I never met a rabbit hole I didn’t want to go down. I might be considered an expert in the following: Trollope, mid-century food writers, Tudor England, and cheese. I’ve read Wolf Hall at least six times. And I’m not done yet. I also know quite a bit about birds, shoes, flowers, Ancient Rome. I am the very model of a modern major dilettante. I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral. I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical, from Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical! Ask me about Epossies! Or varieties of owls!
But the topic of my longest term fascination, and the one I can’t seem to get rid of is of the Mitford Sisters. They’ve crawled under my skin, and stayed there. I’m obsessed with a family that is not mine at all. A family I’ve never met, and never will, because they’re all dead.
Let’s meet them, shall we?
The Mitford sisters were the six beautiful and brilliant daughters of Baron and Lady Redesdale, all born in the first half of the 20th century. Banish any grandiose thoughts of Downton Abbey from your head; they were part of the ancient landed gentry that had big crumbling houses and absolutely no money. The girls were schooled at home (as girls of their class were in those days) and, at around eighteen years old, taken to London to be presented at court and at a season full of parties in order that they might find suitable husbands. (Queen Elizabeth, perhaps feeling that the time may have run out on these formal court presentations, not to mention placing a high value on her own time, banned them in 1958, effectively killing the season in one swoop. A few hundred young men and women, not to mention their parents, sighed with relief.) Our sisters, so very of this world, also defied it. They had their own secret language, and were beautiful, and funny. Unity liked to carry her pet rat to parties.
But there I go, getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning shall we?
Nancy, my second favorite Mitford, was the oldest, born in 1904. She had a very sharp sense of humor, and found success as an author and newspaper columnist. Part of the Bright Young Things group of artistic socialites, her friends included Evelyn Waugh and John Betjemen. Nancy can be considered “the way in” to the Mitfords, as her gentle parody of her family’s eccentricities in her books led to the initial public scrutiny of the family. Who doesn’t want to know more about a family that puts on a “child hunt”? Indeed, Love in a Cold Climate is the second best novel ever about pedophilia, and I mean that in the best way. It and The Pursuit of Love are just so good, and juicy, and full of fashion and wit. Lady Montdore has one of the great makeovers in literary history, and Linda shopping in Paris is divine, but I won’t say more than that.
Next, came Pamela, who was the most “rural” and quiet of the sisters. She wasn’t an avid writer or public rabble-rouser like her sisters, preferring the rural life. This does not mean she wasn’t interesting. After a rocky marriage to a “bisexual millionaire physicist”, Derek Jackson, she found happiness with a woman for most of her life. She stayed out of the press, focusing on her loves of farming and horses.
Diana was third, born in 1910, and is quite her own kettle of fish, as they say. Considered not just the most beautiful of the sisters, but one of the great beauties of her age, Diana made a sensation when she arrived to debut in London in 1928. She and Bryan Guinness, a handsome, charming young man, who happened to be the heir to the Guinness Brewing fortune, soon fell in love and in 1929, were married. This sounds easy. It was not. Her parents felt he was too rich and that they were both too young. For nearly a year she moped in her room. Finally, she convinced them to let them marry, and for a few splendid years, they were at the heart of glittering society, and had two children. Then, in 1932, she was seated next to Sir Oswald Mosley at a party. Mosley, a former MP, was the head of the newly formed British Union of Fascists, and married to Lady Cynthia Curzon. Spouses aside, Mosley and Mitford had an immediate attraction, began an affair, and she left Guinness for Mosley, not long after. This was a huge scandal, of course. After Lady Curzon’s sudden death, in 1933, they quietly married at the home of Joseph Goebbels in Germany. Hitler was a guest and gave the happy couple a framed picture of himself as a wedding gift. It doesn’t get prettier from there. She was sent to prison in England at the outbreak of World War Two without due process for most of the war, rather cruelly, as she had just given birth to a son with Mosley. But then again, she was an unrepentant Nazi for the rest of her life. If you want a chill down your spine, you can find her interview on Desert Island Disks, recorded late in her life. In it, she essentially denies the Holocaust. My least favorite sister.
Next in line is Unity, born in 1914. Her full name defies belief, especially when you learn about her life; Unity Valkyrie Freeman-Mitford, aptly conceived in Swastika, Ontario, Canada. In childhood, she and her sister Jessica were very close. The sisters all had a secret language, but Unity and Jessica had their own, which was just theirs. At a certain point, in their teens, they both became interested in politics. Jessica became an avowed communist, and Unity took the fascist side, mostly it seemed to jab at Jessica (called Decca by her family). Once Diana took up with Mosley, she was close to the inner sanctum of English Fascists, and threw herself into it. By the time Unity came out in society, in London, in 1932, she was very strange (see aforementioned rat) and very into Hitler. She soon convinced her parents she should go and study in Germany- the other girls had gone to France. Though her father, who had been badly injured in the Boer war and went on to fight in WWI, loathed “the Huns” as a rule, they agreed. Her “crush” on Hitler blossomed into an obsession. Once in Berlin, she would station herself at a table at Hitler’s favorite cafe, hoping to see him. Finally, he noticed her, and asked who she was. Thrilled she was an aristocratic English girl, he invited her to his table. They developed a friendship, that may have been a bit of a flirtation. Diana came to visit, along their mother, and they attended Nazi rallies, thinking it was all great fun. But the ending is tragic (though not as tragic as the six million who were murdered in camps, lest we forget). When England declared war on Germany, in September of 1939, Unity shot herself in the head. She survived, and Hitler allowed her to be transported back to England for care, across enemy lines. She remained brain damaged and in the care of her mother for the rest of her life.
Now for Jessica, called Decca. She is the “One On The Right Side Of History”. For much of her childhood, she had a “running away fund”, saving all her money so that she might, self explanatorily, run away some day. Everyone kind of laughed at her, the way one does with a child, but Decca, as in all things, was in deep earnest (veiled by a very sharp wit). At a house party, when she was nineteen years old, she fell in love with Esmond Romilly, a distant cousin, who was already relatively notorious at the age of twenty. While at boarding school, he’d published anti- fascist literature, eventually running away to fight on the Madrid front in the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, she had heard of him and was very pre-disposed to fall for him. He was home in England recuperating from war-related illness when they met. She soon put her running away fund to use, running away with Romilly to the South of France and then to Spain. Finally, they returned to London, and as they both rejected and were rejected (somewhat) by their families, they lived in very poorly in the East End of London. They lost an infant daughter to a measles epidemic in 1938. Needing a change of scenery, they left for America, and became friends with Kay Graham, later famous as the publisher of the Washington Post, and then went to Miami, where they ran a bar. They had another daughter, in early 1941. Esmond, ever brave, volunteered for Canada’s Royal Air Force, and later that year, he was killed in action. Jessica was alone, with a baby in the US. And there she stayed.
As her sisters became more entrenched in fascism in the late 1930s, Jessica rejected Diana completely and forever, though she couldn’t bring herself to cut off Unity, especially after the shooting. In 1943, she met a lawyer, Robert Treuhaft, who besides being smart and interesting, was Jewish. They married and had two children, living in Oakland, CA. She began a career as a writer; her passion for social justice grew and grew, as she did. She called out injustice and fought for civil rights. Her muckraking classic, The American Way of Death, was a blistering indictment of the funeral business. She refused to name names when called to testify to the McCarthy committee. She went to report on a Klan rally in Alabama, and ended up barricaded inside a church with Martin Luther King, Jr. Late in her life, her sister Diana, called her boring, but she was anything but. Sour grapes, that. If you think about how far it was for a girl, barely educated by uneducated nannies and governesses, who was submerged in the prejudices of her class and time- not to mention her own close family (she worshiped Diana as a child)- to choose the life she chose and to loudly stand up for what was right… it’s wonderful. And to do it with such gimlet eyed wit never gets old to me. Hons and Rebels, her memoir, is as amusing, sharp, and sad an autobiography as any you can hope to dig into.
But wait, let me not forget Deborah, the youngest of the sisters. She was mocked by her sisters for being rather simple and was famous for her impression of a chicken. In 1941, she married Andrew Cavendish, the younger son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, one of the oldest landed families in England. In 1950, she became the 11th Duchess of Devonshire. She devoted her life to the family’s estate at Chatsworth. It turned out she was a brilliant businesswoman, and not only restored the estate, but also created jobs and turned it into both a going concern and a very modern brand. She died not very long ago, in 2014. Her memoir is charmingly titled “Wait for Me!”
I realize none of this very much explains my fascination with them. Of course there is the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction-you-can’t-make-this-up nature of their stories, and how one family was so completely caught up in world affairs, which rendered them apart. That’s the cinema of the sisters. But also, Nancy, Jessica, and Deborah represent so many things I dream of but am not myself. I mean, obviously, I’ll never be a duchess and doyenne of an 126 room estate. The furthest I’ve ever lived from New York was in Madison, WI for college, and London, for my junior semester abroad. The biggest risk I can recall ever taking is telling Jerry Mishkin I had a massive crush on him in the eleventh grade. (No, it wasn’t reciprocated.) I once ran away… to the end of my driveway on a snowy night. I was soon back upstairs, tucked safely in my bed. But it would be a dream to write with as much wit, glamour and spirit as they do. I’m still working on that one. And while I do, I can always read them for inspiration. Say “brush”!
(Photo of Deborah Mitford Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth by Bruce Weber)