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.

Love In A Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

'Love in a Cold Climate' by Nancy MitfordI love this book. It’s a masterpiece of social comedy and it deserves to be more widely read, so that’s why I’ve decided to rave about it today. Imagine Pride and Prejudice set in the 1930s, and you’ll have some idea of the plot. Not that it’s really about the plot – which, for the record, involves posh English girls attempting to find suitable husbands. The real joy of this novel lies in the characters, particularly Lady Montdore, the wildly ambitious mother of beautiful Polly, who is ‘destined for an exceptional marriage’. Lady Montdore is a monster – self-centred, snobbish, bossy, greedy, completely deluded as to her value in the world – but she’s a very entertaining monster. She provides the author with numerous opportunities to send up the English aristocracy, as in this scene, when Lady Montdore berates our poor narrator, Fanny, the wife of a professor:

“‘You know, Fanny,’ she went on, ‘it’s all very well for funny little people like you to read books the whole time, you only have yourselves to consider, whereas Montdore and I are public servants in a way, we have something to live up to, tradition and so on, duties to perform, you know, it’s a very different matter . . . It’s a hard life, make no mistake about that, hard and tiring, but occasionally we have our reward – when people get a chance to show how they worship us, for instance, when we came back from India and the dear villagers pulled our motor car up the drive. Really touching! Now all you intellectual people never have moments like that.'”

Of course, things don’t go to plan, and Polly rebels in a manner calculated to drive her mother mad. This sets the scene for the introduction of another wonderful character, Cedric, the heir to the Montdore fortune. It was unusual enough in 1949 (the year the book was first published) for a novel to mention homosexuality, but it was revolutionary to have a happy and openly gay character who charms nearly everyone he meets. He even manages to dazzle the Boreleys, a family notorious for its intolerance:

“‘Well, so then Norma was full of you, just now, when I met her out shopping, because it seems you travelled down from London with her brother Jock yesterday, and now he can literally think of nothing else.’

‘Oh, how exciting. How did he know it was me?’

‘Lots of ways. The goggles, the piping, your name on your luggage. There is nothing anonymous about you, Cedric . . . He says you gave him hypnotic stares through your glasses.’

‘The thing is, he did have rather a pretty tweed on.’

‘And then, apparently, you made him get your suitcase off the rack at Oxford, saying you are not allowed to lift heavy things.’

‘No, and nor am I. It was very heavy, not a sign of a porter as usual, I might have hurt myself. Anyway, it was all right because he terribly sweetly got it down for me.’

‘Yes, and now he’s simply furious that he did. He says you hypnotised him.’

‘Oh, poor him, I do so know the feeling.'”

Then there are Fanny’s eccentric relatives – her wild Uncle Matthew, vague Aunt Sadie, hypochondriacal stepfather Davey, and exuberant little Radlett cousins – with many of these characters inspired by Nancy Mitford’s real family. In addition, the author provides a wickedly funny look at English politics, fashion, marriage and child rearing.

'The Pursuit of Love' and 'Love in a Cold Climate' by Nancy MitfordLove in a Cold Climate is actually the second book narrated by Fanny. The first, The Pursuit of Love, was published in 1945. I hesitate to call it a prequel, because that would suggest you need to read it first, and I don’t think you do. It stretches over a longer time period, and is mostly the story of Fanny’s cousin and best friend, Linda (Lady Montdore, Polly and Cedric don’t make an appearance in this one, unfortunately). Some readers prefer this first book to the second, but I think it really depends on whether you regard Linda as a tragic romantic heroine or a spoiled, self-centred brat. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m in the latter camp (I really can’t forgive Linda’s treatment of her hapless daughter). I also think this book ends too abruptly – as though the author suddenly got tired of typing. However, there’s a lot of enjoyment in the descriptions of the Radlett family, so if you adore Love in a Cold Climate, you’ll probably like The Pursuit of Love as well. There’s also a BBC television series based on both books, but I haven’t seen it (and it doesn’t appear to be available in Australia).

I’ve previously written about one of Nancy Mitford’s earlier novels, Wigs on the Green (1935), which is interesting for historical and political reasons, but doesn’t have much literary merit. I cannot recommend The Blessing (1951) at all, because it’s awful. However, it and Don’t Tell Alfred (1960) have recently been re-released with lovely illustrated covers.

'Noblesse Oblige' edited by Nancy MitfordI can recommend Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy, a biased but very entertaining collection of essays and cartoons about ‘Upper-Class English Usage’, edited by Nancy Mitford and including contributions from Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman. Laura Thompson has also written a biography of Nancy Mitford called Life in a Cold Climate, which discusses all her books and the influences for her novels.

See also: Meet The Mitfords

More favourite 1930s/1940s British novels:

1. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault