The Mitford Sisters

Here I give you a whiff of the six Mitford sisters, five of which came to either prominence or notoriety and thus became part of 20th century history:

The parents of the Mitford sisters, David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and his wife Sydney Bowles, were described as handsome, eccentric, cold and remote. The Mitford children (six girls and a boy) grew up in relatively moderate circumstances deep in rural Oxfordshire. The parents didn't believe in education for girls, specifically not in formal schools. Lady Redesdale run a chicken farm, the return of which was duly invested in her daughters' scant education. The children were brought up by a nanny who, as it happens so often in English upper-class families, provided their only stability and warmth. A string of hapless governesses was employed to convey what little knowledge the parents thought girls needed. Contact with other children was very limited because Lord and Lady Redesdale were of the opinion that this might overexcite the girls. According to Jessica Mitford, Lord Redesdale wouldn't receive any "outsiders" such as "Huns", "Frogs", Americans, Africans and any other "foreigners", which included other people's children, most friends of the girls and almost all young men. An exception was made for some (but by no means all) relatives and some choice red-faced and tweed-clad neighbours.

This cruel and eccentric environment was mirrored by the girls from an early age. Merciless bullying among them was rampant, an "art" at which specifically the oldest sister Nancy excelled, a precocious sign of her later whip-lash tongue, for which she became famous as a writer.

The parents split up after more than 35 years of marriage over the crucial question whether Adolf Hitler would be welcome as a son-in-law and whether a German invasion was appreciated or not. Lord Redesdale was against, his wife all for it.

Exasperated, he left her and moved to the tiny Scottish island of Inch Kenneth near Mull, about the only bit of estate that had remained in the family, and from where he returned only after the war.

Nancy and Peter Rodd's wedding.

Nancy (1904 – 1973), the first born, became a celebrated writer, biographer and novelist. No lesser co-brain than Evelyn Waugh called her "an agitator - agitatrix, agitateuse? - of genius".

Her best known novels are the autobiographical The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949). I specifically enjoyed The Blessing (1951), in which the devious child of a broken-down Anglo-French aristocratic marriage plots to prevent a reconciliation between his parents, which convincingly undermines the politically correct belief that children are little innocents who never recognise that their bread is sometimes more thickly buttered on the separation side. Nancy's famous line (I quote from memory): "I like children. Specifically when the cry, because then somebody comes and takes them away" fits this bill perfectly.

She edited the extremely witty and funny Noblesse Oblige (1956), a delightfully eccentric analysis of aristocracy, Englishness and language. Here, she famously helped to originate the famous 'U', or upper-class, and 'non-U' classification of linguistic usage and behaviour, all with an amusing tongue-in-cheek twist.

Nancy 1969.

In private matters she was less successful. In 1933, after a long but doomed engagement to homosexual Scottish aristocrat Hamish St Clair-Erskine, whom, so she erroneously thought, she would be able to lead to and keep on the straight and narrow, she married The Hon. Peter Rodd, the youngest son of the 1st Baron Rennell. The marriage to the cold and self-centred Rodd was not a success. Nancy and Peter Rodd, then separated for many years, divorced in 1958. At the end of WWII, Nancy moved to Paris, partly to be near French soldier and politician Colonel Gaston Palewski (Charles de Gaulle's Chief of Staff), with whom she had had an affair in London during the war. The largely one-sided thing lasted fitfully and ended unhappily when Palewski married somebody else in 1969.

Nancy Mitford died of Leukaemia in 1973.

The second Mitford child was Pamela (1907 – 1994). She was the only one of the sisters to remain in comparative obscurity. A dedicated country- and horsewomen, docile Pamela married a man as unlikely as the research spectroscopist and Oxford professor Derek Jackson. Enormously rich in his own right (he was, for example, a co-owner of the rag The News of the World), he had, among other things, devised the concept of the tin foil strips, which, dropped over the bombing target, rendered the German air raid defences inoperative. However, he served not just behind the scenes but rose to Wing Commander in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel during the war.

Pamela's and Derek's mutual interest had been horses and dogs, which remained the case even after they divorced.

Next was the only boy, Thomas (1909 – 1945). Educated at Eton, Thomas died without issue. He was killed in the war in Burma through the bullet of a Japanese sniper. The title eventually went to Lord Redesdale's brother.

Diana (1910 – 2003) was the third daughter. The opinions whether she or Deborah was the most beautiful of the girls differ. Diana Mitford married Bryan Guinness, scion of the immensely rich aristocratic beer-dynasty and heir to the title of Lord Moyne, when she was 19. When she was 22, she took her two children, left her husband and "nailed (her) colours to the mast" of the heavily married (to Cynthia, daughter of the former Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon) British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, 14 years her senior. Mosley never intended to leave his loyal and long-suffering wife and his idea of two "wives" shocked even the debauched social circles in which he and Diana were moving.

Sir Oswald's wife conveniently died in May 1933 and grief-stricken Oswald promptly embarked on an affair with his youngest sister-in-law, whereupon Diana went to Germany, taking Unity with her. While there, they attended the first Nürnberg party rally and returned again for the second rally the next year. Unity introduced Diana to Hitler in March 1935. They were his guests at the 1935 rally and, in 1936, Hitler provided a Mercedes-Benz to chauffeur Diana to the Berlin Olympic Games.

She continued to be Mosley's public mistress despite his endless affairs with other women.

1935, Diana was divorced from Bryan Guinness, who had pleaded guilty and provided "evidence" of his "adultery", as a man of his class was bound to do. In 1936, Mosley and Diana were married in a clandestine civil ceremony in Berlin, with Hitler and Goebbels attending. They made the marriage publicly known only after their first child was born in 1938.

During WWII, she and Mosley were interned at London's Holloway Prison under, thanks to Winston Churchill, relatively comfortable circumstances, their two small children went to live with Diana's sister Pamela Jackson. 1943, after two years, they were both released on grounds of Sir Oswald's health and placed under house arrest until the end of the war. Diana remained married to Mosley - and a dedicated Nazi - until the end.

She wrote two books of memoirs, A Life of Contrasts (1977), and Loved Ones (1985), as well as a biography of the Duchess of Windsor, whom she had befriended when they were neighbours in post-war Paris where she and Mosley went to live.

Diana Mitford (The Honourable Lady Mosley) died at the age of 93 as one of the many elderly victims of the heat wave that struck Europe in summer 2003 and with which the French had been unable to cope.

Unity (left) and Diana (right), at the September 1937 Nürnberg Nazi Party rally.

The next in line, Unity (1914 – 1948), is, to me, the least interesting, most one-dimensional of the sisters, although she was (and still is) the most notorious one. Plainly obnoxious and fairly dim, she always got her way by sheer disagreeableness and even managed to unnerve her battleaxe of a father by staring him down. Different from her sisters', her eccentricity and obstinacy was not the means to an end or to express creativity, but its own reward. She loved to hurt and to wind people up for hurting's and winding up's sake. It started with releasing her pet rat in ballrooms as a deb and ended with becoming the world's first "polit groupie" to one of the nastiest dictators in history.

Hitler, Unity Mitford and SA Obergruppenfuhrer Franz von Pfeffer, Bayreuth, 1936.

At almost six foot, she was impressive at best, frightening at worst. (The accounts of her attractiveness differ considerably.) One of the girls who did the season with her described her as "cold because she'd never known love", but then, that would have applied to her sisters as well.

Unity's season had, not too surprisingly, ended without an engagement in sight and, bored, she did exactly what her parents had told her not to do, namely to see her ostracised sister Diana. There she met Oswald Mosley and fell for him and his cause hook, line and sinker and when she expressed the wish to learn German, her unsuspecting parents, delighted and relieved that the notoriously useless Unity had finally expressed interest in something, let her travel to Munich. That was in 1933 and the rest is history.

She pursued Hitler and followed him like a dog until he finally took notice of her. Hitler, ever the petty-bourgeois, adored the fact that a girl from an English upper-class family should fancy him and indulged her and her every whim, together with, but not limited to, the gift of a lovely flat in Munich (char included) out of which a Jewish family had been thrown. Hitler's entourage unanimously hated her, her insolence and airs and graces and her potential influence. A telling of information informs us that she had to be admonished by an older woman friend that she was not to make fun of and be rude to Himmler's wife.

Living in Germany, mainly in Berlin and Munich, on and off from 1933 to the outbreak of WWII, she met at home everything from raised eyebrows to stern disapproval, but only finally burnt her bridges when she sided publicly with Julius Streicher. Asked by a German diplomat's wife why she was getting involved with people like Streicher and his ilk Unity replied: "They help me get what I want", which sums up nicely her attitude towards life and humankind in general. Three epithets describe Unity best: Nasty, nasty and nasty.

When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 and all Britons were forced to leave the country, Unity, rid of her role and her purpose in life, did the only plausible thing and attempted suicide. She shot herself in the head, but only suffered serious brain damage. She was returned to England, all German hospital bills paid for by Hitler, where doctors decided it was too dangerous to remove the bullet, and she eventually died at the age of 33 of meningitis caused by the swelling around the projectile.

Jessica and Esmond Romilly in their bar in Miami (top).
Jessica and Bob Treuhaft at a book presentation in the Seventies (below).

The next sister, Jessica (1917 – 1996), eloped to Spain at the age of 19 with 18 year old Spanish Civil War veteran Esmond Romilly, her second cousin and a nephew of Winston Churchill. Educated at Wellington, Esmond was a journalist who wrote two autobiographies before he was 21 and had attracted media attention as Churchill's 'red nephew'. In Spain he worked as a reporter, along with his friend Philip Toynbee, Arnold Toynbee's son. He and Toynbee collaborated on a journalistic account of the Spanish Civil War. Later, Toynbee wrote Esmond's biography Friends Apart.

Jessica's and Edmond's spitting mad parents did everything, even involving the Royal Navy who sent a destroyer, to make still under age Jessica return to England and only her announcement that she was pregnant made them relent. The young couple was allowed to marry at the British Consulate in Bayonne, both heavily disapproving mothers in attendance.

Jessica never saw her father again, who had cut all bonds and disowned her. He even refused to see her on his deathbed (1958).

Later, the Romillys settled for a brief while in Miami and opened a bar. When Britain declared war on Germany, Esmond Romilly went to Canada to volunteer. He served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was shot down over the North Sea in 1941 after a bombing raid over Nazi Germany. He was 23. The news of his death were broken to Jessica by Winston Churchill personally.

Jessica went on to live in the USA, took on odd office jobs and worked hard for her living. She married the Harvard-educated lawyer and notorious leftist activist Robert Treuhaft. Lord Redesdale is said to have had one of his legendary earth-shattering tantrums when he learned of the existence of a new son-in-law who was both, a Communist and a Jew. Later, she pursued an extremely successful career as an investigative writer. Carl Bernstein, who wrote the epilogue to Jessica's book The Gentle Art of Muckraking, conceded that her research skills were far above his. Her autobiography Hons and Rebels, which appeared 1960 (and which I haven't read) got much acclaim and throws light on her family and upbringing.

Deborah and Andrew Cavendish's wedding.

The youngest sister, Deborah (born 1920), married Lord Andrew Cavendish, second son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, when they both were 21. At that time, Andrew was not expected to inherit the title. Because his older brother William (who was engaged to be married to Kathleen Kennedy, sister of JFK), was killed in combat in 1944, Andrew became Marquess of Hartington and 11th Duke of Devonshire after his father's death in 1950.

Deborah Duchess of Devonshire never put a foot wrong. She was considered the most perfect of all Duchesses of Devonshire. There had been ten before her.

Deborah Mitford by Pietro Annigoni

She has been the public face of Chatsworth House, the Devonshires' seat in Derbyshire, for many decades and remains so in her widowhood. She has written several books about Chatsworth and played a key role in the restoration of the house, the improvement of the garden, the development of commercial activities such as the Chatsworth Farm Shop (a business that employs a hundred people), and Chatsworth's other business operations. She has even been known to man the ticket office herself if the need arose.

She became the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire in 2004 upon the death of her husband when her son inherited the title. Andrew and Deborah had been married for 63 years.

Deborah, consecutively The Honourable Deborah Freeman-Mitford, Lady Andrew Cavendish, Marchioness of Hartington, Duchess of Devonshire and Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, is the last surviving one of the famous Mitford sisters.

As all women, with the exception of Pamela, led very public lives, there are plenty of pictures around. To me, the most captivating ones are those of the old women, which clearly show how life had treated them – and they life.

There is, of course, plenty of information on the Mitfords in the Internet. For those with a deeper interest in the history of the 20th century from this particular angle, Nancy's and Jessica's autobiographical books are certainly worth reading, as are, I am sure, and if one can stomach it, Diana's.

Jessica, Deborah and Pamela. In the background Alexander Mosley (son of Diana) and Alexander's wife Charlotte, Editor of 'The Nancy Mitford Diaries' at a book launch party held at The Reform Club on the 23rd of September 1993.

I used apart from some of the above mentioned material a German book Die Mitford Sisters by Karlheinz Schädlich, Düsseldorf 1990, which contains a lot of information (plus some of the pictures shown here), but quite a few irritating errors and mistakes as well. Schädlich quotes extensively David Pryce-Jones, Unity Mitford. A Quest, London 1978.

Charlotte Mosley (Diana's daughter-in-law) wrote: A Talent to Annoy, Essays, Journalism, and Reviews by Nancy Mitford, London 1960.

Published on January 11, 2008.