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Authors: Laura Thompson

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Historical

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BOOK: Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
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How true it would have been is another matter. Her dislike of Sydney was real, but that does not mean that it was wholly justified. There is no doubt that some of what Nancy wrote about her mother – in earlier letters, as it were
en passant
– does pull one up short. For example when Nancy’s husband Peter Rodd joined up at the start of the Second World War, Sydney’s immediate reaction was to say: ‘I expect he’ll be shot soon.’ When Nancy was suffering fertility problems and was asked by a doctor whether she had ever come into contact with syphilis, Sydney confessed that, well, yes, her nursery maid had been infected with the disease. Of course this was all according to Nancy – were these things really said? The remark about Peter was probably at least part true, as it appears in two letters. As for the nursery-maid story – oddly enough, the usually sceptical Diana wrote that it made ‘one’s hair stand on end’, so she had a degree of belief in it; or at least in
belief in it. Downright lying does seem unlikely. It is hard to think that even Nancy would have completely invented such a tale (unless she had been reading Ibsen). Given that she had no symptoms of syphilitic infection, it was clearly absurd that she should have thereafter blamed her mother for her struggle to have a baby. Nevertheless Sydney could be accused of lack of sympathy, or imagination, in her response to her daughter’s darkest fears.

Then there is this, from Jessica. In a 1971 letter to Nancy she recounted how Sydney, aged around thirty – ‘she must have been fairly horrid when young, too’ – was staying in Dieppe, where she was confronted by a panic-stricken Nellie Romilly (Jessica’s former mother-in-law). Nellie, very young at the time and not yet married, had lost £10 gambling, which she begged Sydney to lend to her. Instead Sydney ‘informed’: she marched off to Nellie’s mother (Blanche Hozier) and told her exactly what had happened. According to Jessica, the story came from Sydney herself, who presumably – like many informers – still believed that she had done the right thing. In this instance what Jessica wrote has the ring of truth, and it does embody the cool, disapproving implacability that both she and Nancy disliked in their mother (interestingly their aunt Dorothy – ‘Weenie’ – displayed similar characteristics). Yet Nancy and Jessica could have chosen not to nurture resentment. Perhaps it was their nature – again, as writers – to cherish it instead. Doubtless Sydney and her sister could, in their turn, have decided to blame their father for everything. The odd, motherless, faintly stigmatized upbringing must have made them wary; so too being surrounded by their father’s mistresses. Sydney was unsuited, perhaps, to the constant company of women. Amateur psychoanalysis can always find the sins of the parent in the child. What it can never quite do is allow for the fact that every influence is stimulated to different degrees.

It has to be said that, even allowing for Sydney’s complex heredity, and her daughters’ helpless habit of embroidery, the woman of Nancy and Jessica’s collective memory is not easy to like. Cold, reserved, judgmental, miserly with praise: all the qualities one does not want in a mother. That said, they were highly demanding girls, and one cannot blame Sydney for withdrawing onto what
The Pursuit of Love
called ‘her cloud’. Incidentally the portrait of Aunt Sadie was sympathetic – the character had the Mitford charm that Sydney lacked – and was used as a defence by Nancy after the ‘Blor’ essay: to little effect. Sydney had not especially liked being Aunt Sadie either.

Quite simply she had probably not wanted so many daughters (according to Deborah, she did not even bother to record her last child’s birth in her 1920 engagement book; not that Deborah would have minded). As a younger woman she may have been jealous of them. She was twenty-four when Nancy was born, tremendously attractive, accustomed to that odd, diverting life with her father, full of flirtations and sailing and skating; the birth of her first child was difficult, so was the breastfeeding and so, in truth, was Nancy. For somebody who was not innately maternal, to find herself quite quickly surrounded by so many girls, screaming, showing off and competing for attention, must have required tremendous inward adjustments and sacrifices. It is not so difficult to see why she gave an impression of chilliness, nor to understand this from both Sydney’s and Nancy’s points of view. Jessica is slightly more problematical, as it is generally accepted by the sisters that Sydney mellowed after Deborah’s birth when she was forty (this too is echoed in
The Pursuit of Love
). She went to immense efforts to keep her younger daughters amused; this in an era where one could not simply plonk them in front of a screen. In the face of Jessica’s and Unity’s sulking and discontentment she arranged holidays, trips, cruises – too much perhaps. Later she may have wondered whether it had been worth it.

How affected they all were by her, nonetheless! – still discussing her influence, her character, right up to the end. Even Diana – ‘I adored my mother’
– confessed in late life to being ‘horrified’ by how strict Sydney had been during the Asthall years. She had been reading some of Pamela’s letters and was left with this impression. One suspects that if the letters had been written by Nancy or Jessica, she would have dismissed them as exaggeration; even though she herself, in youth, ‘had been distant, resentful and rather scornful of Sydney’
and on more than one occasion fell victim to her lethal disapproval. When, for instance, Diana left her first husband for Sir Oswald Mosley, her mother refused to allow Jessica and Deborah to see her – at the time Diana was as resentful and bitter as Nancy would have been but, as she wrote many years later, she had chosen to forget such displays of ‘cruelty’. What changed things was Sydney’s behaviour during the war, the loyalty that she showed when her daughter was imprisoned in Holloway, and her fondness for Mosley. Diana’s husband massively affected her feelings towards her family. He adored Sydney and could scarcely tolerate Nancy (who saw through him: the worst thing with a man of that kind). And then Sydney, like the Mosleys, was very much against war with Germany. She met Hitler and liked him; nor did she renege on her belief in appeasement. In the first week of the war she threatened to turf Nancy out of a car because her daughter had said something rude about Hitler. Or so Nancy wrote, to Jessica, who thirty years later recounted this story during a BBC documentary.
So unfair, raged Diana. People won’t realize how nasty and ‘needling’ Nancy could be to their mother. In other words, Sydney had been at the end of her tether, rather than roused to defend the Führer. ‘Muv was so much more marvellous than Nancy,’ concluded Diana, rather pathetically.

As ever, Deborah was emollient. She really was the only Mitford girl to retain good relations with all the others and to receive, and deftly juggle, all their confidences. Despite the Hitler nonsense, which she largely ignored, Deborah adored Diana and respected her sister’s passionate desire to defend Sydney. Jessica, in Deborah’s view, was inevitably prepared to attack their mother as a reactionary, a right-winger, all the rest of it – but ‘the old hen has a heart’. Nancy was – as Deborah conceded – a tricky one, who had been unable to mature sufficiently to accept her mother as a person in her own right, but whose life had perhaps required the creation of a familial scapegoat? Deborah was easier on Nancy than Diana was. But this youngest daughter had also been unequivocally fond of Sydney, able to see that her Mrs Bennet life was enough to drive a clever woman round the twist and that, rather than become obsessively wrapped up in her daughters, she had deployed a mixture of detachment and rigidity that had frustrated Nancy, angered Jessica and left Unity, just possibly, fatally derailed. Deborah, in contrast, was perfectly suited by her upbringing, or perhaps she was unaffected by it. She conveyed her mother’s withdrawn air by prefixing her every utterance with the evocation of a languid drawl: ‘Orrnnnhh’. By this simple device – typically Deborah in its dry, perceptive absurdity – any sense of Sydney’s coldness and abstraction is neutralized. ‘Telling Muv something thrilling or frightening seldom evoked more than “Orrnnnhh, Stubby, fancy”...’ In Deborah’s account, all her other sisters periodically complained about Sydney; she freely admitted that being the youngest made it easier for her. For example she went hunting alone from the age of twelve. ‘It’s all right for Lady Redesdale,’ said another mother, ‘she’s got five more girls so it doesn’t matter if anything happens to Debo...’


The complex influence of Sydney extended to the family friend James Lees-Milne, who wrote in her 1963 obituary that she presided over the Mitfords with ‘imperturbable serenity, pride and sweetness’. Far from being off-putting, her ‘patrician reserve’ was ‘one of her chief charms’. Looking back upon his stays at Asthall and Swinbrook, he concluded: ‘The source of those cloudless days was – I now realise it with pangs of sadness – that enigmatical, generous, great-minded matriarchal figure...’

What may or may not be relevant here is that Lees-Milne worshipped Diana – a couple of years her senior, he thought her a perfect girl and remained steadfast throughout her problematical adulthood – and did not entirely like Nancy. They were friends, but in his writings he was often critical of her. ‘I did not much enjoy [dinner] for Nancy’s scintillations dry me up,’ was a typical diary entry. Her teasing, he wrote, had a ‘sharp little barb barely concealed like the hook of an angler’s fly beneath a riot of gay feathers’. Many people saw Nancy as barbed, including Diana. John Betjeman, on the other hand, who knew the family well, thought that ‘Nancy was the warmest’. With his poetic perception, he might have seen her relationship with Sydney as a dense, sad, accumulation of stubbornness that not even death could break down. To those inclined to criticize, however, Nancy’s relationship with her mother showed her in a poor light. Lees-Milne celebrated the very qualities in Sydney that left Nancy feeling guilty and misunderstood; one wonders what she made of his obituary. Jessica, who liked it, was large-minded enough not to object to the criticisms of
Hons and Rebels
, although she was droll about the notion of Sydney’s ‘mariner’ soul. ‘All very well for J. Lees-Milne, thought I, but who wants to be brought up by a mariner?’

Lees-Milne had, by his own account, been one of the first people to observe the phenomenon of the ‘Mitford girls’ in action. In his autobiography he recalled a dinner at Swinbrook in 1926, in the course of which – so the story went – David had thrown a gigantic tantrum. He had reacted furiously to Lees-Milne’s suggestion that England should be making friends with Germany (something of a recurring theme, this), and shouted: ‘You don’t know what the bloody Huns are like. They are worse than all the devils in hell.’ The sainted Sydney had calmed her husband down (‘with a pained expression on her dear face’) but the situation had gone too far for retrieval. According to Lees-Milne, all the girls – from Nancy, aged twenty-one, to Deborah aged six – ‘looked at one another and then chanted in unison: ‘“We don’t want to lose you/ But we think you ought to go.”’

As it happened, the girls did no such thing. For somebody who did not admire Nancy’s writing – as he later admitted was the case – Lees-Milne had bought in completely to her myth-making. His recollection of the evening was published in 1970, twenty-five years after
The Pursuit of Love
, and what it offers is tantamount to an omitted and rediscovered scene from the novel: raging Uncle Matthew, tranquil Aunt Sadie, the x 6 entity of the beautiful, buoyant sisters. The Mitford girls of Lees-Milne’s description were a literary construct rather than a memory. In fact the dinner party in question took place in 1928, and there was no merry singing at the end of it; it is doubtful whether the younger sisters were even there. The evening disintegrated into extreme and unusual discomfiture. This was made clear in a letter written by Nancy at the time, to Tom Mitford. Many years later Diana remembered it as an exceptional occasion at which ‘everybody’ lost their tempers.

It was through Tom that Lees-Milne met the Mitfords; the two boys attended the same prep school and at Eton had a love affair. In another volume of autobiography Lees-Milne described his relationship with Tom with remarkable touching openness: how, outside the school chapel on Sunday evenings, ‘he and I would... passionately embrace, lips to lips, body pressed to body, each feeling the opposite fibre of the other...’ After Eton, as Lees-Milne recalled, Tom became exclusively heterosexual, although he had had several affairs at school, including a fling with Hamish St Clair-Erskine, whom Nancy later dreamed of marrying. On one occasion he had a friend to stay at Swinbrook and his mother asked whether they would mind sharing his bedroom, whereupon his sisters collapsed in hysteria. In other words they knew perfectly well what Tom got up to – he probably simply told them – which makes it all the more perverse that Nancy later refused to accept Hamish’s obvious homosexuality.

Tom, like Diana, was a perfect distillation of the Mitford looks and cleverness. The qualities of the family collected themselves together in him, breeding a man who did not, in worldly terms, achieve all that he might have done, but who left a mark simply by what he was. He was a refined product, with an impassive countenance and a fastidious mind: ‘with him,’ wrote Lees-Milne, ‘the second best simply did not pass muster’.
His rarefied tastes – Milton, Schopenhauer, Bach – communicated themselves to his sisters, Diana in particular. At Batsford, when Tom was prepared for his prep school, Nancy had been spurred to academic rivalry with him. Later, Jessica’s sense of stultification was alleviated by the literature that Tom inspired her to read.

After Eton – which he left in 1927, not long after the Mitford move to Swinbrook House – rather than go to university he travelled to Europe, where he studied music, and stayed for a time in Austria at the ancient Schloss Bernstein belonging to the Hungarian count, Janos von Almasy. It has been suggested
that Tom had an affair with Almasy (later this would also be said of Unity). There is no evidence for this, other than Tom’s youthful predilections. Nancy did tease her brother that Sydney thought his ‘Austrian friends’ were ‘getting hold of’ him – nudge nudge – but in fact he had fallen for a girl, Francesca Erdody. Subsequently he spent time in Berlin. As with his grandfather and two of his sisters, something in that thunderous, uncompromising culture spoke to him.

BOOK: Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
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