8 November 2020

The Light of Common Day by Diana Cooper

It's interesting that certain books can sit on a shelf for years and then one day be just the thing you're in the mood for.  Usually at this time of year I scan the shelves for something Victorian but flipping through the pages of a few came to nothing.  Am I the last person yet to discover Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon?  I wonder....in any case, the combination of British aristocracy, Bright Young Things, eccentric melodrama and pre-World War II politics in this volume of Lady Diana Cooper's writings rose above my expectations.

Lady Diana Cooper, born in 1892, was the youngest daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland.  By the time Diana was in her late teens there were suggestions (that turned out to be true) her biological father was in fact Henry Cust, a writer, due to their strong resemblance.  Referred to as a society beauty Diana was often mentioned in newspaper columns for her 'It Girl' factor.

By the end of the Great War several young men in Diana's social circle had been killed.   Duff Cooper did serve militarily but only briefly.  In any case, he survived the war and in 1919 the two married, but the Duke and Duchess were less than thrilled with her choice.  Duff had a reputation for drinking and gambling to excess, was known as a womenizer and lacked a title.   Diana's parents had hoped that one day their daughter would marry the Prince of Wales.  How many parents have been driven to madness over a 'Bad Boy'?  I digress.

This second volume of the trilogy (the first was missing when I bought books two and three) begins with Diana writing about her time in The Miracle, a play.  Boarding the ship Acquitania  Diana is bound for New York.....

Duff was by my side and in my heart, so everything delighted and excited us -- the fine big cabin, the bath with fresh and sea water, the springing decks and space, the interminable menus, the orchestra and the bustle, the cupboard-trunks, bouquets and radiograms, but through the delight and excitement flitted the sinister shade of the Titanic.  I felt something of a Columbus too.  In 1923 not so many of my English friends had crossed the Atlantic, and we were farewelled as though for circumnavigation, with Fortnum & Mason provisions, cases of champagne, prayers, telegrams and a bevy of friends to speed us well at Southampton.

For all the fuss made about rooms, meals, episodes of swooning, and costuming I thought Diana's role was something on the scale of legendary performance.  When I learned that her part was that of a Nun without lines and involved standing still on a pillar I laughed out loud.  It would seem that the bulk of drama in Diana's life actually played out away from the theatre.  To be fair, her acting portfolio did include other bodies of work.     

Used to a life of privilege, Diana sends a letter to Duff, once he had returned to England, with instructions for a Christmas gift for her mother.  A new car is to be customized with the family crest painted on the door and delivered by a man in livery.  Requested with the same ease that someone else might ask for a loaf of bread.   Diana also seemed to have no shame when it came to accepting very expensive gifts from her friend Conrad, even admitting to losing them at times without much guilt.  Then I winced when Diana wrote about being in the first-class carriage of a train with only her son and Nanny while the rest of the train was filled to bursting with people standing in the aisles.....I could not pay for them all, could I.  Well, perhaps not but it seemed like a harsh sentiment to express in writing.

Peering into Lady Diana Cooper's life through her letters and recollections of various events proved more fascinating than I had bargained for.  The first handful of pages didn't exactly have me warming towards her but I couldn't resist being drawn into the larger picture.  Gossipy social history from an inside source that also revealed some vulnerabilities.  Diana was learning as she went along.  Spending a weekend away as the guest of The King and Wallis at Balmoral she was dismayed when tea was offered at 6:30 pm and dinner at 10.

Towards the end of The Light of Common Day Diana, Duff and their son John Julius embark on a cruise stopping in Greece and Italy.  The boat pitched severely enough to throw furniture around and take on water.  If Diana's description is even halfway true I would never step onto a watercraft again but in brave British fashion she bears it with less fuss than when bedridden with a sore throat.  And here's another interesting tidbit....her sore throat is treated with cocaine.  

As Duff works his way through the ranks of diplomatic service to the appointment of First Lord of the Admiralty, the Coopers eventually leave their beloved home on Gower Street for Admiralty House.  On decorating their bedroom Diana writes....

The room was at least twenty feet high, and from close to the ceiling hung a wreath of gilded dolphins and crowns.  Blue curtains, lined with white satin and falling to the ground, spread open to reveal a headpiece of more dolphins, tridents and shells.  At the bottom corners of the bed two life-sized dolphins, arch-backed and curved, menaced intruders - fishy sentinels.

I don't know about anyone else but the image of such a room in all its late 1930s glamour made me forget all about Covid and the election in the US.  But moving right along....war is looming, trenches are being dug and Lady Diana Cooper has found an organization to devote herself to - the WVS.  But she is afraid of what might be in store.....

Fear did more harm to my physique than to my morale.  Sleep was murdered for ever.  My heart quaked, yet I must appear valiant.  My hands shook, so work must be found to steady them.  Always a pessimist, I could imagine nothing worse than what must happen perhaps tomorrow--war, death, London utterly demolished, frantic crowds stampeding, famine and disease.

But not before a skiing holiday with her son!  Such are the swings in atmosphere and mood that just a few pages later Diana approaches Duff about a suicide pact as all she can see ahead is Death.  A book that started off by making me laugh at some silly, almost camp behaviour, has now morphed into something far deeper.  I'm glad the next installment is on the kitchen table so I can find out what happens next.

Lady Diana Cooper


  1. The Coopers show up in just about every memoir/diary I read from the era, whether it be written by an artist or a politician. What interesting and well-connected lives they led!

    1. With Virginia and Leonard just a couple of streets away from Gower Street I kept hoping Diana would write about an invitation to tea!
      If this post caught anyone's eye I'm not surprised it was you, Claire. Such an interesting time and so many intriguing people!

  2. I've just read Mary S Lovell's The Mitford Girls and I'm sure the Cooper's showed up in that, too! I do love memoir and diaries from that period of time.

    1. Reading up on the Coopers is required for fans of this era, isn't it, Nicola! I've already dug out my green Virago copy of The Loved and Envied by Enid Bagnold because the main character is loosely based on Diana, apparently. Whatever the case, it's taking my mind off of the C word and that's a very good thing! Take care....