The famous Mitford Sisters variously harboured crushes on Hitler, dabbled in Communism, waited out World War II in prison, failed attempts at suicide, and lived to write about it. Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, Deborah, and Nancy (a novelist, and the most renowned) are the notorious siblings at the center of this family saga. The 'It Girls' of the 1920s, all were presented as debutantes to society, yet Unity became fascinated with Facism from an early age. Decca, on the other hand, became a devout Communist, and ran away from the family with Esmond Romilly to the US, he was the nephew of Winston Churchill, and during the second world war, the two families became linked to Adolf Hitler in more ways than one. Unity Mitford moved to Bavaria to be nearer to the Fuhrer, after being enthused by the Nuremberg Rallies with her other sister Diana (who fell in love with, and eventually married Oswald Moseley, Leader of the UK Facist Black Shirt Movement) . Nancy set up residence in France, (she was politically sat on the fence), and penned the classic novels 'Love In A Cold Climate' and 'Pursuit of Love'.
In this article Jo Arden (Mancunian Mitford Trainspotter) looks into the history of the family, and includes a book list of recommended reads. There have been hundreds of books written on this fascinating family over the last 20 years - also TV Shows, Documentaries, and Articles. The only surviving member is Debo; She is now the Duchess of Devonshire, and lives in the restored glory of Chatsworth House.
"I am normal, my wife is normal but my daughters are each more foolish than the other" Lord Redesdale
Probably the influence of fatherly frustration, definitely the least accurate description of a group of sisters that have left us stories so engaging today. Though they may have been to varying degrees militant, obtuse, irritating, challenging and "totally mad-making", they were none of them foolish.
Nancy -The French Lady Writer : Born in 1904 to Lord and Lady Redesedale, Nancy became the first in what was to become a notorious tribe of girls. From an early age she showed a powerfully acrid wit and eloquence that was to remain with her throughout her days and mark her writing so indelibly. She is widely reported as being a tease and certainly her sisters all at some stage fell fowl to her endless practical jokes. Her childhood and teenage years, though ostensibly happy and in the bosom of a close and loving family were plagued by the relentless and unfulfilled desire to gain a formal education. The Redesdale's held many alternative beliefs about modern living and their opinions on healthcare, medical treatment, diet and education have been extensively documented. It was their commitment to "home-education" rather than schooling their girls, which had the most profound effect on Nancy and engendered a deep-seated bitterness evident even after she achieved literary acclaim. Stories from Nancy's youth are epic and paint a picture of an intelligent, playful girl with a very quick-wit; traits which stayed with her until her death in 1973.
Nancy was hugely popular amongst her peers and had a multitude of friends both in England and in France where she moved after the end of the war to be with the love of her life, Colonel Palewski.
Pamela - The "Most Rural" of the Mitfords: Of all the Mitford girls Pamela is probably the one of which the least is written. Obviously she appears a lot in the many biographies of the individual girls and appears as one of the Radlett children in Nancy's fictional works. As an individual though, it is hard to get a real handle on what she was like. Born in 1907 and so the second of the girls, she bore the brunt of many of Nancy's teases (Nancy being furious at having to share what once had been her parents and nannie’s undivided attention). It is know that she excelled at stock rearing and had a natural aptitude for the farming life - this becoming evident during her girlhood when all the girls were encouraged to raise animals as a means of earning pocket money (Pam going so far as to challenge the terrifying "Farve" about the amount she was charged for land rental compared to the tenant farmers.)In 1936 she married Derek Jackson, son of Sir Charles Jackson who founded The News of The World, though this was beset by tragedy from a very early stage when Derek's' beloved twin Vivian died in a horse-drawn sleigh accident.
Diana - The Timeless Beauty:Much has been written about Diana; it seems that infactuation and vilification have marked her life in equal measures and often at the same time. In her youth she was considered one of the beauties, and her status as one of the most important social barometers was assured when in 1929 she married Bryan Guinness, heir to the Guinness fortune. Their parties were notorious and the glamorous set revolved around them; writers wrote about Diana; painters painted her and photographers took her picture - her celebrity was unparralled. In 1932 Diana met Oswald Moseley, then the enfant terrible of British politics, later to be the founder of the British Union of Fascists. There is no mistaking that she fell in love with him, almost from first sight and she subsequently left Guinness to set herself up as Moseley's mistress - a shocking and valiant undertaking and one that set her on a very specific path. To do justice to the intricacies and events of Diana's life is impossible in so few words; until her death in 2003 she remained incredibly intelligent, formidable and passionate. In the intervening years she became friends with Hitler, was imprisoned during the war and remained a rock of support and encouragement to Moseley.
Unity - The Fascist:Though much is documented about Unity and her amazing life - it remains difficult to get a true understanding of how she personally saw things. Apart from the few excerpts of letters she wrote which feature in the biographies of some of the other sisters, there is very little of the published information that comes from Unity herself. Born in 1914 and bestowed with the portentous middle name of Valkyrie, Unity was somewhat of a curiosity from very early on. Unlike her beautiful sister Diana and the electrically witted Nancy, there seemed to be little about Unity to recommend her in society. She is talked of as being a robust, large child with an awkwardness and lack of grace, which only became more pronounced as her teenage years progressed. Stories of her debutante season have her ironically over-dressing and making a mockery of the proceedings and even going so far as to take her pet rat along with her on occasion. Her eccentricity apart, Unity did have a certain charm; she loved to make people laugh and could always be relied upon to liven things up, most definitely an advocate of the Mitford tradition for practical jokes.
When Unity found Germany in 1933, her dedication to fascism, which had by this time been nurtured well by Moseley, was complete. Over the proceeding years she forged friendships with some of the most eminent Nazi's and was widely rumoured at one stage to be likely to marry Hitler. Torn between her love for her home country and that of her fostered one, Unity shot herself at the outbreak of war and though she did not kill herself, the resulting brain damage mean that she had to live out her remaining years with full time familial care. Her story is tragic and fascinating, covering an explosive time in world history and illustrating the indisputable link that the English upper classes had with Nazi Germany.
Jessica - The Muckraker:Though polar opposites in terms of actions and beliefs, Jessica (or Decca as she was always known) and Unity were considered to be each other's favourite sister and the one with each felt the closest affinity. Maybe it was the strength of each's chosen political passion that they most identified with in each other or maybe it was the proximity of the ages.Whichever the reason, it has always struck quite a tragic note that two such devoted sisters should be parted forever over such a massive ideological ravine. Born in 1917, and so very much one of the babies from the older girls' point of view, Decca seemed to be born with a courageous and adventurous spirit. She started her "running away fund" before she was even clear what she intended to run away to; the dawning on her of socialism and then communism was the purpose that she had been looking for. In addition to politics Decca also fell for the charismatic cousin Esmond Romilly and together they left the UK, married against everyone's wishes and struck out to fight in Spain. Predictably enough, the plan was beset by hold-ups and barriers and Decca, widowed and greatly grieving the loss of Esmond eventually settled in America. She went on to be arrested on suspicion of being an enemy of the state because of her involvement with the communist party and also an influential civil rights campaigner. Her books have covered some of the most contentious subjects in America and she continued to be the champion of the little man up till her death.
Deborah (Debo) - The Duchess:Deborah, the youngest and only remaining Mitford girl was born in 1920 and is now The Duchess of Devonshire. Her sisters would claim that this is as much design as it is romance - when Unity use to declare that she would go to Germany and meet Hitler and Decca would return that she was going to run away and be a communist, Debo's response would be that she would marry a Duke and be a Duchess, and happily she did. Her childhood differs from the older Mitford girls in a number of ways, she was allowed to attend school, though this didn't last terrifically long, and her upbringing was largely in one house. Farve (Lord Redesdale) had a passion for building that saw numerous ambitious projects undertaken to greater degrees of success - the house that Deco grew up in, Swinbrook was largely hated by the other Mitford children. To Debo it was always home and this might go some way at least to explaining why she is largely depicted as the only well balanced one in the family.
Amongst the biographies and narratives that exist for all the girls there are few things that turn up time and again and that help to make these extraordinary lives seem not so far removed form our own - the constant nicknames they called each other, the secret club houses, the bizarre and indecipherable languages they developed and the colourful friends they kept. There is so much written about the girls (and the family as a whole), some of it favourable, some of it condemning, there is information more than could ever be exhausted.
Below is a brief list of further reading:
The Mitford Girls by Mary S Lovell Abacus 2001
Nancy Mitford by Selena Hastings Hamilton 1985
Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford Hamilton 1947
A Life of Contrast by Diana Mitford Hamilton 1977
Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford Gollancz 1960
Love In A Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford 1949
The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford Vintage Books Reissue 2000