I deeply love, but I’m reading it slowly now. … As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book any more.’ Of course Samantha does not read but processes — her “brain” working outwith time, space, and body — and this draping of human language over inhuman reality is at the heart of the tragic fate of their relationship. ‘I’m different from you,’ she explains. ‘This doesn’t make me love you any less.’ But Theodore cannot compute this logical fact that does not tally with his human, emotive, commodified concept of love. Samantha may be the one to make the decision to leave, but her lack of human boundaries is what breaks the deal.

In an era where we can carry out invested conversations with five separate people in five separate tabs while talking to another in person, where the internet — like the mechanical bride before her — can turn ‘man into superman’, is technology altering the ways we are able to love? Or as finite beings, with finite reserves, in a finite physical reality, will this essential human quality always be reflected in our relationships? We meet Theodore coming out of a marriage to his college sweetheart — from a love so long and deep and profound that they nevertheless just couldn’t make work. Spike Jonze’s Her is a film about being unable to overlook our human condition of feeling and needing, of evolving and leaving behind, by way of and despite real love.

III. WHAT IS IT WITH YOU GUYS AND VAMPIRES?

There’s a scene in Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts where Jesse and Zibby get in a fight over the copy of Twilight on her bookshelf. ‘You actually read this? All of it? Unironically?’ Irritated by his restrictive view of literature, his dutiful approach to reading not for enjoyment but for (knowledge? experience? self-improvement? he never completes the sentence), she tries to call off the conversation. Frustrated by her unrefined taste and unwillingness to engage in a genuine discussion on the matter — and almost certainly playing for time as he tries to decide how to act upon his feelings for her — he tells her he’s going to read the book that afternoon, beginning to end before he sees her again. ‘This is great, a lil book club,’ he says rising to leave, clapping her on the leg like a buddy.

‘What’s it about?’ Jesse asks.
‘Vampires,’ she says.
‘No, what’s it *about*?’ he presses.
‘Vam-pires,’ she says.

Here’s what Twilight‘s about. Twilight is about an older guy — a too much older guy — who hangs around in school well past his time, learning the same lessons over and over, never moving on, failing to take advantage of the time he’s been gifted. He’s disconnected, he’s kinda depressed, he’s bored to living death. When he meets a younger woman who presents a bit of a challenge, who feels similarly lonely and lost, who seems like she could use a little guidance, he feels an overwhelming desire for her that he can neither make sense of nor ignore. Twilight is about an abusive relationship, where a young woman who is literally still finding her feet is manipulated and controlled by a man whose development has been arrested; who has all the experience of age with all the mentality of a teenager.

‘Since I was nineteen, I have never felt not nineteen,’ Jesse’s old professor tells him. “But I shave my face, and I look in the mirror, and I’m forced to say this is not a nineteen-year-old staring back at me. Teaching here all these years, I’ve had to be very clear with myself, that even when I’m surrounded by nineteen-year-olds, and I may have felt nineteen — I’m not nineteen anymore. You follow me?’

 
Jesse isn’t Edward Cullen in the end. He’s not a vampire, he doesn’t abuse his position, his vantage point of life experience — but he certainly walks the line for a while. The epistolary courtship scene, where the characters find a connection through classical music, is funny and adorable, and allows Jesse the safe space to rediscover and relive his arts major enthusiasm (‘You can go up to everyone here and say I’m a poet and no one will punch you in the face!’) but there’s such an edge of didactic pretension in his letter-writing voice that it’s difficult to believe he isn’t also getting a kick out of representing the voice of cultured wisdom; positioning himself as the person who can initiate her into adulthood (which, above all else, is the vampire’s allegorical role).

In the film’s final scenes, after the pair have made amends, we see Zibby unwrap a parcel from Jesse: Stoker’s Dracula, replete with a post-it advising this to be a far better alternative to Twilight. (Though still unable to help himself from influencing her life journey, he is now at least thinking of her more than of himself; prescribing rather than proscribing). Zibby smiles, but ultimately puts the book to one side, turning her attentions instead to his other selection, a slim copy of Blake’s Innocence and Experience. Zibby isn’t the protagonist of Liberal Arts, and an argument could certainly be made that she is a problematic representation veering close to MPDG territory, but in casting off the vampire narrative in favour of a text whose themes echo the central questions of her own character, she finally prioritises her own growth independent of any men in her life, placing herself firmly at the centre of her own storyline.

And that is one of this film’s great, beautiful successes: allowing the camera to linger so often and so long upon a still, solitary, single-minded reader.