The Mitford Sisters
Posted on 30th June 2022
The Mitford Sisters Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah were born into one of the oldest, if relatively minor, aristocratic families in England. Indeed, they could trace their lineage back to the time of the Norman Conquest, a fact they were not shy in exploiting when it suited them. Their father David Freeman Mitford, Baron Redesdale, was by all accounts a cold and distant man who expected his children to be raised by their nannies, only seen when required, and rarely if ever heard.
Such an emotional detachment from one’s children was not unusual in aristocratic families. At least their mother, Sydney, paid them more attention. She was a strong-minded woman who held firm views on the issues of the day which she was determined to pass on to her children. Mindful of their education she was keen they should think for themselves and encouraged them to express themselves and not be afraid. Their father didn’t agree, he only expected his daughters to marry young and well which only provoked them into rebellion leading him to remark: “Why am I and my wife normal but my daughters increasingly mad.”
Born on the 28 November, 1904, a time of social change when women were beginning to emerge from many of the restrictive practices of the Victorian Era, the eldest of the sisters was Nancy who by the mid 1920’s was already a regular presence in High Society, one of the ’bright young things’ as they later became known, and she embraced the new freedoms with enthusiasm as heavy on the makeup and with her hair cropped short she caused outrage by smoking in public, wearing trousers, and being seen out with men and not always the same one. The gossip columns had a field day but she was always more than a flapper as some ungraciously called her being intelligent and sensitive with a wry sense of humour and ambitions to be a writer.
Nancy would have a successful literary career documenting the lives of the upper-class with her most famous novels being In Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Her private life by contrast was never to run quite as smoothly blighted as it was by multiple miscarriages and unrequited love.
Politics was never an abiding interest of Nancy’s but the more she saw of fascism the more she came to despise it. She died on 30 June, 1973, aged 68.
Pamela Mitford, known as the quiet one, was born on 25 November, 1907. Although, it was said she held strong pro-Nazi views she restricted her comments to private conversations. A practical hands-on sort of person she spurned High Society preferring the fresh air and mud of the countryside to smoke filled drawing rooms and drug and alcohol fuelled parties. But she was devoted to her sisters who she wasn’t afraid to defend.
Never an attention seeker, preferring for the most part her own company, she still had her admirers one of whom was the poet John Betjeman who was thoroughly seduced by the charms of this down-to-earth woman referred to as the ‘Rural Mitford.’ His affections were not reciprocated however, instead she wed the wealthy scientist David Jackson but it was never a happy marriage probably because Pamela’s predilections lay elsewhere. They divorced not long after and Pamela set up home with the Italian equestrian Guiditta Tommasi with whom she remained for the rest of her life. She died on 12 April, 1994, aged 86.
Diana Mitford, born on 10 June, 1910, was by far the most glamorous of the sisters. A favourite of the gossip columnists she was often referred to as the most beautiful woman in Britain. Her character belied her more obvious charms however, as many who knew her would testify to. Strong-willed and outspoken with a sharp tongue and a caustic wit she was an admirer of Adolf Hitler though unlike her sister Unity was never in awe of him.
Married aged just 19 to Bryan Guinness the heir to the brewing fortune she had at least satisfied her father’s wishes but it did not satisfy her. Despite bearing two children the marriage always lacked passion and easily bored she soon tired of the endless round of social events, Henley, Ascot, Wimbledon, Lords etc. She wanted more and had dalliances with other men, one being much like the other until in late 1932 she met Sir Oswald Mosley leader of the recently formed British Union of Fascists. Here was someone with passion and self-belief, a man of destiny. Their affair began almost immediately but with both of them being married it could go no further. Not long after Diana divorced her husband but Sir Oswald would not divorce his wife Cynthia, the daughter of Lord Curzon. Diana was deeply angered by his refusal to do so but her frustration would not last long.
On 16 May, 1933, Lady Cynthia died of peritonitis following a botched operation. Given that Mosley was a serial philanderer who barely bothered to conceal his many affairs it is difficult to know just how genuinely distraught he was at his wife’s death but he insisted that a decent period of mourning be honoured.
In October 1936, Sir Oswald and Diana travelled to Germany where they were married in the drawing room of Joseph Goebbels house near Berlin with Adolf Hitler in attendance as guest of honour. He later presented the couple with a silver framed photograph of himself as a wedding gift.
Mosley was to return to Britain to find his political fortunes in sharp decline. They revived briefly when he campaigned for a negotiated settlement to the looming war but once it was declared he was quickly seen as a Nazi collaborator and became subject to not just much opprobrium but also a figure of fun. Diana would not hear of it and defended him vigorously throughout.
On 22 May, 1940, Defence Regulation 18 B which authorised the imprisonment without trial of those deemed dangerous to the State became law. The following day Sir Oswald and Diana were arrested.
Their treatment in prison was far from harsh as courtesy of Winston Churchill who intervened on their behalf they were permitted to live together in a house in the grounds of Holloway Prison where they employed other prisoners as servants.
In November 1943, they were released into house arrest and went to live with Diana’s sister Pamela. Their release caused outrage in a country still at war and for a time at least they generated as much newsprint as Mosley did at the height of his political fame. Even Diana’s younger sister Jessica felt compelled to write: "This is a direct betrayal of all those who have died in the cause of anti-Fascism.”
Following the end of the war the Mosley’s were no longer welcome in Britain and so moved to France where Sir Oswald resumed his political career with the formation of the British Movement which campaigned for a unitary European State. It made little impression and when he did briefly return to the British political stage he was roundly humiliated at the polls.
On 3 December, 1980, Sir Oswald Mosley died. Diana was determined to keep his memory alive funding the British Movement out of her own purse and making numerous radio and television broadcasts in defence of her husband’s views.
In later life Diana wrote regular columns for leading British newspapers and published her autobiography which was well-received if somewhat controversial. At no time did she make excuses for her life or moderate her views. She died on 11 August, 1993, aged, 93.
Unity Mitford was born on 8 August, 1914, and was rumoured to have displayed signs of emotional instability from an early age. She was certainly argumentative, stubborn, and ungainly. Indeed, it was said that her attendance at any dinner party was an excuse for others to decline the invitation while her insensitivity and arrogance alone was enough to offend many even among those who purported to be her friends – she was certainly no debutante and had few panting male admirers.
Unity had been attracted to Adolf Hitler from an early age but what once may have been described as a teenage infatuation had since become an adult obsession. Eager to prove her far-right credentials in 1932 she joined the British Union of Fascists where so desperate was she to wear the black shirt, give the Nazi salute, and harangue her political opponents that Oswald Mosley in person felt compelled to chide her for making an exhibition of herself.
In 1933, accompanied by Diana she travelled to Germany to attend the inaugural Nuremberg Rally. She found the experience utterly intoxicating and vowed to return the following year.
With a singular determination to meet the Fuhrer in person she dined at the same restaurant in Berlin as him for months until finally he invited her to sit at his table. Treating her with great courtesy she was hopelessly smitten, especially when he picked up the bill. She wrote excitedly: "I am so happy I wouldn’t mind a bit dying. I suppose I am the luckiest girl alive. For me he is the greatest man alive who has ever lived.”
To her absolute delight she was soon part of Hitler’s social circle but while no doubt as the son of a lowly civil servant he enjoyed the thought of this aristocratic Englishwoman worshipping at his feet as a man who liked to talk and expected others to listen he found her constant interruptions irksome. In truth, she got on his nerves. Eva Braun with no little pique confided to her diary: "She is known as Valkyrie and looks the part, especially her legs”
As war between England and Germany drew ever closer Unity feared that she would be repatriated back to England, and she was right. On 1 September 1939, both she and Diana were informed by Joseph Goebbels in person that they could no longer remain in the country. Diana packed up her things and left but Unity refused to go. If she could not remain at the Fuhrer’s side then life was no longer worth living. On 3 September, the day that war between Britain and Germany was formally declared she went alone to the English Garden in Munich removed from her handbag the pearl handled revolver that Hitler had given her for her personal protection and shot herself in the head.
Unity survived and was hospitalised in Munich with Hitler paying her medical bills. She was however, desperately ill and very weak with the bullet lodged in her brain making her injuries inoperable. Hitler and some of the other leading Nazis visited her in hospital which at least raised her spirits somewhat.
As soon as she was well enough to be moved she was transferred to a hospital in neutral Switzerland where she was visited by her mother and sister, Deborah who brought her back to England. Upon her arrival she remarked: “I am glad to be back in England, but I am not on your side.”
Unity went to live relatives while also being placed under police surveillance. After a long convalescence she embarked upon a series of affairs but more as a distraction than anything more serious. The spark had gone it seemed and she would spend long periods of time saying little or in total silence.
On 28 May, 1948, Unity Mitford died of complications resulting from her suicide attempts eight years earlier. She had lived long enough to see the death of Hitler and of everything he stood for. She was 33 years of age.
The Mitford’s were a family who had embraced the political extremes, there rarely seemed any middle ground, so if not a Nazi why not a Communist. Born on 11 September, 1917, Jessica Mitford, known as Decca, chose the latter and relates how as a young girl the room she shared with Unity was divided down the middle with one side draped in swastikas and pictures of the Fuhrer the other with the hammer and sickle and posters of Karl Marx. Politics dominated their small talk often over whether the one sister would be willing to shoot the other in the coming conflict.
But the bookish and academic Jessica was always more level headed than the emotional Unity even if her behaviour would sometimes appear to belie the fact particularly when aged just 19 she eloped with her cousin Esmonde Romilly who had just returned from Spain where he had been fighting for the Republican side in the Civil War.
Her parents objected to the relationship but Jessica was in love and they wed soon after returning to Spain to avoid the gossip where Esmonde found work as a war reporter. They returned to England when Jessica became pregnant but although she gave birth successfully the baby died soon after. It was the first great tragedy of Jessica’s life but it wasn’t to be the last.
In 1939, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War Jessica and Esmonde travelled to the United States where a committed anti-Fascist he enlisted in the Canadian Royal Air Force . On 9 February 1941, Jessica gave birth to a healthy baby girl but her joy was to be short-lived. Not long after Esmonde was killed when his plane crashed into the sea on its way back from a bombing mission over Germany. Jessica was distraught but remarried within a few years and was to carve out a successful career in the United States as a journalist and campaigner for various left-wing causes.
Although she remained in touch with her sisters the political rift between them never really healed. She could understand the attraction to people of far-right certainties during a time of flux but failed to comprehend support for a politics that disavowed the betterment of mankind either as a need in itself or a policy worth pursuing.
Jessica Mitford died on 22 July, 1996, aged, 78.
The youngest of the Mitford Sisters was Deborah, known as Debs, born on 31 March, 1920.
She was never as politically engaged as some of her sisters avoiding for the most the part extremes and diatribes of unfathomable dogma and even more unpardonable length. It made her the peacemaker of the family, though she did once along with Unity and her mother take tea with Hitler. She wasn’t impressed and remembered little other than the towels in his bedroom were embroidered with the letters A.H and that he had a little bell which he would use to ring for service.
Deborah was the sister who did what her father had wished for all of his daughters - she married well, in 1941 to Andrew Cavendish, the future Duke of Devonshire, and she was to devote the rest of her life to the maintenance and running of the family estate at Chatsworth.
The last of the Mitford Sisters to be born Deborah was also the last to die, on 24 September, 2014, aged, 94.
*The Mitford Sisters also had a brother Tom who shared the far-right views of both Unity and Diana. Indeed, he was so pro-German that during the war as a Major in the Devonshire Regiment he expressed a reluctance to fight against them. Instead, he died in Burma from wounds received on 30 March, 1945, aged 36.
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