The Mitford family is a minor aristocratic English family whose main family line had seats at Mitford, Northumberland. Several heads of the family served as High Sheriff of Northumberland. A junior line, with seats at
Northumberland, and Exbury House, Hampshire, descends via the historian William
Mitford (1744–1827) and were twice elevated to the British peerage, in 1802 and
1902, under the title Baron Redesdale. The Mitford sisters are William
Mitford's great-great-great-granddaughters. Newton Park
The sisters, six daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, and Sydney Bowles, became celebrated, and at times scandalous, figures that were caricatured, according to The Times journalist Ben Macintyre, as "Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur"
The family traces its origins in Northumberland back to the time of the Norman conquest. In the Middle Ages they had been Border Reivers based in Redesdale. The main family line had seats at
and Mitford Old Manor House prior
to Mitford Hall in 1828. Mitford Castle
The sisters achieved notoriety for their controversial but stylish lives as young people, then for their public political divisions between communism and fascism. Nancy and Jessica became well-known writers: Nancy the author of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate and Jessica 1963's The American Way of Death. Deborah managed one of the most successful stately homes in
, Chatsworth. Jessica and
Deborah married nephews-by-marriage of prime ministers Winston Churchill and
Harold Macmillan, respectively. Deborah and Diana both married wealthy
aristocrats. Unity and Diana were well-known during the 1930s for being close
to Adolf Hitler. In the early 1980s, Deborah became politically active when she
and her husband Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire joined the new Social
Democratic Party. England
The children of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, known to his children as "Farve" and various other nicknames, their mother was Sydney Freeman-Mitford, Baroness Redesdale, known as "Muv", the daughter of Thomas Bowles. David and Sydney married in 1904. The family homes changed from Batsford House to Asthall Manor beside the River Windrush in Oxfordshire, and then Swinbrook Cottage nearby, with a house at Rutland Gate in
They also lived in a cottage in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire which they used
as a summer residence. London
The sisters and their brother Thomas grew up in an aristocratic country house with emotionally distant parents and a large household with numerous servants; this family dynamic was not unusual for upper-class families of the time. There was also a disregard for formal education of women of the family, and they were expected to marry at a young age to a financially well-off husband. The children had a private language called "Boudledidge" (pronounced 'bowdledidge'), and each had a different nickname for the others. Their parents were described as "nature's fascists". At least two of their daughters followed in their footsteps; one turned her back on her inherited privileges, ran away to become a communist, a result of the excitement of European politics in the 1930s. Jessica's memoir Hons and Rebels describes their upbringing, and
obviously drew upon
her family members for characters in her novels. Nancy
Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, their political views came into sharper relief. "Farve" remained a conservative, but "Muv" usually supported her fascist daughters, and they separated in the late 1940s. Nancy, a moderate socialist, worked in
during the Blitz.
Pamela remained seemingly non-political, although reportedly a rabid
anti-Semite.Tom, a fascist, refused to fight London but volunteered to fight
against Imperial Japan. He was killed in action a short time after arriving in Germany Asia. Diana, married to Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the
British Union of Fascists, was imprisoned in for three years under Defence
Regulation 18B. Unity, distraught over the war declaration against London , tried
to commit suicide by shooting herself in the head. She suffered brain damage
which eventually led to her early death. Jessica, a communist supporter, had
moved to the Germany US, but her
husband Esmond Romilly volunteered for the RCAF and died when his bomber
developed mechanical problems over the North Sea.
In numerous letters Jessica stated that her daughter received a pension from
the Canadian government from Esmond's death until she turned 18. The political
rift between Jessica and Diana left them estranged until their deaths. The
other sisters kept in frequent contact.
|The Mitford sisters - Unity, Diana and Nancy Unity Mitford; Diana Mitford (Mrs Bryan Guinness, later Lady Diana Mosley) and writer Nancy Mitford. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images|
There is more to the Mitfords than Hitler and the high life
Friends mock my fascination with the family as a ‘posh crush’, but Debo and her sisters showed women what was possible
The Guardian, Friday 26 / http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/26/more-to-mitfords-than-hitler-and-high-life
As I write this, my desk is stacked high with remnants of “the Mitford industry”, as Decca Mitford referred to it with scorn. I have been collecting them since I was a teenager, the way football fans collect programmes, and with news this week that Deborah (or Debo, as she was nicknamed by her nickname-loving family) Mitford, the youngest and last surviving member of the family had died, I’ve been rereading them all.
There are the biographies and collected letters, starting with my personal favourite, Mary S Lovell’s The Mitford Girls, as well as those written and edited by the family’s friends and relatives, some with predictably glamorous surnames (Waugh, Guinness); some with predictably ominous ones (Mosley). But most of all, there are the books by the women themselves: Decca Mitford’s autobiography, Hons and Rebels; Diana Mitford’s A Life of Contrasts; Deborah Mitford’s titled, charmingly, Wait for Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister; and Nancy Mitford’s glittering novels, From Highland Fling to Don’t Tell Alfred, via The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.
So yes, I am one of those people who loves both to read about the Mitfords and to read the Mitfords. This is probably a hopelessly non-U habit of mine, but being a hopelessly middle-class American, everything about me is non-U. But I hadn’t realised until relatively late in my obsession how other fellow non-U-ers frowned on it too. “You’ve got a posh crush, I see,” one journalist sniffed at me, on spotting a Mitford book sticking out of my bag.
DJ Taylor summed up the Mitfords as “witty remarks and textbook flippancy [underpinned by] an absolute and obdurate self-belief”. In a review of a collection of letters between the sisters, Andrew O’Hagan, one of the best critics and writers living, described their style as mere “posh aesthetic”: “The posh aesthetic appeals to people who want life’s profundities to scatter on the wind like handfuls of confetti,” he wrote in the London Review of Books. Liking the Mitfords, I realised, was seen as something girlish, shallow and immature, like having an over-developed fondness for ponies, or wanting to be a ballerina. And this, in all honesty, amazed me, and still does.
The Mitfords were posh: of that there is no doubt. Their parents, David and Sydney Freeman-Mitford, were Lord and Lady Redesdale, rich in land but not in cash, and when it comes to English aristocracy, you can’t get more posh than that. To read the names that run like beads through the sisters’ biographies is like reciting a rosary of the early 20th-century British upper class: Curzon, Cooper, Churchill, Cunard, Strachey, Beaton. This is part of what
describes as the
“Mitford chic”, and it is how they’ve long been packaged and sold. Taylor
Their particular brand of upper class snobbery is now so anachronistic it’s simply amusing: in an obituary this week of Deborah, the writer pointed to a list of the late Duchess of Devonshire’s dislikes, which included but was not limited to “the bits of paper that fall out of magazines; female weather forecasters; the words ‘environment’, ‘conservation’ and ‘leisure’; supercilious assistants at makeup counters; dietary fads; skimmed milk; girls with slouching shoulders and Tony Blair.”
And then there are the Nazis. Of the seven Mitford children – Nancy, Pamela, Tom, Diana, Unity (“Bobo”), Decca and Debo – most had met Hitler and one, Unity, had an intensely close relationship with him and signed off her letters, in classic Mitford style, “Heil Hitler! Love, Bobo”. Unity is probably the ultimate example of nominative determinism, having been conceived in Swastika,
, and given the
middle name Valkyrie at birth. Diana fell passionately in love with Oswald
Mosley and the two married in Goebbels’ drawing room, with Hitler as a guest.
At the other end of the scale, Decca ran away as soon as she could and became a
committed communist. Ontario
As a middle-class American – and Jewish, to boot – I should be repulsed by the Mitfords. That I’m not is because they collectively represent something much greater than their (fascinating) biographical details. For a while I thought it might be “posh-crushing”, and so read books about other aristocratic families. I couldn’t finish a single one, they were all utterly deadly.
It astounds me that anyone could dismiss the Mitford mentality as simply a “posh aesthetic”, because their writing is so much more layered than that. Yes,
’s two most famous
novels are witty, but they are underpinned by great hooks of self-awareness and
sadness that snag on the lightness. “Keeping up a good shop-front” was the aim
in the face of the enormous personal tragedies suffered by the whole family. Nancy
Nancy wrote The Pursuit of Love at the height of
her love affair with Gaston Palewski, even she couldn’t envisage a happy ending
for them and killed her alter ego, Linda (but in classic fashion, she also killed Linda’s lover
too.) And she was right: Palewski would eventually devastate her by marrying
someone else, and she died soon after. One can only maintain the shop-front for
so long. Nancy
But the Mitfords represent more than glamour and tragedy. To me, and I suspect to a lot of other women (for it is mainly women) whom they fascinate, they remain an exciting reminder of a woman’s ability to shape her own life, for better or worse, uncowed by familial and social expectations and restrictions.
Decca fell out with most of her family due to her political beliefs; David’s heart was broken by Diana’s marriage and Unity’s antics, and his and
’s marriage was eventually destroyed by
the strain of it all. But each of the girls pursued their own wildly different
paths, whatever the personal cost. Sydney
Decca went from being a pampered, uneducated aristocratic child to a fierce civil rights campaigner in the
remained unapologetically devoted to Mosley to the day he died; Nancy lived a somewhat lonely life in , writing novels. How many of us can say
that we pursued such individualistic lives, utterly unshaped by our parents and
unlike our siblings? Paris
If they were all fascists, or novelists, or communists, there would be of no interest. The fascination comes from the unapologetic differences. So it might sound odd to say this about a family spiced with such bitter ingredients as Hitler and loss, but what the Mitford sisters represent is courage and freedom.
Wait for Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister, by Deborah Devonshire
Debo Mitford's story, written aged 90, is a worthy addition to the family oeuvre
The Observer, Sunday 12 September 2010 / http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/sep/12/mitford-debo-deborah-devonshire-nancy-decca
The great thing about loving the Mitfords is that a fresh treat seems to be delivered almost every week. Already this year, we've been blessed with a new edition of Wigs on the Green ,
's long-lost skit on
the dubious politics of her brother-in-law, Oswald Mosley. And now, hard on its
heels comes Debo, the youngest sister, who, at the grand old age of 90, has
written her memoirs. Nancy
Naturally Debo is somewhat at a disadvantage here, given how many have come before her. Nancy and Decca weren't the only writers in the family – Diana (Mosley) also published her memoirs – and I've long since lost track of all the letters and biographies. Can her book really contain anything new? Certainly, it's striking that its author's eccentric childhood, being so familiar, makes up one of the least interesting sections of Wait For Me! But this isn't really the point. You read her for her qualities, not for her revelations.
Of course, the Mitford parents, Lord and Lady Redesdale ("Muv and Farve"), still have the power to charm, even when depicted by one more willing to stick to the facts than
, whose novels made Farve famous. Debo
has the sharp beak of a magpie when it comes to wrenching from memory just the
right anecdote. I like this one. Farve, she writes, would take his coffee to
his study, where he would proceed to drink it cold at regular intervals
throughout the morning: his "suckments", he called this. When a housemaid
was rash enough to empty and wash his cup, he thereafter locked the vessel in
his safe. Nancy
There are also warm portraits of her sisters. As a child, Decca (Jessica) was Debo's favourite, being closest to her in age, though her love for Unity, whose pathetic life caused the whole family so much pain, ran very deep. When, in the book, war breaks out, and Unity, a fascist with a pash for Hitler ("she would be arrested as a stalker today," observes Debo), shoots herself with a mother-of-pearl pistol in a Munich park, her sister's prose, previously lively, falls mechanically flat. You sense that behind the stiff lip, all this still hurts terribly (Unity was thereafter retarded, and liked to dress up as a clergyman). "We knew the bad side," she writes a little later. "We knew she had condoned Nazi cruelty … [but] there was something innocent about Unity, a guileless, childlike simplicity that made her vulnerable and in need of protection." Horrible to have to all but apologise for loving your own sister.
She met Andrew Cavendish, a second son and therefore not, at the time, the heir to a Dukedom and the Chatsworth estate, in 1938, the year she came out: "That was it for me … nothing and nobody else mattered." They married during the war, at the height of the bombing, a time both heady and terrible. Decca's husband, Esmond, had already been killed; Debo's brother, Tom, and Andrew's brother, Billy, died soon after. Diana, meanwhile, whose politics meant she was considered a threat to the nation, was in Holloway Prison. (Debo believes
told the Foreign Office that Diana was "extremely dangerous" because
she was jealous of her.) Nancy
Through it all, however, Debo is the best kind of stoic. It's not only that, like everyone in wartime
learned to cope (when petrol rationing came in, she used an old horse-drawn
milk float to get around). She is in possession of what I can only describe as
a uniquely Mitford-esque sensibility: loving but unsentimental; devoid of
self-pity; unwilling to bore others with her own travails; able to find the
ridiculous in almost anything. I realise, all you Mitford haters, that she was
cushioned by her class, and her husband's wealth. But these qualities –
dismayingly rare in Oprahworld – are, to me, indisputably admirable. No wonder
she has so many friends. Britain
In her memoir, you'll find everyone, from Hitler (he wasn't "like his photos", and his flat, being very brown, was horrible) to Ivor Novello ("What an enchanting bit of beige," he said, on meeting her whippet, Studley). Visitors to Chatsworth, and to the Duke's Irish home, Lismore Castle, include Evelyn Waugh, Hubert de Givenchy and Duncan Grant, though first up is Lucian Freud, enlisted to paint cyclamen on the wall of a Chatsworth bathroom, a task he never completes (he would greet Debo every morning with the words: "I've had a wonderful night taking out everything I did yesterday"). I can't share her enthusiasm for the moaning minnie Prince of Wales, but we all have our blind spots.
Admittedly, the Duchess's work at Chatsworth – its farm shop was her idea – hardly makes for thrilling reading. "My eight-year association with Tarmac came about by chance," is a sentence so crashingly dull, I half wondered if she was being satirical. But there is something cherishable about her enjoyment of her Derbyshire life. Her enthusiasm for the big house, and for all that it brings with it, is generous, and occasionally batty: when Oscar de la Renta comes to stay, she worries he will find mere flowers boring, and creates a table decoration featuring a cockerel (alive) in a glass box.
Above all, though, it is enduring. Since the Duke's death in 2004, she has lived in a nearby village, but her appetite – for friends, for fun, even for work – belongs to someone half her age. This is what stays with you. As she relates the deaths of her sisters – Diana was the last to go, in 2003 – you feel, by rights, that her world should narrow, that she should, by now, be marooned on the survivors' island that is extreme old age. Yet this is emphatically not the case. She misses them. How could she not? But her eyes – always a special shade of blue – seem to me to be as beady, and as full of mischief, as ever.