Who are we?
We are sisters who are famous for our beauty, infamous for our scandals, and well known for our sometimes dubious choices when it comes to matters of the heart. If you guessed the ‘klan’ of all things ‘K’ – Kourtney, Kim, Khloé, Kendall, and Kylie, you guessed wrong! It’s not the Kardashians…
Photo courtesy insidehollywood.co
Long ago, there was another family of famous sisters called Mitford. Like the Kardashian ‘klan’, who have a brother called Rob, the Mitford sisters also had a brother (whose name was Thomas), and he, too, was no stranger to a bit of controversy.
The Mitford sisters had ‘one up’ on the Kardashians because there were six sisters – Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah. And, unlike the Kardashians who have their mother, Kris, as a ‘momager’, they had no need to involve their mother to manage their careers and publicity – they did this themselves – often with spectacular highs and lows. Their mother, Sydney, came to dread reading the newspapers because any articles about ‘Peeresses’ were inevitably about one of her daughters.
Last Friday night (Friday 12 February 2016), I attended a talk at Avid Reader given by Susannah Fullerton, who along with being the President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, Patron of the Kipling Society of Australia, and one of Australia’s most popular literary lecturers, also knows a thing or two about those fascinating Mitford sisters. And, here’s an synopsis of what Susannah told a rapt audience:
A bit of background
The seven Mitford children (six daughters and one son) were born between 1904 and 1920 to Lord and Lady Redesdale, known as ‘Farve’ and ‘Muv’. Like so many other aristocratic families of the era, they lived in a succession of stately homes in what can be termed as ‘genteel poverty’ – the posh way of saying they were rich in land but not in cash. It was an unconventional upbringing steeped in eccentricity – they were early adopters of certain “New Age” lifestyle and philosophies – they believed in natural medicine, organic foods, and held certain superstitions, such as a belief in predestination.
‘Farve’ wasn’t the greatest male role model for the sisters, and perhaps a closer understanding of his personality helps explain some of the sisters’ poor choice in men. He loathed almost everyone, especially foreigners, and only tolerated a few of his relatives. On the plus side, he did instill in his daughters an individualist mindset and confidence to pursue their own strong-minded opinions.
‘Muv’, who lost her own mother in early childhood, did not have a conventional upbringing for a young lady of that era. But she did give them a solid grounding with a healthy dose of common sense in very practical matters.
‘Muv’ encouraged her daughters to be entrepreneurial, and gave them chickens to raise with the end-goal of producing eggs to sell to the cook. She was also very thrifty and abandoned the use of linen napkins because they were too expensive to launder, and preferred to use paper ones.
Thomas (Tom), the much-loved son and brother, was the glue that bound the family together. The sisters often fell out and did not speak to each other for years at a time (38 years in the case of Diana and Jessica), but this was never the case with Tom. When Tom died at the end of World War II, it marked the end of the Mitford marriage.
Bright Young Things
With brains, beauty and a scathing sense of humour, the press heralded the Mitford sisters as celebrities before they did anything to merit such praise. But it didn’t take long for these extraordinary siblings to take part on the ‘world-stage’, and move in the same circles as historic figures such as Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, and John F. Kennedy.
Born in 1904, Nancy was the oldest of the Mitford siblings and enjoyed great success as a writer. Her novels (The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, etc.) are regarded as some of the best of her generation.
Originally intended as a joke, Nancy’s essay, Noblesse Oblige, written about ‘U’ (upper-class) and ‘non-U’ language that defined social origins, is now considered an authority on manners and breeding. The French government awarded her the National Order of the Legion of Honour (Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur) for her biographical studies on Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire, and King Louis XIV.
Unfortunately, Nancy’s love life did not enjoy the same level of success. She fell in love with three unsatisfactory men. The first, Hamish Erskine, was homosexual. In 1933, she married Peter Rodd (nicknamed Prod by the other sisters) who was clever but a delinquent bore, and they divorced in 1958.
The great love of Nancy’s life was the spectacularly named Gaston Palewski, who was General de Gaulle’s chief of staff. They remained friends until her death but sadly he did not return her passion or loyalty in equal measure. Nancy died in 1973 after a long illness. She was nursed by her two sisters Diana and Jessica who put aside their life-long political differences (fascism and communism) to care for their sister.
Next in line was Pamela (1907 – 1994) who suffered from polio as a child, which made her less robust than her sisters. Known as the ‘quiet sister’, Pamela nonetheless attracted her share of suitors, and married Oxford professor, Derek Jackson (whom she later divorced).
Pamela felt a positive affinity with farming, animals, and all aspects of country life. It was her undisguised enjoyment of domesticated pursuits such as cooking, which her sisters regarded as boring and ‘womanly’, that led to her lifelong nickname, ‘woman’.
Pamela followed the example set by ‘Muv’ in terms of housekeeping economies, and lived a thrifty lifestyle, although she always indulged in good food and well made clothing – everything else was done with a strict budget in mind. The chickens raised in childhood must have had a lasting effect on Pamela because she became a poultry expert in later life.
Diana, the third sister (1910 – 2003), is generally regarded as the ‘great beauty’ of the family. At 19, she wed Bryan Guinness, scion of the immensely rich aristocratic beer dynasty, in what was deemed ‘the society wedding of the year’.
But this union ended a few short years later when, aged 22, she met and fell madly in love with Sir Oswald Mosley, a married man who was 14 years her senior. Mosley was the leader of the British Union of Fascists, and Diana embraced fascism wholeheartedly.
When they eventually married in 1936 it was a clandestine civil ceremony in Berlin, witnessed by Hitler and Goebbels. The newlyweds even received a autographed photo of the Fürher himself! Diana remained loyal to Mosley, despite his numerous affairs with other women. And her dedication to fascism never waivered, despite being regarded as the ‘most hated woman’ in Britain and being interned in Holloway Prison during the Second World War.
She wrote two books of memoirs, A Life of Contrasts (1977), and Loved Ones (1985), as well as a biography of the Duchess of Windsor, whom she had befriended when they were neighbours in post-war Paris where she and Mosley went to live.
Truth is often stranger than fiction, and in Unity’s case, the family’s theories regarding predestination arguably have a ring of truth about them. Unity Valkyrie Mitford (1914 – 1948) was conceived in the town of Swastika, Ontario, Canada, where her family had gold mines, and were seeking to make a much needed fortune to fund their lifestyle.
Swastika did not bring the family riches but it did give Unity a sense that her destiny was fated to be in Germany. After a somewhat lacklustre debut and no particular purpose in life, Unity travelled to Germany at age 20 to learn the language, and found her ‘calling’ by immersing herself in the politics of National Socialism and the Nazi Party.
Unity was the physical ideal of ‘Aryan’ womanhood: blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and around six feet tall. She pursued (‘stalked’ in modern parlance) Hitler until he finally took notice of her. Hitler, ever the petty-bourgeois, adored the fact that a girl from an English upper-class family should fancy him and Unity become part of his ‘inner social circle’.
He indulged her and gave her many gifts, including a commemorative swastika badge for services to the Third Reich. Unity embraced the regime’s racial hatred doctrines and willingly took possession of a comfortable Munich apartment that its Jewish owners were forced to vacate in order for her to move in.
When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Unity was torn between her ‘love’ of both countries and feeling that she no longer had a ‘purpose’ in life, she attempted suicide using a small silver pistol (which ironically was another gift from Hitler). Unity shot herself in the head, but rather than succeeding in killing herself, she suffered serious brain damage.
She was returned to England (all German hospital bills were paid for by Hitler), where doctors decided it was too dangerous to remove the bullet. Unity’s return to Britain is shrouded in mystery and more than a bit of controversy, and included allegations that she was pregnant with Hitler’s child. The truth is unknown, but it appears that Unity spent her remaining years (she died at the young age of 33) as an invalid on the family-owned island of Inch Kenneth.
The next sister, Jessica (1917 – 1996) held the extreme opposite political views to Unity. The girls shared a bedroom growing up and a piece of string was placed in the middle of the room to demarcate the zones. Jessica (known to her intimates as Decca) adorned her side with Communist memorabilia: ‘hammer and sickle’, books and journals, and even a bust of Lenin, whilst Unity chose the swastika and other fascist paraphernalia to decorate her side.
Decca knew from an early age that she would need to escape the confines of her family to truly assert her independence, and had the foresight in late childhood to open a bank account, which she referred to as her “running away” account. Aged 19, flush with funds from this account, Decca eloped with Esmond Romilly, her second cousin and Churchill’s ‘red’ nephew.
This caused a family rift that was never healed, Decca never saw her father again. ‘Farv’ had cut all ties, disowned her, and even refused to see her on his deathbed in 1958. Tragically, this hasty marriage was short-lived, with Esmond being killed in action in 1941.
Decca emigrated to the United States (later marrying progressive Jewish lawyer Robert Treuhaft) and enjoyed an extremely successful career as an investigative writer. Her best known books include The American Way of Death – a scathing indictment of the funeral industry – and The Gentle Art of Muckraking. Decca’s autobiography Hons and Rebels is a homage to her early life and family upbringing.
The youngest sister, Deborah, known as ‘Debo’ (1920 – 2014), was similar to her elder sister, Pamela, and more focused on home life. But that’s not to say Debo did not have an interesting life – she also accompanied her sister Unity to tea with Hitler in 1937, was painted by Lucian Freud, knew the Kennedy’s, and amassed a collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia.
Debo married Andrew Cavendish when they were both aged 21. He was a second son but after the death of his brother in 1941, he became the 11th Duke of Devonshire. Debo was given the nickname the “housewife duchess” because she was instrumental in making Chatswood in Derbyshire one of the most successful and profitable stately homes in England. Perhaps drawing on the practical housekeeping skills instilled from her ‘eccentric’ childhood, Debo relished the role of running the house and its garden, as well as managing the estate’s farm shop.
And in the tradition of some of her older sisters, she was also an author. Debo penned a number of books, including the autobiographical Wait for Me: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister, which was published in 2010.
The Mitford sisters are described, variously, as: famous, notorious, talented, glamorous, turbulent, unpredictable, celebrated, infamous, rebellious, colourful, idiosyncratic, and original. I could not help but be dazzled (and sometimes stunned) by the Mitford chic – the sheer audacity of these willowy, gorgeous girls, born to high ranks of society, who threw themselves into their destinies with such determined ferocity. This sense of fiery destiny turned them into either monsters or great artists.