Is there anything new to say about the celebrated Mitford sisters? Nancy and Jessica, authors of The Pursuit of Love and Hons and Rebels, invented the Mitford mythology while Diana, married to Sir Oswald Mosley, and Unity, who fell in love with Hitler and subsequently attempted suicide in Munich at the outbreak of war in 1939, brought the family permanent political notoriety. In these Memoirs published to coincide with her 90th birthday, “Debo”, as she was known in a family where nicknames were part of the private language invented by the sisters, provides her own perspective of her colourful siblings.
Easily the most balanced of the girls – and the only survivor – she describes life at Swinbrook House during her youth in an inconsequential style that makes the anecdotes she relates seem even funnier. It is clear that “Muv” (“I don’t really like refrigerators, they make the food so cold”) and “Farve”, immortalised as Nancy’s “Uncle Matthew”, who had only read one book in his life (White Fang) were both eccentric characters. In the upbringing of their daughters, although it seemed an outwardly conventional upper-class country life of horses, governesses and debutante parties, nature jostled with nurture to produce several equally unconventional offspring. Even Pamela, a countrywoman, at her happiest running a farm, was so unworldly that, seated beside Earl Mountbatten at a dinner party when he was at the height of his fame, she turned to him and said, “May I ask who you are?”
Their beloved Nanny, who lived with the Mitfords for 40 years, had her share of the family oddity; staying in Paris in 1926 while their new house at Swinbrook was being built, the author relates, “There was a bidet in our hotel bathroom and Nanny, Decca (Jessica) and I, who had never seen such a thing, hurried out to buy goldfish, assuming that is what it was for.” Keen to extinguish any signs of vanity in her highly attractive charges, Nanny would remind them: “Don’t worry; nobody’s going to look at you.” Debo feels she took this maxim a little too far when she repeated it to the beautiful Diana as she helped her to dress for her wedding.
Unity, who used “to pick up the governess who was rather small, and put her on the sideboard”, was the least able to fit in, hiding under the dining room table when she couldn’t cope with the exchanges above it. Expelled from two schools for being incapable of obeying the rules, she found her purpose in life when she went to Germany and discovered National Socialism. This brought tragedy; brain-damaged and incontinent after her attempted suicide, she was cared for devotedly by “Muv” until her death from meningitis a few years later. Despite her politics, all her sisters loved her for her “guileless, childlike simplicity.” Diana, whose lifelong loyalty towards Hitler never wavered, is described by Debo as endlessly kind and sympathetic, almost saintly, in later life.
Perhaps the key to the Mitford girls’ lives is contained in one of the author’s throw-away remarks: “Marriage was the career we all aspired to – we were not trained to do a paid job.” Even though this was the 20th century, a hundred years after Jane Austen had written about the necessity of finding rich husbands and at a time when good girls’ schools and higher education were open to aspiring students – a generation earlier Gertrude Bell had achieved a First in history at Oxford and Vera Brittain was at Oxford when WW1 broke out – the Mitford girls still looked for handsome dominating men like “Farve” as their goal in life. Witty, bookish Nancy, whose “teasing verged on bullying”, clever Decca, who eloped with her cousin and became a Communist, and the statuesque Diana, considered by the author to have been the most brilliant of them all, were never given the opportunity to train their minds or go to university.
Debo is self-deprecating about her own talents. “Farve’s” favourite because she loved hunting, shooting and fishing just as he did – she says he would have been happy as a game-keeper – she married Lord Andrew Cavendish during the war and duly became Duchess of Devonshire. As mistress of Chatsworth, the magnificent Cavendish country seat in Derbyshire, she came into her own, helping her husband make the estate a highly popular and thriving enterprise. This was no mean achievement: it had been crippled by enormous death duties on the sudden death of Andrew’s father; his mother, “Moucher”, Debo’s mother-in-law, “was unaware of the value of anything”, once guessing the price of an antique as, “£40? No, £4. No, £400.” A practical, no-nonsense person, brought up in an age when you did not talk about personal problems, the author’s chapter on her husband’s long struggle with alcoholism and her description of the deaths of three of her babies, born prematurely, are all the more affecting for the reticence with which she refers to them.
It has to be admitted that the book’s interest falls away after the death of her parents, Lord and Lady Redesdale. There are many references to official receptions and grand society, but although she met several interesting personalities during her days as a Duchess, Debo does not have a gift for painting a scene or describing character. For instance, she is more animated about the flat racing season than in meeting Hitler in Munich before the war. “Muv” died in 1963 on Inch Kenneth, the island in the Inner Hebrides bought by her husband on a whim, after remarking to her daughters, “Somewhere you’ll find my ridiculous will. Do change it if you want.” “Farve” had died earlier. Sadly he had been living apart from his wife; their daughters’ problems, the death of their only son in the Burma campaign and their political divergences had finally driven a wedge between them, although they were reconciled on his deathbed.
The Mitford girls encapsulated an era, that of the ‘bright young things’ of the 1920s and 30s; this and the Fascist connection comprises their enduring interest. Somehow, from the way Debo describes her, I feel “Muv” is the real heroine of this saga: the patient wife who put up with all her irascible husband’s whims and house moves, she remained loyal to her wayward daughters, stoically visiting Diana every fortnight in Holloway Prison where she was interned during the war, forgiving Decca for her elopement and looking after the difficult and deranged Unity until her death.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.