The Sisters: Saga of the Mitford Family – Mary S. Lovell
I rarely read biographies. I find myself getting so bogged down in extraneous detail that my eyes glaze over. That’s why “The Sisters” is so unusual. It’s certainly the first time I’ve come across a biography that I had to read compulsively without stopping. In the midst of a Downton Abbey binge, I picked this up because of the topic of British aristocratic families between the wars adjusting to upheaval of the early 20th century, etcetera. Being American, I didn’t know much about the Mitford sisters when I started, although I’d heard of Nancy Mitford’s novels “Pursuit of Love” and “Love in a Cold Climate”. And I was vaguely familiar with Jessica Mitford, and knew she had written “The American Way of Death”. But this was merely the tip of the iceberg. Once I discovered the entire family—six sisters, one brother, and their parents, cousins, spouses, etc. –well, it was too, too fascinating, as the Bright Young Things would have said. While reading the book I was continually thinking, “What? I-don’t-believe-it-this-can’t-be-for-real!” as the bizarre eccentricities and absurdities piled up. There is enough material here for at least two or three mini-series on the BBC. How is it possible that no one has yet done a biopic or even a spoof of a biopic? Maybe it’s because the last of the sisters, Deborah, is still alive.
I have no way of knowing how closely she adheres to the factual record, but Mary Lovell has a good reputation, having written other fine biographies (Amelia Earhart, Richard Burton, Beryl Markham) before this. My understanding is that she built upon the work of others, but she also made ample use of her access to Diana and Deborah, who both granted extensive interviews.
The Mitford girls were the ultimate in tabloid fodder in Britain during the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. The public couldn’t get enough of them, and it’s not hard to see why. They were famous for being aristocratic, good-looking, fashionable, witty, charming, etc. In addition they were also wildly eccentric, outrageous, naïve, impolitic and controversial. They inspired admiration as well as hatred.
I will try to quickly run through the highlights. The family consisted of Farve -- David Freeman-Mitford, the 2nd Baron Redesdale -- and Muv -- Sydney Bowles, whose grandfather “Tap” Bowles founded two successful magazines, “Vanity Fair” and “The Lady”-- and their offspring. The seven children were raised in a highly protected, isolated, rural atmosphere of genteel poverty. They were sheltered if not exactly cosseted. Forbidden to go to school, they were taught at home (at least the girls were) so their education was spotty, but the necessities were not neglected: riding, French, the concept of noblesse oblige, and of course, manners and deportment. The children relied on one another for company, and they were a very close and loving family that also quarreled violently and existed for years on what they referred to as “non-speakers” with one another.
Nancy was the eldest. She dabbled in socialism, and authored several witty books based on fictionalized accounts of her family and friends, but she mainly dressed beautifully, partied lavishly, and hung out with the right crowd of funny, glittering people –the ones who were immortalized by Evelyn Waugh in “Vile Bodies” and “Brideshead Revisited”. Later in life she moved to Paris and carried on a long-term affair with Charles de Gaulle’s right hand man, Col. Gaston Palewski.
Pam, the second-born, was apparently the most domesticated and the least outrageous of the sisters. She did not care about politics or parties, but was content to be a gentlewoman farmer and breeder of animals. She married Derek Jackson, a world-renowned physicist who was one of a set of identical twins. On the day of their wedding (or the day after, I’m not sure), Derek's twin brother was killed in a motoring accident and he never got over the loss. After they divorced she entered into a lesbian relationship that lasted for the remainder of her life.
Diana was the most stunningly gorgeous of the sisters, although they were all unbelievably beautiful. Married at a young age to Bryan Guinness (heir to the Guinness brewing fortune) she left her husband to embark upon a scandalous affair with Sir Oswald Mosley, principally known as founder of the BUF, i.e., British Union of Fascists. Mosley was perhaps the most reviled man in Britain during WW2 and the post-war years. Diana and Mosley eventually married, but the marriage was kept secret for over a year so as not to upset his other mistress, who was his first wife’s sister. Diana herself was an ardent supporter of Fascism and a great admirer of Adolph Hitler, as was her mother and several of her siblings. She attended rallies at Nuremberg, as well as the 1936 Olympics, as Hitler’s personal guest. Her close connection to him as well as to Winston Churchill (who was a cousin) made her a person of interest to the British secret police, who regularly tapped her phone and monitored her whereabouts. Diana and Oswald both spent three years interned in a British prison as enemy sympathizers under the infamous Regulation 18B, which suspended habeas corpus during wartime. Her sister Nancy was one of those who informed on her. There were protest demonstrations in the streets upon the Mosley’s release from prison in 1943.
Next in line was Unity, who also became obsessed with Hitler when she was a teenager, and worshipped him as if he were a god or a rock star. Unity took this hero worship to extremes that nobody could have anticipated. She became part of Hitler’s inner circle, and moved to Germany to be near him. It was long suspected that they had an affair but this was never proven. Unity was vilified in the British press as a rabid Fascist and anti-Semite. Wherever she went in England, crowds gathered and sometimes erupted in violence. She came to believe that it was her destiny to broker an alliance between Britain and Germany in order to prevent war between the two countries. When despite her best efforts, war was declared, her reaction was to take a pistol and shoot herself in the head. She survived, with significant brain damage, but was never the same. Hitler paid her hospital bills in full.
Whew, I need to catch my breath. Okay, onward we go…
The next youngest sister was Jessica (Decca) who rebelled against the rest of the family by became a noted Communist. She quarreled endlessly with her family over politics and it ultimately led to a schism. As a youngster Decca kept a bust of Lenin in the room she shared with her sister, while Unity decorated her side of the room with Nazi flags and swastikas on the wall. At age 18 Decca ran away from home and eloped to Spain with her second cousin Esmond, a nephew of Winston Churchill. (Decca was also related to Winston through her aunt Clementine.) The young couple dreamed of fighting with the Loyalists against Franco, but they later moved to America, which caused a total breach with the family. When WW2 broke out Edmond enlisted in the Canadian RAF and was shot down over the North Sea. Decca subsequently married a Jewish lawyer from Oakland, CA, joined the American Communist Party, and became a civil right activist.
The youngest sister, Deborah (Debo) married Lord Andrew Cavendish, later Duke of Devonshire. Lord Andrew’s brother, Billy Hartington, married Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy (yes, those Kennedy’s). They had to marry against their families’ wishes, (particularly those of Rose Kennedy. Her objection was due to the time-honored quarrel between Catholics and Protestants.) This couple’s happiness was doomed from the start. As soon as they returned from their honeymoon, Kathleen received word that her brother Joe Jr.’s fighter plane had been shot down. One month later they got the news that Hartington had also been killed in action. It was as a result of Billy’s death that Debo’s husband Andrew inherited the dukedom. Debo is still alive and breeds fancy chickens on the ancestral Chatsworth estate.
Somewhere in the middle there was Tom, the only brother, who went to Eton, served with distinction in the war, and was killed in a skirmish with Japanese forces in Burma in 1945. Tom also had a fling with British Fascism, and was an admirer of Hitler, but he later fought on England’s side against Germany. He never married but had male and female lovers.
Have you followed me so far? And this is all one family! It’s not only mind-boggling to consider what they themselves did to attract attention, but also to contemplate the others they either knew intimately or rubbed elbows with. Which turned out to be everybody of importance in the 20th century on both sides of the Atlantic, and I do mean everybody. This included their relations, the Winston Churchills, as well as their friends and close acquaintances, including Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, Kay Graham, Cecil Beaton, the Kennedy’s (Jack, Ted, Bobby, etc.), Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson (who Muv amusingly tried to look up in the Peerage and was puzzled at not finding her there), Lucien Freud, Harold Macmillan, and various Queens of the Realm.
How fascinating can you get? I mean, really!