Read Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters Online

Authors: Laura Thompson

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Historical

Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters (37 page)

BOOK: Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
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This whole business has made me realize one thing very deeply – ie that this sort of thing is infinitely worse for the wives etc. of the people concerned than themselves. The thought that when people are missing, it is of course a very long time before any definite news can be reached of them, ie as to whether they have landed somewhere and been captured. In a very large number of cases this turns out to be the case... one always imagines the worst somehow, which is utterly irrational.
Incidentally if, which I certainly think is an inconceivable improbability, I should ever find myself in this sort of situation, I have absolutely determined to escape in some way or another...
Very much love, darling angel,

No doubt the brave reasoning contained within this letter was what convinced Jessica that she should not believe ‘the worst’ when, three days before she was due to sail for England, she received a telegram that read: ‘

Churchill, impressively loyal once more to his family ties, left Jessica a message to contact him during a visit to President Roosevelt. She rang the White House, spoke to Roosevelt’s wife and was given an appointment to see Churchill the next day. Again, Jessica was who she was; however much she sometimes did not want to be. When she saw Churchill he was in bed, working. She had Constancia with her and, as he wrote to Nellie Romilly, ‘looked very lovely’: painfully young to be the widow that he knew she had to be. As gently as he could, Churchill explained that Esmond had surely drowned in the bleak North Sea. There had been a search, but fog had halted it; the water was icy, and nobody could possibly survive its temperature. In an attempt at consolation he then talked of Diana, thinking that Jessica would be glad to hear that conditions at Holloway had improved and that her sister was now imprisoned with her husband. Jessica exploded like a firecracker: the Mosleys, she said, should be put up against a wall and shot. It may have been that single moment, in which Churchill’s wildly misguided remark penetrated the great tumult of her grief, that hardened Jessica against her sister thereafter. Shocked by his mistake – he had not known that Jessica felt so violently towards Diana – he then compounded it. He offered to find her a secretarial job with Lord Halifax, his former rival for the post of wartime prime minister, now British ambassador in the US. This too she flung back in his face. Finally he gave her $500. She bought a pony for the daughter of her hosts, the Durrs, and donated the rest to the Communist Party.

Deborah wrote to Jessica with the utmost sincere kindness, saying that she was thinking of her sister the whole time. To Diana she took a slightly different tone: ‘Thank goodness she has got her pig’ (she meant Constancia). ‘It is so much worse for her anyway because of her being so queer.’ Even Deborah, who had managed to maintain closeness with all her sisters, was pulled this way and that within that complex weave of loyalties. Yet despite her own political conservatism, her wish for the whole bunch of extremists to start behaving like normal people, one has the sense that she was most herself when writing to Diana. She had not liked Esmond, as was understandable given his obdurate loathing for the Mitfords, but many years later she expressed the view that the Romilly marriage would undoubtedly have lasted, because the couple were so right for each other. This did not mean that Jessica shared the same character as Esmond, although her willed hatred for Diana was very much his style. She had more warmth, more humour, a kind of humanity that he had not displayed in his horribly short life – he was twenty-three when he died – but to a degree he had changed her, and as she mellowed she would probably have changed him. His death cannot really have been a shock, as she knew the risks of what he was doing. Yet the arrival of the telegram, even as she was preparing for her journey across the ocean – rather as Vera Brittain received news of her fiancé’s death in the First World War, in a telephone call to the hotel where she was tremulously waiting to meet him – was the kind of blow from which one does not really recover. Nor did she accept it, for quite some time after Churchill’s insistence that she should. Like the Mitford that she was, she sublimated her emotions into a display of bright, tough smiles, but she remained dedicated to Esmond by her separation from her past. (Again, this was very much like Diana, that martyr-like dedication to the Mosley shrine.) Mrs Durr, an extremely nice woman, wrote secretly to Sydney, saying that she felt Jessica might do better at home: ‘She is so essentially English, and so bound to England by her affection that she could never be anything else. She has been hurt so much both by circumstances and her own fierce pride that I cannot bear for her to have the further hurt of feeling unwanted.’

Sydney, who wanted nothing more than for Jessica to return, wrote begging her to do so. The temptation must have been there. At times it may have been overwhelming. For one thing Jessica had very little money, only a six-month pension from the Canadian government worth less than $400; but the rejection of Churchill’s money was symbolic of her dogged determination to live in her way, not that of her family. It was admirable, if not entirely supported by logic, and it cannot have been easy. She found a part-time job with the RAF delegation in the British Embassy (thus not entirely remote from Churchill’s offer), which meant that Nancy’s self-righteous contention – that she was the only Mitford girl who actually did any war work – was no longer true. And in mid-1942 Jessica went it completely alone. She moved from the comfort of the Durrs’ large farmhouse into the centre of Washington, placed Constancia in the care of a neighbour and began a typing job at the Office of Price Administration, which formulated policy on rationing, price controls, petrol usage and so on. The spirit of the place was left-wing and idealistic, as described by Jessica’s future husband Robert Treuhaft, a Harvard-educated lawyer who drew up OPA regulations during the war: ‘We were gung ho for enforcement of the price and rationing laws that were in effect at that time. J. K. Galbraith, the economist, was one of the people on the staff of the OPA at that time. There was still a lot of New Deal spirit in Washington, and also a very powerful anti-Fascist, anti-Hitler spirit. And there were lots of young people in the Office of Price Administration, and we were all dedicated to our work.’

This, to Jessica, was a kind of nirvana, to be surrounded by those whose beliefs were formed in a new, clean, egalitarian system. Quite soon, after fiddling the facts by claiming a degree from the Sorbonne (actually she had been ‘finished’ in Paris), she was promoted to take on investigative work. She was now self-sufficient, earning the equivalent of £500 a year, living in a way of which Esmond would surely have approved. And she may well have heard his distant applause when she wrote to her mother: ‘I know you realize I could never come & live with the family. After all I was told once never to come home again, which I know wasn’t your fault’ [her father had said it, in the throes of the anguish caused by her disappearance with Esmond], ‘but it still means I never shall... Of course I do hope one day I’ll see those members of the family I’m still on speakers with; probably after the war.’

It was a hard letter for Sydney to receive, as she coped with the wobbling liability that was Unity and the horror of ‘All change, Lady Mosley’s suite!’ as she took her bus journeys to Holloway. But the DFD had been divided for ever: only by denying Diana could Sydney receive the gift of Jessica.

Later, however, Jessica semi-apologized for the tone of her letter. ‘I really didn’t mean to tease when I wrote about being turned out by the family,’ she wrote to her mother in 1943. Clearly she still had feelings for all those Mitfords, and perhaps it was the very strength of that cocktail of guilt, love, rage and sadness that made it so hard to swallow. Jessica would never live in England again: ‘all our ideas are so tremendously different and opposed that it would be impossible to go back to an ordinary family life.’
By this time she had married her second husband. She told her mother only when the deed was safely done. Robert Treuhaft – aged thirty-one, small, dark and very clever – later conjured a wry portrait of the compelling and dignified girl that he had first met the previous year:

She was dressed in black, and she seemed to be a private sort of person, but she was quite beautiful, and I was tremendously enamoured of her right away as soon as I met her. And I took her to lunch the next day at the cafeteria... she would eat a salad and put the empty plate down below the counter; and at the end she’d take a cup of coffee and I’d pay for it, and that would be five cents. That was her way of life. She was making $1,200 a year, and had a baby daughter, and had to have somebody at home to take care of her. So I thought, such frugality, I can’t pass that up. It was a very cheap date.

This is a very American idiom, like a piece delivered to camera by Woody Allen and attractive as such, although Nancy later wrote of Treuhaft: ‘I quite like him but
Americans.’ In fact he was a formidable person, urbane and far more mellow than Esmond Romilly, but similarly dynamic. Like Jessica he was keen to join the Communist Party in America, which reached into the underworld of public bodies – the top brass remained conservative – and claimed many of their brightest minds. Nevertheless he said: ‘A lot of it didn’t make terribly great sense, because none of us were proletarians. We tended to be middle class in our point of view and in our way of living. A proletarian is someone who has nothing but his job and the clothes on his back.’ This, indeed, was the same paradox that had exercised Romilly, who had raged against the public-school intellectuals who read Marx whilst lounging in the comfort of their parents’ Wiltshire drawing rooms. Treuhaft, however, saw the support that the Communists gave to the unions, and crucially to the civil rights movement, then in its formative days: as early as the 1930s the Communists had organized pickets of baseball stadiums where blacks were not allowed to play, and later Treuhaft took on many cases of racial discrimination (including within unions, which were then segregated). His influence upon Jessica was profound, utterly remote from anything Mitford, and essentially benevolent. His causes became hers. Eventually he would give her the insights into the commercialized con of the funeral industry which led her, in 1963, to write the hugely influential – and controversial –
The American Way of Death,
and which ironically (given the book’s anti-business ethos) made her very rich.

So it is unsurprising that she wrote to Sydney as she did, as if from a world where the systems and beliefs of the Mitfords looked absurd, indeed meaningless. To his own mother, giving news of his relationship with Jessica, Treuhaft began by saying, rather quickly, that she was the sister of Unity and Diana – thus far had their notoriety travelled – but she had, not to worry, been disowned by her family as a radical. ‘Besides being beautiful she is exceptionally talented and shines with a kind of fierce honesty and courage.’ True enough. Deborah, in the very different idiom of their shared childhood, reached out to Jessica: ‘Do write and tell if Mr Treuhaft is a Hon, I’m sure he must be a tremendous one.’ Better than that: he was a Jew.


Nancy’s insistence that she was the only worker among the sisters had always been slightly ridiculous, as Unity and Diana were hardly in a position to contribute to the war effort. Pamela had had charge of Diana’s children and was back in her familiar role of running a farm, at Rignell House. The cost of cattle feed meant that she could not maintain her herd of Aberdeen Angus, and she lamented the death of the bull: ‘poor Black Hussar!’ She did not have the luxury of being sentimental about Diana’s mare, Edna May, but perhaps she would not have been anyway. Jessica was delicately parodied in
Pigeon Pie
as the character Mary Pencill, who spouts anti-Nazi politics but does no real work; her latest behaviour contradicted this portrayal, although Nancy could always wave her hands-on dealings with Spanish and Jewish refugees in her sister’s face. Deborah also came under Nancy’s unrelenting fire, criticized for ‘having a wild time with young cannon fodder at the Ritz etc’. In 1942 Nancy refused to attend a ball thrown by her sister, on the grounds that Tom was in Libya and Peter Rodd in Ethiopia. In fact Deborah worked at a servicemen’s canteen at St Pancras Station in 1940, and four years later at a YMCA canteen in Eastbourne, where everybody imitated her accent. (Nancy had the same experience in her office finding holiday billets; she was also told that she could not lecture on the subject of fire-watching, as her voice annoyed her audience so much that ‘they want to put you on the fire.’
) Deborah did admit to Diana that she hated the canteen: ‘I do disgusting work now, do be sorry for me’. Actually Nancy felt the same way. ‘Oh Susan isn’t work dreadful’, she wrote to Jessica. Later Deborah would exert herself devotedly in the cause of Chatsworth House, and Nancy in the cause of her books; but those were rather different jobs.

Deborah had been granted a gap in her war service by the fact of her pregnancy, following marriage to Andrew Cavendish. ‘You have either got to marry that girl or stop asking her here,’ the then Duchess of Devonshire had told her son at the end of 1940. In March 1941, a month before the wedding, Deborah wrote to Diana in a light and merry manner, clearly striving to involve her sister without inflicting torment. She gave airy details about the dress, with its skirt ‘such as has never been before for size’, and said that Nancy had been ‘teasy’ about the ring. Twelve years earlier Nancy had likened Pamela’s engagement ring from Oliver Watney – eventually given to Hitler – to a ‘chicken’s mess’.
That was Nancy: she could not resist, when it came to her sisters.

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