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Authors: Laura Thompson

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Historical

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In itself there was nothing particularly remarkable about the fact of the Mitford sisters’ charm. Many of their circle were charming, people like Lady Diana Cooper, Lord Berners, Sir Harold Acton and, in her lugubrious way, Violet Hammersley. It is a characteristic associated with the upper classes, who had the leisure to weave that ethereal web, and the confidence to override resistance. The ‘creamy English charm’ that Evelyn Waugh famously described in
Brideshead Revisited
poured its streams through society, soothing and poisoning as it went.

But the Mitford charm – which, for all its high-altitude chill, did the essential thing of making life seem better – was charm writ large. It had the quality of self-awareness, increasingly so after Nancy mythologized it. The Mitfords deployed their charm as a kind of tease, as part of a game in which the charmed were also invited to take part; and this knowingness, this self-ironizing, is the preservative that prevents decay.

The charm of the Mitfords en masse was very much Nancy’s creation. But then there are the six individual girls, who in real life were charming all right, but were a lot of other things as well. When one thinks about Unity, in particular, the very notion of charm seems rather absurd. Indeed perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the Mitfordian image is that it entrances and delights and at the same time contains so much that is not entrancing at all. Perhaps that is simply charm at work again, compelling people to overlook the lethal sympathies?

Without Nancy’s mythologizing skills, the separate lives of the Mitford girls (except Pam) would be of interest, but because of her – because she marketed herself, her family and her class – interest still flourishes in the full six-pack. As current usage would have it, the sisters are ‘iconic’. They are part Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, part Patti Hearst in the Symbionese Liberation Army, part
Country Life
girls in pearls, part Malory Towers midnight feasters, part marble frieze of smiling young goddesses. Their significance has become detached from the realities of their own times, and is now a significance of image; as most things are today.

They are the stuff of themed fashion shoots (tweed, little hats, elegant brogues, shooting sticks) and mesmerized blogs (‘The Divine Debo’ is a fairly representative post title). A book was published recently entitled
The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life.
Who knows, there may be a guided tour to their widely varied habitat (Swinbrook, Chatsworth and Holloway jail). They are constantly referenced in popular culture. Caitlin Moran’s fabled upbringing, with the eight auto-didact children running loose around a Wolverhampton council house, could be seen as a working-class take on the Mitfords. Meanwhile the sisters themselves have been satirized by razor-witted modern comedians: in BBC2’s
Bellamy’s People
,
16
two actresses dressed up as aged facsimiles of Jessica and Diana and sat in their drawing room beneath images of Stalin and Hitler. The Mitford idiom was magnificently conjured: ‘Stalin – oh he was terribly
attrective
! With that wonderful peasant moustache – very
sixy
!!!’ ‘Fuffy – oh that’s what I called the Führer – darling Fuffy, well, he was terribly misunderstood...’ The joke was not exactly affectionate, but affection is not really what the Mitford girls inspire; one is always aware that they are not as cosy as they appear to be. The joke was also on us, incidentally, for turning these adherents to murderous ideologies into figures of fascination.

It
is
perverse
.
Society today seeks a nirvana of non-judgmentalism about everything, except the things that the Mitfords represented. Yet their image still seduces. Why?

Well: one might call it a variant strain of
Downton Abbey
Syndrome, in which people seek comfort by retreating to an age of hierarchies, prejudices and certainties. The posh past, in other words. Being upper class today can bring the wrath of God down upon one’s head; attending public school can be, as Linda Radlett whispered of Oscar Wilde’s unknown crimes, ‘worse than murder’; possessing an RP accent, or a Labrador, can lead to fiery accusations of elitism: yet poshness retains its mystique, and this is a quality that the Mitfords embodied. In
The Pursuit of Love
, Nancy conjures her world with a cosy, companionable ease that still puts up invisible barriers. And her readers remain besotted: not just by her humour, charm and so on, but because we
like
what she is describing. We want the freedom to hate it yet we don’t – most of us – want it to cease to exist (what would we do without class? We would be lost). As long as an upper-class person handles their social status in the right way – preferably with a larky wink to their own eccentricity – egalitarian Britain will forgive them for it.

And the Mitfords, with their populist streak and eye upon the gallery, were remarkably good at classless displays of class. Deborah would mock her own accent – ‘Ridiculous. It’s just silly, and up here [in Derbyshire] it sounds even sillier.’
17
‘Class is just too dull for words,’ she would say, from the citadel of Chatsworth. Such broad-minded self-mockery is typical Mitford, although how deep it went is another story. In her letters Deborah expressed contempt for the left-wing politics of Jessica and family (‘I’m afraid they’ll find Chatsworth not very progressive’). A middle-class person would have suffered grievously for this kind of remark, but the ‘thrillingly posh’
18
Deborah got away with it. Her autobiography
Wait for Me!
is full of brisk loathing for New Labour, and sends a lethal countrywoman’s shot at Ivor Novello, a visitor to one of the Devonshires’ homes, who called her coursing whippet ‘an enchanting bit of beige’ (a very Nancy phrase, but not to Deborah’s taste). Meanwhile Diana, in person, seemed entirely devoid of snobbery, and was similarly amused by what she perceived as her outlandish voice when she saw herself on television.
19
But in her writings she could pull sudden, knowing rank: ‘There is no such person as Lady Sybil Colefax,’
20
was a droll correction in a book review. In a published diary she quoted the peer Lord Strathmore saying that ‘if he had a gun’ he would shoot a fellow peer who had criticized the Queen. ‘What are we coming to, when a Scotch landowner, in August, has not got a gun?’
21

Note that ‘Scotch’, by the way. This is ‘U’ usage. The U and Non-U debate went a bit near the knuckle on the issue of class. In fact all the writing paper v. notepaper stuff is in
The Pursuit of Love
, but there, crucially, the reader is in on the joke: a subtle form of flattery is going on, as in
Four Weddings and a Funeral
, which offers viewers the comforting illusion that their own lives (including entrées to castles) are up on the screen. Conversely, the measured direct speech of ‘The English Aristocracy’ essay made it very plain that this was
Nancy’s
joke. Not her invention – U and Non-U was the concept of the linguist Professor Alan Ross – but it was she who made it incendiary, because of who she was. Thousands of people were enthralled by her strictures, and never again in their lives said the word ‘mantelpiece’. But she had annoyed them, all the same. (‘We could do with something more interesting than listening to a snobbish woman airing her views on class distinction,’ was the reaction of a viewer after Nancy appeared on the BBC.) Her followers were not
enchanted
, as they had been when, say, Aunt Sadie decreed Surrey a not-quite-appropriate location for a country house. So it was lucky that they did not see a letter written by Nancy in 1957, reassuring Jessica about her daughter, who was in Mexico at the time of an earthquake: ‘People like us are
never
killed in earthquakes
& furthermore only 29 people were, all non-U...’ This was the brutish side of Nancy’s ‘teasing’: the one that she softened for her public, but not for her friends, and especially not for her family. Today a remark of that kind would be almost as
mal vu
as a friendship with Hitler. But Nancy, were she alive to receive the criticism, would smile through it: just as she did the storm over ‘U’, in which accusations of snobbery and shallowness whirled around her elegant head like hailstones; just as Diana had sat, without a tremor, and faced down vilification that would have shaken most people into pieces.

This confidence of theirs – relaxed, diamond-hard – is fascinating. It particularly fascinates women. It is the confidence of the upper classes, embellished by femaleness: a kind of confidence that, for all their greater freedom, today’s women do not find it easy to possess.

Women today ought to be high on self-assurance, given that men are obliged to behave around us with tiptoeing deference, the culture says that any way of life we choose should be ours for the taking, books tell us that we must celebrate our every last flaw, while at the same time urging us to be our best possible selves... but actually none of this is reassuring, quite the opposite. Women are in a metaphorical pressure cabin, on a state of high alert, chiefly about what other women are doing and whether it is better than what
One
is doing. Should one make cupcakes or become CEO of a multinational; should one strive to resemble an Oscar nominee or celebrate one’s freedom from that particular tyranny; should one shave every inch of one’s body or tweet pictures of one’s statement armpits; should one be a domestic goddess, a yummy mummy, an alpha female, a pre-feminist, a post-feminist, a feminist, a feminist who nevertheless has a facelift... It is a shambolic state of affairs. There is only one answer to all of this, which is to be oneself, but it seems extraordinarily hard to be sure of what that is. Hence the fascination of the Mitfords, who always had the confidence of their own choices, however mad these frequently were.

There is something essentially
unworried
about them. Again, today, this is almost impossible to achieve. It is not really to do with money – the Mitford girls grew up in a household that was lucky enough to have things to sell, but was nevertheless always selling them – although it is, of course, connected to privilege. Yet in truth this offered only a veil of protection against peculiarly cruel events. The trauma of Jessica’s disappearance, the violent public excoriation of Unity and Diana, the disintegration of the family unit, the miscarriages and illnesses and shocking bereavements – the Mitford story was not unlike a soap opera in its constant assaulting dramas, and the sisters had all the resilience of soap opera matriarchs in the way that they weathered tragedy. Nevertheless, and in some mysterious way, their brows remained clear. As Nancy had it, there was always something to laugh at. This did not, as Diana once wrote,
22
mean that one was necessarily happy – only that something was funny – but it was a true philosophy, that yearning towards lightness, and it was as good a creed as any by which to live. It had the priceless quality of allowing one to rise above events and see them as transient, not quite as important as they thought they were, merely steps on the way to the churchyard at Swinbrook; therefore not worth worrying about.

It is frankly therapeutic to think of Diana, shaking helplessly with ill-suppressed laughter at the hey-nonny-nos of the folk singer ‘who had so kindly come to Holloway to amuse the prisoners but had not meant to amuse them quite as much as that’. It is quite marvellous to read Nancy on her French lover, Gaston Palewski, who turned fifty ‘&
minds.
I’ve never minded being any of the terrible ages that have overtaken me and so don’t quite understand.’ Or indeed Nancy, sorting out her inheritance with Deborah while lying on her deathbed: ‘We had screams over the Will.’ Or Deborah, after losing her third baby, writing that the village nurse had called her Your Ladyship ‘through the most undignified parts’. Or Diana, saying that sex, about which people made such a fuss, was no more difficult than eating a Mars bar.
23
All the things we take so seriously – suffering, ageing, dying, babies, love... The Mitfords took them seriously too, deep down. But what liberation there is, all the same, in pretending otherwise.

Fearless though they were, the Mitford girls nevertheless always operated within certain boundaries. They were a blend of formality and anarchy that is impossible now to achieve: revolutionaries who had been to the hairdresser, iconoclasts who put the milk in second, transgressors in tweeds. And this, too, fascinates women, this indestructibly feminine way of breaking the rules.

For sure they fascinate me. I remember Diana, moving gracefully about her airy apartment in the
septième
: a tall wraith, like a long exquisite wisp of grey-white smoke, entirely beautiful at the age of ninety. Her cheekbones retained the purity of a Canova, curving constantly as she dissolved into that almost silent Mitford laughter. I can still hear her saying,
en passant
: ‘I’ve had a fantastic life.’ Then Deborah, a vigorous and easeful figure with her dog at her side, sitting with her feet up on a stool in a casually grand anteroom at Chatsworth, instructing me firmly that a woman needs a ‘proper husband, proper children’ – advice totally contrary to my own ideas, but somehow I have never forgotten it. And then Nancy, beloved Nancy, architect of the Mitford myth, with her neat sharp brain, her romanticism, her cynicism, her felicitous heart-lifting turns of phrase; when I first read her, aged about thirteen, I could scarcely believe (so weighted down was I with Eliot and Hardy) that one was actually allowed this kind of pleasure, that literature could be soufflé-light as well as monolithic, and still tell memorable truths. Few are the women who do not relish Nancy (her sisters were among the exceptions, but that’s another story). Her Dior silhouette, her French bulldogs, her spry energy, her sharp silliness, her love of Parisian smartness and seventeenth-century prettiness, her description of an ideal party as ‘hours and hours of smiling politeness’: all this satisfies female cravings for elegance in an inelegant world. But there is also a sense of real substance, of the daily courage in frivolity. As for her novels – like Jane Austen’s they can be misunderstood in a way that flatters feminine fantasies. Linda Radlett meets a sexy French duke with a spare flat in the
seizième
; Lizzie Bennet meets a brooding Englishman with a magnificent estate; both women are loved for their Real Selves... Of course such interpretations turn a blind eye to the flickering shadows in these books.
The Pursuit of Love
is permeated with images of death – like the graveyard outside the nursery at Asthall – and, as does
Pride and Prejudice
, it reminds the reader constantly that love, the happy ending, is a matter of chance: that life is brief, and goes awry very easily. Yet what endures – not just in this book, but in everything that Nancy subsequently wrote – is the bright affirmativeness of her voice. It contains the sound of happiness, of sane good humour; it taught me that levity and seriousness are not incompatible, which was an important thing to learn.

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