Darling Monster: The Letters of Lady Diana Cooper to her Son John Julius Norwich 1939-1952 by Diana Cooper
Though she is perhaps little remembered these days except as the mother of writer and historian John Julius Norwich, Lady Diana Cooper was one of the towering figures in society life between the wars and for much of the period before her death in 1986.
|Darling Monster: The Letters of Lady Diana Cooper to her Son John Julius Norwich 1939-1952 by Diana Cooper|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: The letters of aristocrat and socialite Lady Diana Cooper to her only son, covering the years from the outbreak of World War II to her retirement in post-Liberation France, including many glimpses of wartime and peacetime life across two continents, royalty and world leaders.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 520||Date: November 2014|
|External links: Author's website|
The first letter in this volume was written to her son, an only child when he was a boy of ten, and the last as a young married man in his early twenties. According to his introduction, most of them were written in a great hurry, sitting upright in bed, with a pencil, so his mother would not get ink on the sheets. Bed, he tells us, ‘was the bridge, the control tower, the centre of operations’.
The thirteen years which served as the background to these communications begin with the outbreak of the Second World War. This was swiftly followed by the lecture tour that her husband and his father, politician and diplomat Alfred Duff Cooper, undertook in America, the London Blitz, life on a Sussex farm, a posting to Singapore which included tours of south-east Asia, a few months in Algiers with General de Gaulle, three years at the British Embassy in Paris after the liberation, and finally, retirement in a house near Chantilly. As for John Julius, the young recipient, the same period started with his evacuation to the United States, education at a school in Toronto, then Eton and New College, Oxford, and a period in the Royal Navy.
John Julius was evidently a casual correspondent, replying very seldom to his mother’s frequent and lengthy missives. One of the earliest of her reprimands reproaches him with being ‘the nastiest little pig’ she knows, as ‘It’s so sad waiting for letters that don’t come and are not even written’. One can but hope that the ten-year-old boy knew her well enough not to take it too deeply to heart. When he did reply he evidently did not overreach himself in the effort, prompting a further retort that his letters ‘are too horrid, one side of a sheet, not one word of affection or love. This one only told me your gym master had been ill. It was not even signed.’ It is hardly surprising to read a little later that his father read one of these letters to their son and tried to stop her sending it as it would be unintelligible to an adult, let alone a boy of eleven.
Thankfully they do not continue throughout in this vein, although she seems to lose sight of the fact that she is writing to a lad and not a grown man. There are glimpses of the great and the good, among them General de Gaulle, President Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister and close friend whom she nicknamed ‘Duckling’ and of whom she said in a letter of February 1941 did nearly all his work from his bed; ‘it keeps him rested and young’. There are occasional political musings, notably after Hitler’s invasion of Russia, and her view of the Soviets, who had ‘done atrocious things to their own people and would like to convert us all to their highly unsuccessful ways’. But she acknowledges that during the war there was no easy solution, or indeed an alternative to the necessary evil of an alliance of the west with Stalin.
After the war, there is a gradual, faintly perceptible change of tone. Perhaps it was the onset of middle age on her part, as well as awareness of increasing maturity on that of her son. There are reminiscences of old loves, one of them being her very first serious affair with a Swedish aviator who was lost while flying a cardboard monoplane over the English Channel. There was another who drove her round and around Regent’s Park in a taxi, as ‘the little room on wheels was a girl’s only setting to be alone with a dear one’. The Great War being what it was, by 1916 everyone she had ever loved except for Duff was dead. When her son asked her if she minded about his father’s infidelities, she answered philosophically that she had no reason to if they made him happy, as she always knew they were the flowers – ‘I was the tree.’ She had a love-hate relationship with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, whom she visited on occasion. Her lost rank, she said, had its advantages, as she did not have to sit next to him; he ‘looked his withered self and never made head or tail of anything I said’, while the Duchess wore her diamonds ‘negligently’.
When I started reading this book, I thought it was going to be a rather uninteresting and somewhat self-absorbed family chronicle, but it rapidly improved. Lady Diana’s views of the individuals and the world about her are amusing, generous, bitchy, even snobbish in turn. She can be warm-hearted one moment, impossible to please the next, sometimes lapsing into depressive self-pity, but she is rarely dull. Just once in a while, I was tempted to skim the odd page, as is so often the case with a volume of letters from one family member to another. Yet for an insight into the life and times of the Coopers and the world in turmoil around them, most of this correspondence does repay a thorough read.
For another view of the war from another perspective, may we recommend Our Longest Days: A People's History of the Second World War by Sandra Koa Wing, and for the period immediately afterwards, The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War by Ben Shephard. We also enjoyed Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes by Ferdinand Mount.
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