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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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Diana defined the mysterious, implacable side of the sisters. Nancy defined their wayward enchantment, their sublime silliness, their use of jokes as an act of defiance (‘there is,’ as Nancy wrote in a letter when she was dying of cancer, ‘always something to laugh at.’) This distinction is simplistic, however, because the dual nature of the Mitfords cannot be pulled apart: in its contradictions lie the very heart of their fascination.

There is no such word as ‘Mitfordian’, but – like Proustian, Dickensian or Gilbertian – it has a meaning. It is understood by people who may know little of the sisters’ actual lives, yet who have absorbed their image.

The reason for this is ultimately very simple. The elements that make up the phenomenon of the Mitford sisters are various, complex and contradictory; but what
counts is the fact that this phenomenon was parcelled and wrapped and sold with a beautiful great bow on it: by Nancy. She is the begetter of ‘the Mitfords’. In 1945 she wrote her family into life in
The Pursuit of Love.
Thereafter she – followed by Jessica in the autobiographical
Hons and Rebels

nurtured and primed the Mitfordian image until it became the essence of aristocratic charm, accessible yet untouchable, and as dangerously irresistible as a drug.

Without Nancy, the sisters would have had their own separate significance, with Unity the most noteworthy. But their significance en masse – culturally, societally – came from the first Mitford girl. Not necessarily the cleverest of them – that was Diana – but by some measure the most intelligent, Nancy took an overview of her upbringing, gathered it up between her pretty little hands and remoulded it as art. By so doing – by writing
The Pursuit of Love
, that outbreath of familial memory, with its pinpoint accuracy shading into timeless haze – Nancy made of that world something definitive. So
is her novel, it contains within it far more than she could possibly have intended during the three months of its creation. It contains the genesis of the Mitford myth. And the Mitford myth contains, first and foremost, an image of England.

To understand the sisters properly one must go to the Cotswolds, where they grew up, and to the adjacent villages of Asthall and Swinbrook, which was once their father’s land. Four of them – Nancy, Unity, Diana and Pamela – are buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Swinbrook. What strikes one most is how unassuming is this ending place, how embedded in the landscape, how secure in its acceptance of time and death, how unlike the bright frenetic span in which the sisters put their mark upon the world. ‘Say not the struggle naught availeth’ is the inscription on Unity’s gravestone: a very moving thing to read, especially in this calm little square of green, where the silence is absolute except for the tentative bravura of birdsong and a hymn being sung inside an English church. Here, the struggle of Unity’s short, misguided life drops away into irrelevance.

From the church – which houses a memorial to Tom Mitford and a set of oak pews paid for by Lord Redesdale’s winning bet in the 1924 Grand National – one can walk a mile or so to Asthall Manor, where the greater part of the Mitford childhood was spent. This is where the imaginative lives of the girls were formed: in country the colour of hen pheasants, in a shallow flattened valley scooped from apparently limitless fields, amid drystone walls, fat healthy sheep and the constant rustle of the River Windrush. Asthall itself, dark brown and gabled, stands as rooted as a great tree, with beside it the church, whose graveyard was overlooked by the nursery windows.

Everything about Britain has changed since the Mitford girls lived in this small part of Oxfordshire, yet Asthall and Swinbrook seem not to have changed, and Asthall Manor is a peculiarly beautiful example of that unchanging ideal: the English country house. This magical constancy is the backdrop to
The Pursuit of Love.
Nancy reimagined Asthall as ‘Alconleigh’, peopled it with her family and described it, not with idealism, but with a ravishing lightness and clarity, like the sun spilling onto the fields at dawn.

It is a construct, of course. The Mitfords were not quite like Nancy’s fictional ‘Radletts’. Her father’s rampaging eccentricity was rendered faithfully, as were his habits – such as writing down the names of people he disliked and putting the paper into a drawer, stuck with pins – but ‘Uncle Matthew’ was a simpler, more assured man than the real-life Lord Redesdale, and ‘Aunt Sadie’ a more benign woman than his real-life wife. Although the book covers the same timescale as the one that sent assorted Mitfords dashing towards political extremes, there is no reference to the fact that Lady Redesdale herself was an admirer of Hitler. The grimly naive remarks made by Lord Redesdale about pre-war Germany are also expunged. ‘Good God, I never expected to harbour a full-blooded Hun in this house,’ says Uncle Matthew, when the son of the Governor of the Bank of England (surname Kroesig) turns up at his daughter’s coming-out ball. Nor does
The Pursuit of Love
allude to the dark passions of Unity and Diana, while Jessica’s elopement is made light of: the fictional ‘Jassy’ absconds with a Hollywood film star, and the heroine Linda, who falls for a Communist, does so mainly because he is incredibly good-looking.

Then there is the emphasis that Nancy places upon continuum. The seasons come and go, as does the hunting and the lambing, the rhythms of country life; the Radlett children roam and flit like butterflies, searching for brightness; and Alconleigh itself stands immutable at the heart of it all, rooted in the land with which Uncle Matthew has an ineffable bond.

In fact the Mitfords had three main childhood homes, whose surrounding acres were disposed of in job lots. Lord Redesdale inherited considerable assets when he succeeded to the title in 1916, but he was unable to hold on to them. Batsford Park in Gloucestershire, a fairytale castle of old gold built by his father, was first to go in 1919, together with almost 10,000 acres. In 1926 Asthall Manor and more land was sold. The home that the family had grown to love was replaced with the self-built Swinbrook House, a chilly, over-symmetrical structure perched just outside the village. Nancy gave Alconleigh something of the appearance of Swinbrook – ‘It was all as grim and as bare as a barracks, stuck upon the high hillside’ – but little of its atmosphere. Only Deborah liked it there. Jessica, aged nine when the family moved to Swinbrook (or ‘Swinebrook’, as Nancy called it), longed to leave. She collected ‘running-away money’, and asked repeatedly to be sent to school, a request fulfilled only briefly. When she did escape, Lord Redesdale may have blamed himself for not giving her a happier home, but Jessica’s teenage rebelliousness – which lasted well into middle age – was more complex than that. Nevertheless the move to Swinbrook was significant; it was the beginning of the end for the family as an entity. ‘We never again had real family life after we left Asthall,’
Diana later wrote. Nancy devised a brittle tease about how their fortunes had descended from Batsford
to Asthall
to Swinbrook
, but after Swinbrook was sold in 1938 there were no more country houses at all. That life was over.

The supreme irony about
The Pursuit of Love
is that, by the time it was published, pretty much everything that it represented was vanishing. Not just the world of feudal certainties and communion with the land; but that of the Mitfords themselves. Tragedy and dislocation comes to the fictional Radletts, yet the family remains essentially secure in itself, eternal despite the passage of time. In real life, the thunderous ideologies of the 1930s – so impersonal, so destructive of personal happiness – left the Mitfords bereft and broken.

For Nancy, there was creative glee in writing
The Pursuit of Love
, but it was also an act of poignant salvation. She was celebrating what had been lost: her own past, as well as that of her kind. And in doing so she triggered a public response that has never really faded.

After the war, and despite the election of the 1945 Labour government (for which Nancy herself voted), it seemed that people still craved what the ‘Radletts’ had: an ease, an unhurried confidence, a charm that made life a less exigent, more reassuring business, above all a rooted sense of Englishness. Certainly people liked reading about these things. As with
Brideshead Revisited
, also published in 1945,
The Pursuit of Love
was an instant, stunning success. It sold 200,000 copies within a year, 1 million copies by the time of Nancy’s death in 1973, and even now – when the upper classes are about the only minority that can be attacked with impunity – it is as popular as it has ever been. So too is its 1949 successor,
Love in a Cold Climate
, in which the Radletts prance on the sidelines but the central drama exerts the same fundamental enchantment.

Nancy Mitford was an artist. Not major league, but nobody else could do quite what she did. She told her stories in such a way as to encapsulate – to
– the essence of what she was writing. As time went on she became the smiling gatekeeper to a particular image of England (rather than Britain), irresistible not just for its content but for the way in which this was presented. Nancy did not write about the upper classes as her friend Evelyn Waugh did, with an awed seriousness beneath the jokes: she treated them as if they were the most normal thing in the world – which, to her, they were. Nor did she satirize her characters, even the fabulously comedic ones. Her tone was innately good-natured and accepting. Yet her humour, which ran as deep and essential as the marrow in her bones, enabled her to see what she was, and to laugh at it; even though she believed in it.

Nancy offered up the aristocracy with a light touch, without self-consciousness. She exemplified the almost childlike lack of fear in the upper classes, their refusal to throw veils of half-embarrassed discretion over what they are or say. Take, for instance, the reaction of Linda Radlett to her new-born baby. ‘It’s really kinder not to look,’ she says to her friend Fanny, who is equally appalled by the ‘howling orange’ in its swaddling. Now this is a reaction shared by many obliged to coo over cots, but few would dare to express it, and anybody who did would draw attention to their own daring. Nancy felt no such need. She said outrageous things with exactly the same polite, feminine precision as she said anything else. Linda, embarking on a train journey to Spain, tells Fanny that she dreads the journey alone. You may not be alone, says Fanny: ‘Foreigners are greatly given, I believe, to rape.’ ‘Yes, that would be nice...’ In
Love in a Cold Climate
another baby is born, this time to beautiful Polly and her creepy husband; it ‘took one look, according to the Radletts, at its father, and quickly died again’. One’s laughter at this is partly shock, but Nancy was never shocked, nor shockable. Her manners were impeccable, but she was delicately careless of the proprieties. And her refusal to be serious is the most subversive thing of all. When she arrived at Perpignan to work with Spanish Civil War refugees – a hard, distressing job that she performed with caring competence – she was nevertheless unable to resist saying that Unity was also on her way to help. Nothing quite that off-colour ever made it into her novels. They were not, as has been said, the whole truth: they turned the truth into a commodity.

What defines Nancy’s writing – its Mitfordian quality – is the sincerity of her levity. All the sisters had this trait, as to an extent did their father. They brought it out in each other, and sometimes played to the gallery with it: as in Jessica’s
Hons and Rebels
. But it
their natural idiom. A supreme example came from Diana, when she and Mosley were jailed in 1940 as suspected enemy sympathizers, and for three years in Holloway she endured unspeakable conditions and mental anguish. Nevertheless, as she put it to her husband, ‘it was still lovely to wake up in the morning and feel that one was lovely
’ This remark, with its almost painful funniness born of pain, its lightness born of indomitability, above all its complete naturalness (Diana wasn’t trying to be funny, she was simply saying what she meant) is wholly Mitfordian. So too is the private system of jokes, now so familiar that all those nicknames, all that Tuddemy (Tom
), Cake (the Queen Mother
), Boots (Cyril Connolly
), Joan Glover (von Ribbentrop
) and Bosomy (President Kennedy
), can become a bit of a crasher (bore) – although that is not the fault of the jokers themselves. In her novels Nancy modified it slightly. But the dominant voice of her characters
is her own, the Mitford voice, and thus that distinct, direct, wide-eyed, fantastical idiom has become a familiar mode of speech, unbearable to some, adorable to others, oddly impossible to imitate. It is part-childish, part-posh, part-1920s exaggeration – ‘do admit’, ‘oh you are kind, the kindness of you’, ‘she ees
’ – yet what makes it durable is the edge of perceptiveness, the nail on the head quality. ‘You know, being a Conservative is much more restful,’ says Linda Radlett, apropos the Communist Party, ‘though one must remember that it is bad, not good. But it does take place within certain hours, and then finish...’

To be on the receiving end of the Mitford speech mode is an undoubtedly delightful experience. ‘Oh now
you clever
,’ said Deborah to me, when I had done nothing more than recall the name of one of her husband’s racehorses. ‘Miss Thompson:
clever, and
nice,’ said Diana, to an aged gentleman who joined us for tea in her Paris flat. I fell for it, but then so did pretty much everybody who met them (Diana could have had Karl Marx grovelling at her feet). The point, of course, was that the way the sisters spoke was an outward expression of charm. And here one comes down to it: after all the analysis, the identification of the elements that comprise the Mitford phenomenon – the x 6 power, the upbringing, the times in which they lived, the showmanship, the toughness, the humour – one is left with that single, fused element. Charm. A quality that can enrage, but whose mystery is brightly indestructible.

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