Meet The Mitfords

Last week, I was at the library and noticed a new book about Nancy Mitford, this one about her relationship with French politician and diplomat, Gaston Palewski. I opened the book to a random page and not only recognised the anecdote being related, but knew at once where the quotes had come from. At that moment, I realised I’d read far too many books about the Mitfords and didn’t need to read another one. But then I considered that perhaps readers of this blog might be interested in some of the Mitford-related books I’ve read. Hence this post.

The Mitfords were what Wikipedia1 accurately calls “a minor aristocratic English family”. None of the famous Mitford sisters, with the possible exception of Jessica, ever had any effect whatsoever on political events or world history. They are mostly remembered because they were rich, good-looking, opinionated aristocrats who knew a lot of famous and influential people during a fascinating period of history. More importantly, they were writers, so we have detailed records of their thoughts, observations and jokes. But I ought to introduce the Mitford siblings properly, so here they are:

'The Pursuit of Love' and 'Love in a Cold Climate' by Nancy Mitford1. Nancy (1904 – 1973) was the author of the wonderful comic novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, as well as several other novels and biographies, and numerous essays and newspaper articles. She was unhappily married to Peter Rodd, but the love of her life was Gaston Palewski and she moved to France to be with him after the Second World War. There are several published collections of her letters, including The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, edited by Charlotte Mosley. Life in A Cold Climate by Laura Thompson is a fairly good biography of Nancy, provided you can cope with the biographer’s prose style (sample sentence: “Yet there is a quality to her voice, as she lingers on their paradisiacal images, that reveals what was always there, and what constitutes so great a part of her appeal: the yearning soul within the sophisticate’s carapace: the imagination that can take illusion and make it into something real.” Oh, how Laura Thompson loves colons! And also, hates feminists. But then, so did Nancy.)

2. Pamela (1907 – 1994) was married to physicist and RAF pilot Derek Jackson, but she divorced him to spend the rest of her life with female ‘companions’. Not that you’ll ever hear a Mitford sister using the word ‘lesbian’ to describe Pamela. Pamela seemed the most sensible and practical of the sisters, and enjoyed breeding poultry and cooking elaborate meals.

3. Thomas (1909 – 1945) was the only boy and the heir to the title, and seems to have been adored by everyone. At school (Eton, naturally), he was the lover of Hamish St Clair-Erskine (to whom Nancy was once, disastrously, engaged) and James Lees-Milne, although Tom seemed to have preferred women in later life. He joined the British army and was killed in Burma during the war, having refused to fight against the Nazis in Germany.

'Diana Mosley' by Anne de Courcy4. Diana (1910 – 2003) was the beauty of the family. She married Bryan Guinness at the age of eighteen, but dumped him when she fell in love with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. She married Mosley in Berlin in 1936, at a ceremony at which Adolf Hitler was the guest of honour, then she and Mosley were imprisoned without trial in Britain for several years during the war. After the war, she supported Mosley’s various unsuccessful attempts to re-enter politics and they hung out with other rich Fascists. Anne de Courcy’s biography, Diana Mosley, provides a good account of Diana’s life, although it’s a rather biased one (“I came to love Diana Mosley,” gushes the biographer in her introduction, while also describing Diana, despite all the evidence to the contrary, as “the cleverest of the six Mitford sisters”). Diana also wrote a self-serving autobiography, A Life of Contrasts, which is interesting due to the sheer, gobsmacking awfulness of her opinions. Hitler, according to Diana, was a lovely man and the Holocaust wasn’t his fault at all. No, it was due to “World Jewry” and their “virulent attacks upon all things German and their insistent calls for trade boycotts, military encirclement and even war”. Also, the number of Holocaust victims was exaggerated, and anyway, Stalin and Mao killed far more people. She also spends a lot of time boasting about her social life (“At Mona Bismarck’s Paris Christmas dinner parties, I was always put next to the Duke [of Windsor]”) and going on about Mosley’s “brilliance”, and, with an apparent lack of irony, writes of her enemies, “This is typical of many people who reject truth in even the most trivial matters if it conflicts with a prejudice”.

5. Unity (1914 – 1948) was the one who was obsessed with Hitler and shot herself in the head when war broke out. A lot of her attention-seeking behaviour seems to have been due to a childish desire to shock people, but she was in her twenties when she met Hitler, surely old enough to know better. Was she emotionally or intellectually immature, or simply caught up in the political excitement of the 1930s? Her biography, Unity Mitford: A Quest, by David Pryce-Jones, doesn’t really help to answer this question. The biographer has clearly done a lot of research, interviewing more than two hundred of her acquaintances, but the result is a very dull and disorganised account of her life, with little attempt at analysis. I really can’t recommend this book (unless, of course, you happen to be writing a novel that includes Unity as a character).

6. Jessica (1917 – 1996) ran away as a teenager to the Spanish Civil War with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s Communist nephew. A lot of very sad things happened in her personal life – her baby daughter died of measles, Esmond was killed in action during the war, her elder son died at the age of ten – but these are all glossed over in her memoir, Hons and Rebels, because Mitfords were brought up to put on a brave face in public. Jessica married Robert Treuhaft in 1943, and the two of them were active members of the American Communist Party and passionate civil rights campaigners. Jessica also wrote a number of books based on her investigative journalism, including exposés of the American funeral industry and prison system. Bonus fact: J. K. Rowling so admired Jessica Mitford that she named her daughter after Jessica.

7. Deborah (1920 – ) married Andrew Cavendish, who became the Duke of Devonshire, and then she turned Chatsworth, the Devonshire family home, into a thriving business and tourist attraction. She also had terrible things happen in her life – three of her children died at birth, and her husband turned out to be a philandering alcoholic – but as Charlotte Mosley observed, Deborah was a Mitford, and therefore used to hiding her “vulnerability behind a lightly worn armour of flippancy and self-deprecation”. Deborah is usually portrayed as the apolitical Mitford, but is a proud Tory, was close to Diana, and “adored” Mosley. She has written several books about Chatsworth and her life, the most recent of which is Wait For Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister.

'The Mitford Girls' by Mary S. LovellThere have also been a number of books about the whole Mitford family. I think the best, most balanced, family history is The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell, although it’s been a while since I read it. There’s also The House of Mitford, by Jonathan Guinness with Catherine Guinness, or, as Hermione Granger would call it, A Highly Biased and Selective History of the Mitfords. The authors are Diana’s son and grand-daughter, so Diana is portrayed as a saint and Jessica as the devil incarnate. It also starts with a very long and boring section about the Mitford sisters’ ancestors. Still, it includes a lot of fascinating family photos that you won’t find in other books. However, my favourite Mitford-related book would have to be The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley. Yes, she’s Diana’s daughter-in-law and she seems to have done some very selective editing when it comes to Diana’s letters from the 1930s, but she has also done an excellent job of writing introductions and explanatory footnotes (which is vital, when the letter writers use as many nicknames as the Mitfords do) and of arranging all the correspondence in a way that makes sense. To quote J.K. Rowling again, “The story of the extraordinary Mitford sisters has never been told as well as they tell it themselves”.

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  1. Wikipedia once noted in its ‘Mitfords in Popular Culture’ section that “Unity Mitford appears as a minor character in the last two books of Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals trilogy”, but this sentence has now disappeared. Wikipedia also fails to mention the most famous popular culture reference to the Mitford sisters – that is, Narcissa, Bellatrix and Andromeda Black in the Harry Potter books, who bear a strong resemblance to Diana, Unity and Jessica Mitford.

18 thoughts on “Meet The Mitfords”

  1. I’ve always found the Mitford sisters fascinating and enjoyed Nancy’s books but I hadn’t realised the Harry Potter link before. Thank-you for pointing it out, it makes a lot of sense – and made me laugh!

    1. I love how layered the Harry Potter books are, with all those references to history and mythology! Mind you, I don’t think Unity was quite as violently insane as Bellatrix.

      1. It must be time for me to reread Harry Potter again! I love that each time I read them, there’s something new to discover, no matter how well I feel I know the story. My mum is fascinated by the Mitfords and has read numerous books about them, and she has also read Harry Potter and the Montmaray Journals, so I can’t wait to point out this link to her!

    2. I hadn’t realised the link either: thanks for pointing it out to me!

      The Mitford sisters were certainly interesting, and there’s an awful lot of information out there about their lives. I visited Chatsworth when I went to England last year and there’s whole piles of books about all of them! (Chatsworth is a beautiful house and gardens and very interesting to visit, although filled with furniture from different periods all mixed together).

      1. I never really understood the cult of the Mitfords but recently read Jessica’s memoir Hons And Rebels and, understated as it is, some of the fascination of this clan came through. As you say there is a lot of sadness in her memoir and perhaps the saddest is the rupture with the (utterly impossible) Unity who was clearly her favourite sister. The puzzle of how someone so gifted and human ( I suppose we have to take Jessica’s word for Unity having these qualities) could behave so unforgivably – writing in Streicher’s horrible rag about how she was proud to be a Jew-hater and many other instances- is troubling. Anyway, I did like her book and will try and look up the Lovell book. Thanks for the very interesting post.

        1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and I’m glad you found the post interesting. Actually, a lot of Diana’s behaviour was just as horrible as Unity’s – for example, she said Streicher amused her very much. But somehow, Diana managed to avoid much of the disapproval directed at Unity before the war, perhaps because Diana was prettier, richer and had better social skills. They’re both a puzzle, aren’t they? Hope you like the Lovell book.

          1. Diana did not avoid the disapproval directed at Unity. She was a social pariah after her divorce from Bryan Guinness and she ended up in jail – without charges – after being shopped by her sister Nancy as a potentially dangerous Nazi sympathizer.

            If people continue to be confused in their reactions to Diana, might it not be because she was, in their experience, a lovable woman – who had inexpicably adopted a poisonous ideology and married a man who was at best almost insanely egocentric?

            BTW, it is perfectly possible to be nice, and intelligent, and to hold appalling political opinions and philosophies. If more people understood that, there wouldn’t be so many of them gawping in bewilderment after a tragedy, ‘Oh, but he/she was so charming/nice, I loved him/her! And so brilliant and funny too…’

            1. Thanks for your comment, Lise. Perhaps Diana valued loyalty above truth, justice and compassion? She’d suffered so much due to her belief in Mosley that she couldn’t ever admit he’d been wrong. But I’m not sure it is possible to deny facts about the Holocaust for decades and be classed as ‘intelligent’. Rigid thinking is a sign of bigotry and stunted growth, not intelligence.

              Also, I’m sure Diana was very charming to the tiny select group of human beings she regarded as worthy of her respect, but that doesn’t mean she was ‘nice’. (Then again, Nancy and Jessica didn’t seem particularly ‘nice’, either.)

  2. Thanks for posting this about The Mitfords! I didn’t know much about them, it was really interesting. The Harry Potter link is really cool too! I always thought it was interesting how J.K. Rowling added the Black sisters backstory. It fits that Chatsworth was Pemberly in Pride and Prejudice, it looks beautiful.

  3. I too recently read (started to read) the Nancy Mitford book you mention (The Horror of Love) and had the same reaction: I’d read too much Mitfordiana. In fact I’ve contributed to it with my book “Churchill’s Rebels: Jessica Mitford and Esmond Romilly”, altho in my defence I must point out that the book is at least one-third about Esmond (fascinating character) and, altho there’s the necessary Mitford background, I focus on their short marriage, and end the book with Esmond’s death. I think the collection of Jessica’s letters (ed. by Peter Y Sussman — and endorsed by J K Rowling, as noted above) makes the best biography of her, altho I believe there is a new biog coming out soon. Now I’m writing a PhD thesis on Mitford literature, which makes me a glutton for punishment but means I’m finding some fascinating stuff outside the usual books. (BTW, I found Mary S Lovell’s book too pro-Diana and anti-Jessica.)

    1. Thanks for your comment, Meredith, and your book about Jessica Mitford and Esmond Romilly sounds fascinating (enough to tempt me to set aside my No More Mitford Books vow). Yes, you could be right about the Lovell biography – it’s been ages since I read it.

  4. I see from the comments that this post has stayed “alive” for some time, so I am going to attempt a question. I too have read a number of books about the Mitfords, but I have not found anything that I can remember about whether Diana had any recorded comments about Nancy after she found out in 1983 that Nancy had denounced her to the authorities at the start of the war. Are you aware of any of her published reactions?

  5. That’s an interesting question, Susan. I had a quick look in Anne de Courcy’s biography and the Guinness book about the family and couldn’t find anything, but in Charlotte Mosley’s collection of letters, she does say:

    “Diana did not learn of Nancy’s last act of disloyalty until 1983, ten years after her death. Had she known, it is likely that she would have cut Nancy out of her life for ever. Even if she had wanted to keep up some kind of communication with her, it is certain that Mosley would have forbidden it […] the correspondence between [Diana and Nancy] resumed [in 1943]. This was in spite of Nancy having once again performed her patriotic duty by going to the authorities when the Mosleys’ release was announced and volunteering that in her opinion Diana should not be let out of prison because she ‘sincerely desires the downfall of England and of democracy generally.’ Diana was never to know of this second betrayal as the government papers in which it was recorded were not made public until four months after her death.”

    I looked in the (published) letters Diana wrote to Deborah, but other than comments from both of them about Nancy’s general treachery, there doesn’t seem to be any specific reaction in 1983. At the time, Diana was mourning the death of her husband and feuding with her stepson about his Mosley biography, so perhaps she didn’t have enough energy at that stage to care about Nancy’s long-ago actions? She may even have been forgiving about it – she wrote to Deborah in 1980 about Nancy’s “falseness” and sneakiness but also said, “Of course we know it was all part of her unhappy life & I don’t blame at all”.

  6. Michelle,
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply! I hadn’t thought about the timing, so your reasoning was enlightening.

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