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Authors: Laura Thompson

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Historical

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The Mitford girls came of age in a period of profound and, perhaps more importantly, highly
dramatic
change. Nancy made her society debut on 28 November 1922. The occasion was a ball at Asthall, reported in
The Times
’s court pages with the formal respect then given to the upper classes (‘Among those who brought parties to the dance were Countess Bathurst...’), for all the world as if the Edwardian era had never come to an end. The dance for the youngest sister, Deborah, was held at the family’s London home on 22 March 1938. Ten days previously, Adolf Hitler had instigated the
Anschluss
, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany.

In the sixteen years between the two coming-out balls, politics had become ever more openly polarized and extreme. Communism and Fascism stood at each end of the global chessboard like clumsy monoliths. Democracy seemed a feeble little beast by contrast, bleating of moderation in the face of the aftermath of war and the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression and mass unemployment. Of course Britain did not – as Italy, Spain and Germany did – turn to dictators, but there were many who craved those illusions and certainties, the politics of poster slogans. The British Communist Party was formed in 1920, followed three years later – almost inevitably – by the first, small Fascist Party.

Meanwhile a succession of governments, mostly very short-lived, grappled with the enduring economic crisis and the attendant fear of instability. The ‘Zinoviev Letter’ of 1924, purportedly an instruction from the president of the Communist International to unleash class war, was taken very seriously. Whatever the truth about the origins of the document, Bolshevik subsidies had indeed been paid to foment unrest; but there was cause enough anyway for real grievance. Unemployment was appallingly high, close to 3 million in 1933. The first of six National Hunger Marches took place a couple of weeks before Nancy’s society debut. In 1926 came the General Strike; ten years later, the Jarrow Crusade. In 1929 the first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, had appointed the dynamic young MP Sir Oswald Mosley to deal with the unemployment problem, but Mosley went his own way when his radical (though not unpopular) ideas were rejected. He formed the New Party in 1931 then, a year later, the British Union of Fascists.

In Germany, where 7 million were unemployed in 1933, where poverty was dire and a sense of post-war grievance primed to explode, a stark choice presented itself between Communism and Nazism. When Hitler became Chancellor he declared war on Marxism, and for this reason if no other was admired in some British quarters, as Mussolini had been when he took power in 1922. Certain members of the aristocracy were quite open in their desire to make common cause with Hitler: in 1936 the Anglo-German Fellowship held a dinner for Ambassador von Ribbentrop attended by, among others, the Duke of Wellington, Lord Londonderry, and Lord and Lady Redesdale. That same year Lord Redesdale praised Hitler almost unreservedly in the House of Lords, and attacked the press for ‘the greatest exaggeration in such matters as the Nazi treatment of the Jews’. Then he came to the heart of the matter: ‘Whatever might be said against certain details of his administration, it is certain that Herr Hitler saved Germany from going red.’ This was the aristocrat’s view. Yet it was shared in some measure by a good many normal, anxious Britons, in whom the terror of Communism ran deeper than can possibly be grasped today. On the other side, within a sizeable part of the intelligentsia – the kind of people whom Stalin was methodically liquidating – Communism represented a vision of alluring idealistic clarity; but it was also a bulwark against Fascism. The fact that these two wildly opposing creeds were, when one came down to it, remarkably similar was perceived by many, including Nancy and Deborah Mitford. But sanity of this sort was not altogether in tune with the 1930s. What was demanded were gesture politics, uncompromising affiliations, solutions based upon theory rather than the hesitant realities of human nature. Young people have always responded to the clarion call of extremism: Diana, Jessica and Unity did not resist.

Nevertheless what they did
was
extraordinary. Again, familiarity has dulled its significance; but again, consider. They were not the only bright young things who flirted with extremism at that time (a cousin, Clementine Mitford, got briefly carried away by the thrill of shiny jackboots), yet the point about the Mitford sisters is that they were
not
flirting, they carried their convictions through. As Deborah wrote of Jessica in 1952: ‘Her blasted cause has become so much part of her that she can never forget it.’ Can one imagine their equivalent today? A nineteen-year-old Jessica Mitford, absconding to a life with an Islamic fundamentalist? No: a girl of that class might dabble excitably in ‘activism’, in the sense of waving an anti-fracking banner in Sussex (where her parents have a house) or having a fling with a sexy anti-capitalist protester (who went to school with her brother). Jessica’s fellow runaway Esmond Romilly
was
in fact a cousin of the family, an ex-Wellington boy; Jessica, as Nancy wrote in a fictionalized version of the situation, ‘had been introduced to him and knew his surname’. Yet when she disappeared in 1937 – supposedly to meet friends in Dieppe, where she never arrived – the skies fell in for her parents. For a fortnight they did not know whether she was dead or alive, and simply sat beside the telephone, waiting for they did not know what. Lord Redesdale never saw Jessica again after seeing her off at Victoria Station. When news of her whereabouts finally arrived, her father is alleged to have said: ‘Worse than I thought. Married to Esmond Romilly,’ but if he did say this then he didn’t mean it. The shock of what Jessica had done – the casual, callous finality with which she disowned her former life – was one from which her parents never recovered (although far worse was to come). ‘I nearly went mad when it seemed you had quite disappeared,’ Lady Redesdale wrote to her. And for Deborah: ‘It was far the worst thing that happened to me.’ Forty years after the event, Jessica wrote to Deborah that she was ‘v astonished’ to have caused her such distress, but the tone of this letter was defensive and not altogether convincing. The point is that back in 1937 Jessica hadn’t much cared whom she hurt. Such was the power of the extremist cause, embodied in a man. The man alone might have led her to elope. It was the extremism that led to the swift absolutism with which all else was abandoned.

Usually it is disaffected men who embrace a dramatic ideology, although girls do it too. But the Mitford sisters? Those posh, protected creatures, who rode side-saddle to hounds, who were presented at court, who danced in and out of the great houses of London? Society tends to say of its young rebels: they have nothing to lose. This is not always true, but for sure they would have less to lose than the Mitfords. They had everything to lose. They were the smooth-skinned daughters of privilege. Nor were they too stupid to know what they were doing: Jessica was as sharp as a tack and Diana’s idea of light reading was Goethe (her wedding present from Dr Goebbels was a complete set of Goethe’s works, bound in pink calfskin). Jessica was also pretty, vital, by all accounts enchanting, while Diana, beautiful as a goddess, had a worshipping husband and two young sons, a life of picture-book perfection in Belgravia. Unity, as Deborah later put it, was ‘always the odd one out’; nevertheless she was bright, handsome and popular despite her occasionally unnerving eccentricity.

Of course the sheer idiocy of youth played its part. ‘The Führer got into quite a rage twice... it was wonderful,’ is a typical phrase from Unity’s letters, which sometimes give the impression that Hitler is Mick Jagger and she a favoured groupie circa 1966. But there was more. Something in these young women responded to the dark power of the times. Beneath the sunlit Mitford effervescence ran a deadlier, steadily determined tide. There was a strong sex element in it, in this willingness to embrace the aggressive and unyielding, and it was obviously connected to individual men – but it was still more mysterious than that: extremism calls upon the entire pre-civilized self.

Exactly why, and how, the girls took the paths that they did will be analysed more fully later. The starting point was Diana’s deep, complex passion for Sir Oswald Mosley; although she had already been influenced by the intellectual Teutonic sympathies of her forebears. In the context of the period, and of the family dynamic, their behaviour does become just about comprehensible. It also remains almost incredible. ‘What lives we do lead,’ as Nancy wrote to her mother in 1940, her tone dry and disbelieving.

She
had not hurled herself headlong into extremism. The family friend Violet Hammersley once wrote to Nancy, saying ‘You Mitfords like dictators,’ but this was only half true. Pamela married a Fascist sympathizer and met Hitler (‘like an old farmer in a brown suit’), yet she stood quite apart from the behaviour of Diana and Unity. So too did Deborah, who spent the month before the Second World War at a house party for York races. Nancy helped Republican refugees in the Spanish Civil War, then went home to perform frenetic amounts of patriotic war work.

Nevertheless there
was
a characteristic aspect to the politicized girls. It wasn’t simply what they did, it was the way they did it: with the smiles-over-steel quality that is definitively Mitford. They were naturally and comfortably shameless. Not necessarily flagrant, although Unity became so in her love of Nazism; more accurate to say that they were shame-free. Their confidence was blithe, adamantine. Whatever the subject matter, the idiom remained that of the nursery. There was a bizarre disconnect between their mode of expression (sweet Hitler, blissful Lenin) and what they were actually doing. The story of Jessica and Unity dividing a room in half, decorating one side with hammers and sickles, the other with swastikas, pretty much sums up the Mitford relationship with politics. Completely sincere, but also attention-seeking: showing off to Nanny.

They did not necessarily court publicity, of which they naturally received a large and damaging amount, but they were not afraid of it. Partly this was in the blood – they had two very showy grandfathers – but it was also
them
, their natures, the spectrum of beauty that they covered, the x 6 aspect that magnified them into something overwhelming. Looking as they did, the Mitford girls were never going to be ignored. Being what they were, they did not want to be. They had a feel for the limelight, a desire to prance in its glow. ‘Whoever is going to look at you?’ was their nanny’s refrain, but that upper-class instinct towards self-effacement – the fear of being vulgar – was not really in them. Nancy was not just a writer, she was a ‘celebrity’ author (Evelyn Waugh: ‘I saw Debo last week. I feel it my duty to tell you that she is spreading a very damaging story about you: that you have allowed yourself to be photographed by the Television.’
3
) She offered up her persona quite willingly, writing a highly opinionated column for the
Sunday Times,
co-operating with a slightly naff musical version of
The Pursuit of Love
4
and, later, with a projected ITV comedy series based on the lives of the Mitford sisters.
5
Deborah gave numerous interviews as Duchess of Devonshire, and was possibly amused by the ease with which journalists could be coaxed to eat from her hand (‘How could
anyone
resist her?’
6
). Diana, although she must have known it was asking for trouble, went on Radio 4’s
Desert Island Discs
in 1989. The public reaction to her appearance was predictable outrage; but alongside the Mitford instinct for populism was a total lack of concern about what people thought of them. If they had ever used Twitter, which is not entirely impossible (one can certainly imagine Jessica), they would have roared with laughter at the #poshbitch abuse. They were tough, as well as airy. When Diana and her husband were placed under house arrest in 1943, they were besieged by a pack of pressmen and forced to sit tight with the curtains drawn: ‘I would rather be
us
than them’, wrote Diana, ‘because it is the most frightful weather.’ When Nancy wrote her 1955 treatise on class, ‘The English Aristocracy’,
7
with its famous division of vocabulary into ‘U’ (upper-class) and ‘Non-U’ – viz, writing paper versus notepaper – the enraged response left her essentially unshaken. ‘Who
are
you anyway?’ asked one reader. ‘So difficult to answer, really!’ was her reaction.

Snobbery, shallowness, stupidity, adultery, unpalatability – the Mitfords were accused of all these things and rode out every criticism, smiling brightly, talking in that direct yet obtuse way that disarms attack. In Diana this ‘never apologize, never explain’ quality was intensified to an almost unparalleled degree. It is hard to think of anybody more truly indifferent to public opinion. ‘Being hated means absolutely nothing to me as you know,’ she wrote to Deborah in 2001. ‘I admired him very much,’ she said of Hitler on
Desert Island Discs.
‘My husband was a
very
clever man,’ she remarked to me, in the same calm beatific way as she said almost everything. It has been suggested, surely rightly,
8
that she was incapable of telling anything other than the truth as she saw it. This made things simple for her, but also very difficult. She refused to defend or exonerate herself. She could have put the blame on circumstances, said that she had got carried away and now saw events differently: but no. Whatever one thinks of her, it has to be said that only a woman in a million would have stood as firm as she did. Instead she wrote articles that argued, with cool cogency, against unquestioned ideas such as the absolute rightness of war against Germany, or the absolute evil of the Vichy regime; she described Hitler as ‘a terrible part’ of history but refused retrospectively to edit her friendship with him; and her loyalty to Sir Oswald Mosley was so stalwart as to be almost beyond comprehension, like something from a legend. But Diana
did
have a mythic aspect, with her dynamic serenity, her sphinx smile. Even her sisters were confounded by her. Her political allegiances did not affect the remarkable, open-minded kindness that she displayed in every other area of her life. Her constant rippling urge to laughter did not prevent adherence to a creed that took itself insanely seriously. Far more than Jessica and Unity – both strongly influenced by her – Diana was an enigma. In fact she was quite possibly one of the most enigmatic women who ever lived. When people talk about the ‘Mitford Girls’, it is she and Nancy whom they really mean, because without the separate components of Diana and Nancy the spell of the whole would never have been created.

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