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.

‘Dated’ Books, Part One: Wigs on the Green

Some time ago, a fellow Australian writer described one of my books as ‘dated’ (in fact, she stated in her blog that she was going to re-read that particular book so she could learn how NOT to write a novel). ‘Dated’ was an interesting word to use, and I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant by it. If a book was deliberately set in the past, wasn’t it a good thing that the story was ‘of its time’ (assuming that’s what the writer meant by ‘dated’)? Shouldn’t a book set in a particular time show what those people thought and read and did? How could it be a bad thing for a book about the past to reflect the attitudes of the period?

Wigs on the Green by Nancy MitfordWell, I’m still not sure about the writer’s comments and that particular book of mine. However, I’ve recently read a couple of books that even the authors felt had ‘dated’ badly – and I think I agree with the authors. The first book is Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford, written in 1935. She wasn’t famous then, and the book attracted lukewarm reviews and modest sales. It wasn’t until the enormous success of The Pursuit of Love in 1945 that anyone became interested in re-releasing Wigs on the Green. But Nancy Mitford refused to allow re-publication. The world had changed and the book was now in “the worst of taste”, she wrote to her friend Evelyn Waugh. Nearly forty years after her death, a new edition of the book, with an introduction by Charlotte Mosley, has just been published, and it’s fascinating – in an awful sort of way.

Wigs on the Green is a satire about Fascism, written back in the days when Hitler was still a funny little man with a silly moustache, and Mussolini was much admired for making Italian trains run on time. The novel is set in a peaceful English village, and the main character, Eugenia Malmains, bears a close resemblance to Nancy Mitford’s sister, Unity. Eugenia makes impassioned speeches on an overturned wash-tub on the village green, forces the villagers to join her beloved ‘Union Jackshirt’ movement, and eventually organises a ‘Social Unionist’ pageant that turns violent after her supporters are viciously attacked by local ‘Pacifists’. The other characters seem to have escaped from a P G Wodehouse novel. There’s a weak-willed young man whose aunt has left him a small fortune, his caddish friend, a snobby (and stupid) girl fleeing her engagement to a duke, an ambitious (and stupid) society hostess, and a couple of dotty old aristocrats. Compared to these people, Eugenia is, at least, sincere and hard-working. Perhaps it was this ambivalence, this refusal to condemn Eugenia outright, that Nancy Mitford was worried about? On the other hand, Mitford gives Eugenia plenty of mad speeches, outlining the ridiculous policies of the Fascists. Here’s Eugenia, for example, giving some relationship advice to her cousin:

“She turned to Poppy and said, ‘If your husband is an Aryan you should be able to persuade him that it is right to live together and breed; if he is a filthy non-Aryan it may be your duty to leave him and marry Jackshirt Aspect. I am not sure about this, we want no immorality in the Movement …'”

This is after Eugenia has explained to Poppy and her potential husband, Jasper, that:

“‘A non-Aryan is the missing link between man and beast. That can be proved by the fact that no animals, except the Baltic goose, have blue eyes.’
‘How about Siamese cats?’ said Jasper.
‘That’s true. But Siamese cats possess, to a notable degree, the Nordic virtue of faithfulness.'”

Clearly, the author is making fun of Fascist ideology, but what was funny in 1935 is not so funny now, after the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

There were also personal reasons why the author might have wanted to pretend the book had never existed. Its initial publication led to a rift between Nancy and her sister Diana, who married Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. Diana spent much of the war in prison (Nancy’s own testimony helped put Diana there), and Unity shot herself in the head when war was declared. Fascism tore the Mitford family apart, so it’s not surprising that Nancy Mitford might have become reluctant to laugh at her own jokes about it.

Well, whatever the author’s motivation for not wanting the book re-published, Penguin has now released it (as well as four other Mitford novels) with a very nice illustrated cover. Yes, it’s ‘dated’. Apart from the Fascist jokes, there’s racism (people from Uruguay being called ‘fuzzy wuzzies’, et cetera), as well as blatant misogyny. The plot is predictable, and most of the characters are boring and unlikeable. If you haven’t read any of Nancy Mitford’s writing and want to try some, please don’t start with this book (I recommend Love in a Cold Climate). However, if you’re a Mitford fan, you might find this one really interesting – because, rather than in spite of, its ‘datedness’.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence