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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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Jessica picked up and ran with the image of her father as Uncle Matthew (she even bought into him as General Murgatroyd), most particularly in his ideas relating to literacy. She promoted the Nancy-created myths that he loathed education for girls (sort of true), loathed reading (not really true), and loathed girls reading. The claim was that if he found one of his daughters with a book, he would come up with some sort of errand: ‘Go and tell Hooper’ – the groom – to thwart them. Perhaps it might have happened that way if the girl in question had been seen lounging with a book in the house, but as most of the books were in the Asthall barn the dread activity of reading could take place in peace.

Anyway he did not want ignorant daughters (like his grandmother, Lady Airlie, he was insistent upon proficiency in French). He simply had the ideas of his class about what was desirable. A country-living aristocrat born in the mid-Victorian era
think that girls should be educated chiefly at home, should acquire charm and accomplishments and a good seat on a horse, with a view to a successful debut in society. David was more liberal than most fathers; in no real way did he clamp down upon his daughters’ behaviour. This reactionary-cum-liberal attitude, this potent mixture of restraint and freedom, has been held responsible – in part at least – for the excesses of certain Mitford girls. And probably quite rightly. But it was more complicated than that: there were more factors at work. It was not David’s fault that he had so many daughters, that they were bright and mischievous and competitive, that they fought for the attention of a distant mother, that they came of age when the world went mad.

What certainly influenced the sisters was the sheer scale of David’s personality, the theatricality that blossomed when he acquired his inheritance. He was a big man, in every sense. And the girls were most attracted, on the whole, to highly masculine types; the New Man would have done very little for them. It was not until later that they realized the inadequacies that lay within their father’s splendid exterior.

He was, for instance, truly hopeless with money. ‘Poor Dowdie,
so unlucky
,’ was the sweet, demeaning judgment of his mother Clementine (no home economist either: having got through thousands of her own, in old age she moved from a house in Earl’s Court to Redesdale Cottage in Northumberland, where she kept a pig on a lead). Again David could not be blamed for his lack of financial sense, although he may have blamed himself. After selling Batsford and a proportion of its contents, as well as disposing of the Kensington house and the Northumberland estate, he should have been comfortably set up for life (not least because only Tom’s education would have cost real money). In 1921 Sydney received a financial shot in the arm, when her father died leaving her just under a quarter of his £60,000 estate; this was her own money, but it all helped. Meanwhile David added to the Swinbrook acres, a perfectly reasonable investment. However, as Nancy wrote crisply of her imaginary Lord Fortinbras, ‘he and his forebears have always regarded their estates with the eyes of sportsmen rather than cultivators.’

David, like Fortinbras, planted woods for game and regarded his land as a vast outdoor playground. At Asthall Manor, he made plenty of sensible changes – in addition to the new outbuildings he installed water-powered electric light, and created a lovely beech avenue leading to the house – but all for a place that he wanted to get rid of. ‘Oh how mad to have done all that & then sold it at a loss to build Swinbrook,’ Diana lamented to Deborah, sixty years after the event. Mad indeed. Had he not determined upon moving to Swinbrook House, ‘he could have hung on’ – meaning financially – but there was a sort of stubbornness, and again a frustration, that compelled David to do these things.

Although Asthall Manor was not sold until 1926, it was advertised for sale – together with 2,140 acres – as early as 1922, and to let the following year. Either there were no takers, or David changed his mind for a while. Then came the dreaded Swinbrook, eighteen bedrooms’ worth of it, built on the site of an old house called South Lawn. Of course there was nothing really wrong with the place (although over-symmetry gave it an institutional air), but homeliness is not a quality that can be fabricated, and after Asthall it seemed bare and shivery (hence the lure of the Hons’ Cupboard, and the childish cries of ‘the knives and forks are so cold we can’t eat with them’). The interior doors were elm, which warps easily. Nancy, who teased atrociously about Swinebrook, contended that one could put a head around a locked bathroom door and see what was going on behind it. The beautiful furniture was arranged with Sydney’s usual flair but never looked as though it belonged to the rooms. Although Deborah loved the house, being too young (six) to know much of the sprawling easy charm of Asthall, to everybody else it was a dull disappointment. For this, too, David may have blamed himself. ‘At Swinbrook,’ wrote Diana, ‘his gaiety seemed to diminish, and he became almost, if never quite, grown up.’

The move did fragment the family. With unconscious poetry Sydney evoked the sense of loss by saying that she remembered life at Asthall as ‘all summers’. Yet by 1926 there were other changes, coincidental and inevitable. Nancy and Pam were now out in society. Tom was in his last year at Eton. Diana was being readied for her debutante season. The family was splitting in two, in the nature of things. The older children could not really regret the fact that their grandfather’s library was now housed in David’s study, nor that the piano stood on public display in the long white drawing room, where nobody felt very inclined to play it. But Jessica, certainly, must have felt the lack of the Asthall barn, that wonderful retreat. One does have the impression that the world of the younger Mitford girls was sillier, more facile, than that of Nancy and Diana. If this is partly because of the way that Jassy and Victoria behave in
Love in a Cold Climate
– squawking constantly about sex (‘blissikins’) and chanting headlines from the
Daily Express
– then one also assumes that Nancy caught their mood from life. It was fine for Deborah, with her beautifully healthy character and love of country pursuits; there were no ill-effects from this introverted life among extrovert people. She was totally absorbed in the long Oxfordshire days, the pretty village with its small green square of cricket ground, the little church where she would lick the pew
and arrange primroses for the Easter decorations, the woods with the Gibbet Oak that had once been a hanging tree, the blacksmith doing his rough, dextrous work with hooves and shoes, the adored groom Hooper whose mare – a war horse – dropped dead during the Armistice silence in 1927, the marvellous abundance of dogs, the hens that gossiped around her feet and whose eggs she sold to her mother for extra pocket money – it all formed an indestructible bedrock of security against the storms to come. But Jessica and Unity suffered more, at Swinbrook, from the sense of being cut off and mutually reliant; even though Unity need not have been either, had she managed to stay at school.

In autumn 1926, before the move to Swinbrook, Sydney travelled with her daughters (and Blor) to Paris, where they spent several months at a family hotel in the Avenue Victor-Hugo – quite a normal practice in those days, far cheaper than it would be today – and Diana was enrolled at the Cours Fénelon finishing school (where she admitted learning more in six months than she had in six years at Asthall). A governess was found for the three youngest girls. Nancy, whose good friend Mary O’Neill was then staying in Paris with her grandfather, the British ambassador, had a glorious time judging from an excitable letter to Tom. She went with Pam to stay with Baron Robert de Rothschild, dined at the embassy with Mary and began to steep herself in the eighteenth century French history that would later become her passion (‘they were all exactly like
, that’s the truth!’ she wrote of the Versailles court in the age of Louis XV).

Nancy had visited Paris for the first time in 1922 – with girls from Hatherop Castle school – and experienced something of a premonitory
coup de foudre
, encountering that dusk-and-honey-colour city where she would later be so happy. Waiting for a bus in the Avenue Henri-Martin she had, she wrote, found herself in tears at the sheer loveliness. Her worship of Paris, of France, of almost every French person both past and present, may have been nurtured during the Second World War in reaction to the Teutonic sympathies of certain family members; but it was also real. Nancy’s light, formal, discriminating spirit found its counterpart in Fragonard and Sèvres. After the blissful 1926 Paris sojourn it was therefore especially ghastly to return to the new house at Swinbrook. To Tom, again, she expressed her feelings: ‘Deep depression has the Mitford family in its clutches...’ Rather like children – but with the wryness of young adults – the brother and sister invented an imaginary land, ‘Kr’, that was the opposite of Swinbrook.

Some relief came from the fact that David had by this time acquired another London house, 26 Rutland Gate, with a mews behind. It had cost almost £28,000, an enormous sum. This was not a particularly beautiful place either – a tall, stand-alone building, which like Asthall had a graveyard beside it (for the Russian Orthodox church). But it was also rather splendid, with a balcony overlooking Hyde Park, a lift installed by David, a charming grey and gold drawing room and an odd internal communication system, whereby one blew down a mouthpiece to alert another floor and then talked into it. This makes the house sound extremely large, which it was: a real giant old London home, with nine servants. It was close to what Sydney called ‘wicked old Harrod’ (Harrods) which delivered food, to the Albert Hall where the family had permanent seats, and (which Deborah adored) to the Tattersalls auction house that in those days sold thoroughbred horses on Knightsbridge Green.

It was, however, rented out much of the time from 1929 onwards: the point at which the Mitford finances went truly awry. Rutland Gate was let first to the Earl of Elgin, while Sir Charles Hambro took Swinbrook. The Daimler was sold. The girls hunkered down in the mews and at Sydney’s cottage in High Wycombe. David went gold prospecting again in Canada. (Evelyn Waugh, then at a loose end, mused: ‘I might go and dig in Lord Redesdale’s bogus gold mine if he would let me.’

As poverty went, it was relative – and relatively intermittent, in that the family returned to Swinbrook in 1931 – and could in part be attributed to the Wall Street Crash that took so much down with it. But David had sold and built, sold and bought for the past ten years, always doing too much of everything, living as if the future would mysteriously resolve itself, while at the same time warning his daughters that they would have no funds (which they did not: ‘Oh, I never had any
!’ shrieked Nancy in a television interview,
claiming that she had written
Highland Fling
for the simple reason that she wanted to ‘earn £100’.) Interestingly, none of the Mitford girls seems to have minded about their father’s financial incompetence. The impression is that they just accepted it, or did not take it very seriously. ‘We lived under the shadow, so to speak, of two hammers,’ Nancy would later say in her airy way, ‘the builder’s and the auctioneer’s.’
But there
been a fine inheritance. Once Batsford was sold – and many aristocratic families at the time got rid of those vast houses – there should have been no more problems. Quite simply, the problem was David. He was married to a woman who kept immaculate accounts, who prudently paid her children’s governesses from the eggs that she sold to London clubs, who attempted to teach economy by asking them to plan how to spend a household budget of £500 (‘Flowers: £490’, was Nancy’s first entry), yet who seems to have been incapable of guiding her husband away from his worst instincts. One might say that she was essentially a Victorian, born into an era in which wives did not question their husbands – but in fact any woman not married to a monster could always shove her man gently towards the path of good sense. Perhaps Diana, who later said that her mother had a dreadful time with so much selling and moving, was right when she suggested that her father had ‘paid no heed to Muv’.

He had sold Asthall at a loss – typical ‘poor Dowdie’ behaviour – nor had he received a particularly good price for Batsford. Having been advertised for auction, the estate was instead sold privately; as was the Otterburn land in Northumberland, some 12,000-plus acres, which the buyer then sold on immediately. This transaction was cited in a Parliamentary debate, expressing concern about ‘cases of disturbance of tenants by reason of speculation in land values’. The strong implication here is that David had offloaded something that he should have tried harder to keep. Money goes; land does not.

So then David sought to make money, through business ventures. He went at it like somebody in a
Boy’s Own
comic, dashing off to gold mines, investing in a scheme to raise gold bullion from a sunken galleon. Most unfortunately of all, he was persuaded by his brother-in-law, Geoffrey Bowles, to put money into a business run by a mysterious South American, the ‘Marquis of Andia’. This man had devised ways to hide what was then called a wireless, that is to say a radio, which in those days – the late 1920s – was an ugly great thing. The marquis had created a whole series of decorative plastic containers that could, as Diana put it in her delicately mirthful way, ‘take an honoured place among the old Famille Rose’. At the time this may have seemed a good idea, although it now sounds tremendously bogus (reminiscent of the woman in Patrick Hamilton’s
Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse
who conceals her telephone beneath the skirts of a Marie Antoinette doll). And indeed David, having become a director of the ‘Artandia Ltd’ company, took fright fairly quickly. He warned his friend Lord Dulverton (to whom he had sold Batsford) against investing; by a succession of Chinese whispers this led to a slander case at the High Court in 1930, in which David was accused of saying that the marquis was a conman with no right to his title, and that his wife was ‘no better than she ought to be’. Of course he had said these things. But he stood up firmly to cross-examination, the judge was very much on his side, and the case was dismissed.

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