A mother’s letters to her son illuminate British history.
The beautiful socialite Diana Cooper (1892-1986), wife of statesman Duff Cooper, was separated from her only son, John Julius Norwich (b. 1929), for many years from 1939 to 1952. As war approached, the couple sent him to America for his safety. When he returned, he enrolled at Eton; at 18, he joined the Royal Navy. Missing him deeply, Lady Diana wrote hundreds of letters from which Norwich (Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, 2011, etc.) has selected those he considers “the best” in revealing his witty mother and her elite circle. A “Directory of Names” identifies informal, even chummy references to such notables as Duckling (Winston Churchill), Bill (William S. Paley, president of CBS, with whose family Norwich lived in New York during the war), Bloggs (Wyndham Baldwin, the son of the prime minister, with whom, Norwich writes, “my mother had a gentle love affair”) and Mr. Wu (Evelyn Waugh). Norwich introduces each of the sections with a sample letter to his parents and a lively biographical précis, setting his mother’s correspondence in context. Her own letters are charming, anecdotal and sharply observant, meant both to share her experiences and draw her son close: “I enclose my broadcast,” she wrote when he was 11, “not that I’m in any way proud of it but… so that we may not lose touch with one another. It’s so easy with the waste of seas between us.” Lady Diana, having no pretense of self-importance, was not easily impressed. Queen Elizabeth seemed to her a “plump little siren,” and Churchill, amusing but self-indulgent. She makes palpable the assault of the Blitz, England’s desperate need for American support and the dire conditions of postwar Europe, as well as her husband’s frustrating tenure as minister of information.
Warm, shrewd and glowing with love for her son, these letters offer an indelible portrait of an extraordinary woman and her vanished world.