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 (5 page)

BOOK: Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
10.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

So I am immensely grateful to the Mitfords, to the Mitfordian image that makes life quite simply more enjoyable, although naturally it is far from being the whole truth. To take just one example of what lay beneath: the appalling migraines that Diana suffered, which began after the war, affected neither her looks nor her calm demeanour, and can be seen as a metaphor for a mass of hidden tumult. There was a large price to pay for being one of six such girls. In 1972 Nancy told an interviewer that sisters were a protection against ‘life’s cruel circumstances’, to which Jessica – who in 1944 praised her daughter by saying ‘There’s not a trace of Mitford in her’ – replied that sisters
life’s cruel circumstances (‘particularly Nancy’). The family dynamic was a veritable morass of female rivalries, shifting and reconfiguring throughout their lives. Nancy was jealous of Pam then of Diana; Jessica was jealous of Deborah; Unity was in thrall to Diana; Jessica was in competition with Unity; Nancy and Jessica were wary allies; Diana was critical of Nancy; and so on, and on, until the end. Yet in the main, with one notable exception, the knotty ties remained in place. The sisters met quite frequently and corresponded for most of their lives; although when, from the 1980s onwards, what had previously been unseen was gradually revealed – for example what Nancy had written about one sister to another, thinking that the subject of the letter would never read it – the entire family structure rocked again.

And what of this? In a letter to Deborah, written in 1989 after she had been interviewed by a researcher for
Desert Island Discs
, Diana expressed the view that – contrary to the eager young Radio 4 girl’s assumptions – there was nothing especially remarkable about any of the sisters, except Unity. ‘Of course Birdie really
original to the last degree but the rest of us weren’t a bit.’ The whole phenomenon, she suggested, was invented by the newspapers.

A revisionist take on the Mitfords could indeed seek, thus, to rationalize their mystery. It could see them as nothing more than a typical upper-class family who happened to have a lot of daughters, half of whom happened to take an interest in extreme but fashionable ideologies. End of story? Yes, to the Mitford myth refuseniks. Although where that leaves Nancy’s imperishable sliver of genius, Deborah’s ability to secure the future of a national treasure like Chatsworth House while charming men like John F. Kennedy into rapt submission, the ruthless political fervour of Jessica, Diana and poor ‘original’ Unity, I am not sure. Even if one allows nothing more than the brimming variety of the Mitford sisters’ contacts book – Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Joseph Goebbels, Evelyn Waugh, Adolf Hitler, Lucian Freud, Lytton Strachey, Maya Angelou, Field Marshal Montgomery, one could go on – there is a level of engagement with their times that carries its own, powerful, unrepeatable significance.

Do admit.


‘Familles! Je vous hais!’

Les Nourritures terrestres
by André Gide (1897)


Nancy’s ‘The English Aristocracy’, published in 1955, is chiefly remembered for U and Non-U, but in fact the rest of the essay, a meditation on the nature of the aristocrat, is far more interesting and perceptive. She describes, for instance, an imaginary peer named Lord Fortinbras, of whom she writes that, owing to his cluelessness about land and money, ‘he deserves to be ruined, and he is ruined.’ She could very well have been talking about her own father, the 2nd Lord Redesdale.

‘You were,’ wrote Evelyn Waugh, in ‘An Open Letter’ responding to Nancy’s essay, ‘at the vital age of twelve when your father succeeded to his peerage, and until less than a year before there was little likelihood of his ever succeeding... If your uncle had not been killed in action, if your posthumous cousin had been a boy, all you enchanting children would have been whisked away to a ranch in Canada or a sheep-run in New Zealand. It is fascinating to speculate what your careers would then have been.’

This was a tease, of course, but quite true. Nancy’s father David inherited his title in 1916 after the death the previous year of his older brother, Clement, whose wife was pregnant with what turned out to be a daughter. The Mitford girls acquired the prefix ‘Honourable’ only by default. In other words, as Waugh was suggesting, the unelected spokesperson upon class was not as grand as all that. Such was his own fascination with the subject, Waugh probably viewed his good friend Nancy’s social status with a mixture of excitement, envy and narrow-eyed criticism. What he could not get away from, and it was the sort of thing that mattered to both of them, was the downright antiquity of the Mitford name. Poshness in mid-twentieth-century novels was often conveyed by the remark that ‘so-and-so’s people came over with the Conqueror, you know.’ The Mitford people were here before that, teaching U and Non-U to the Anglo-Saxons.

Although Nancy does not mention it in her essay, doubtless she relished the knowledge that her family owned Mitford, near Morpeth, in the reign of Edward the Confessor, and that a daughter of Sir John de Mitford was given in marriage by William the Conqueror to a Norman knight. Sir John’s motte-and-bailey castle, built in Northumberland in the eleventh century and reduced to ruins some three hundred years later, is now a scheduled ancient monument.

These Northumberland Mitfords were the main branch of the family; the sisters descended from a junior line, originating in Hampshire. Among their ancestors was a barrister, John, created the 1st Lord Redesdale in 1802. The previous year he had been a short-lived Speaker of the House of Commons, then became a rather unpopular Lord Chancellor of Ireland. In 1808 he inherited Batsford – an elegant, symmetrical Georgian house set in parkland – from an uncle by marriage, Thomas Freeman (the Mitford girls were sometimes given the surname Freeman-Mitford). There was a dearth of contiguous heirs in the family; Bertram Mitford, the sisters’ grandfather, acquired Batsford as a cousin twice removed. He did not inherit the title, although it was re-created for him in 1902.

He was a remarkable man; more so really than the son, David, who was immortalized in
The Pursuit of Love.
Bertie Mitford had all the masculine energy of ‘Uncle Matthew’ and none of his lurking timidity (Uncle Matthew hates leaving his home). He was one of those vigorous Victorian types who go at life like a steam engine, running out of puff only when they die. Certain traits of the Mitford sisters can be perceived in him: good looks, a sophisticated morality, a knack for writing what people wanted to read and a deep affinity with Germany.

Born in 1837, he attended Eton and Christ Church before joining the Foreign Office, where he was posted to the embassies at St Petersburg, Peking and Tokyo. He spoke French, Russian, Chinese and German, translated Kant and Japanese literature. Again this talent was inherited: his son David had perfect French, Unity picked up German very quickly in order to chat to the Nazi high command, and Nancy and Diana both became translators.
As a writer, Bertie had a less singular gift than Nancy. The Mitfordian clarity of his prose is muffled by the near-inescapable orotundity of the age. Nevertheless his
Tales of Old Japan
was a raging success. He had been invited to watch the last officially decreed death by hara-kiri, and his account was described by a reviewer as ‘one of the most horrific and unforgettable pieces of prose I have ever read’. He also wrote a book about his time in China,
An Attaché in Peking
(many years later one of Diana’s sons found the unexpurgated Peking diary, ‘full of dread SEX’). An autobiography,
was published not long before his death in 1916. It was a ‘Book of the Year’, just as Nancy’s later works usually were, and a reviewer remarked that it was loosely constructed but ‘contains not a word of “twaddle”’: the sort of thing that was customarily said about Nancy.

In 1874, Bertie was appointed by Disraeli to the post of Secretary of His Majesty’s Office of Works. He worked on improvements to Hampton Court and supervised the restoration of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London, where the remains of Anne Boleyn were interred. Almost in passing, he became MP for Stratford-on-Avon. He knew Dickens, Whistler, Browning – and as a close friend of the future King Edward VII he advised on the gardens at Buckingham Palace (described by his granddaughter Deborah, after a dinner with the Queen in 1961, as ‘a literal vasty park’ inhabited by field mice). On his own land at Batsford, where he moved in 1886, he grew bamboo and created a magnificent arboretum. He also spent fortunes on demolishing the old house and raising up the fairytale castle of rich dull gold – a successful Victorian’s dream home – that today stands fantastical against the Cotswolds sky.

It was said of him that ‘he has been everywhere and seen everything’. He was, literally, a man of the world, although there is the faintest sense of a Victorian gentleman doing the Grand Tour; not of great cultural works but of great ‘experiences’, such as meeting Garibaldi or hunting buffalo. As for his German friendships – what blend of naivety and empathy drew him to Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the son-in-law of Richard Wagner and an intellectual influence upon Hitler?

As a lover of music, it was natural that Bertie should attend the Bayreuth Festival and take pleasure in the company of the Wagner family. He became extremely close to the composer’s son, Siegfried, who married the English-born Winifred Williams; when Nancy visited Bayreuth in 1968 she was ‘summoned to the presence of Frau Winifred’ and told that the only photograph in Siegfried’s room had been of Bertie Mitford. Winifred, the festival’s artistic director during the war, had been an admirer of Hitler. When Unity fell ill in Bayreuth in 1938, then collapsed after insisting upon attending a Nazi march-past in Breslau, it was Winifred who took care of her (at Hitler’s request). Unity’s middle name, Valkyrie, was in tribute to the composer. Bertie had suggested it; despite the fact that Unity was born just as war was declared on Germany.

His friendship with Houston Stewart Chamberlain was probably founded upon their shared love of Wagner. It went sufficiently deep, however, to lead Bertie to write an introduction to Chamberlain’s
Die Grundlagen
, or
The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century
, published in translation in 1910. Chamberlain was English, but in 1916 became a naturalized German. When he died in 1927 (his funeral attended by Hitler and other Nazis), it was said that he had been the ‘bitterest of anti-British renegades during the war’.

Yet before this, in
The Foundations
, he had set out theories that encompassed Britain in his conception of a pure ‘Aryan’ race. Such a race, he wrote, ‘finally enables the most gifted individual to live for a super-individual purpose’. One can imagine this going down a storm with Hitler, and it is generally accepted that Chamberlain’s theories supplied a philosophical foundation, or justification, of Nazi policy.

He was regarded in some quarters as the equal of Kant and Schopenhauer. Bertie Mitford was certainly an admirer, although a sceptical
obituary of Chamberlain decreed that he had reduced history to a racial division of ‘Teutonic and anti-Teutonic sheep and goats’ – the anti-Teuton being the Jew. Of course the endgame of this kind of thinking was not yet apparent. And the grandiose ideal of a Teutonic alliance did find a response in Britain, which after all is deeply linked to Germany by early history, and by the ascension of King George I in 1714. It is not perhaps so surprising that Bertie Mitford should have fallen for Chamberlain’s rhetoric, backed as it was by the stirring surges of Wagnerian opera. Nor is it beyond comprehension that certain aristocrats, including Bertie’s son David, should in the 1930s have supported the Anglo-German Fellowship that sought to avoid another war between ‘the Teutons’. Where the imagination does stumble is over the behaviour of Unity and, to a lesser extent, Diana. One merely notes that they were born into this mindset, the one that responded to the dark glories of
and saw Germany as a blood brother. Tom Mitford, to whom Diana was especially close, felt much the same way. Bertie’s brother married a German girl, and in 1914 his son Jack had a lavish, highly publicized ‘Anglo-German wedding’ to an heiress named Marie von Friedlander Fuld.

Cosmopolitan though he was, Bertie Mitford still tended his country person’s roots. That was natural to him. He was, for instance, a president of the Shire Horse Society (David later used a gold goblet made from the melted-down medals won by his father’s animals). His presence is still felt in Moreton-in-Marsh – the nearest town to Batsford and built of the same beautiful ochre stone, the colour of Gloucestershire – with its Redesdale Arms hotel, the market hall for which he paid. He may also be present in other surprising ways: in 1962 Deborah sent Nancy a photograph from the
magazine of a keeper at Batsford who looked exactly like their father. ‘Thanks for Uncle isn’t he amazing!’ Nancy replied.

Bertie – or, as Nancy called him, ‘Naughty grandfather’ – had form in this respect. So too had his mother. It has in fact been suggested that Bertie himself was born on the wrong side of the blanket, and that anybody who wanted to ‘look up’ a Mitford girl should bypass the entry for ‘Redesdale’ and move on to ‘Sefton’. The rumour arose very simply. When Bertie was four, his mother Lady Georgina Ashburnham (another pre-Conquest family) ran off with a son of the Earl of Sefton. There is absolutely no proof that Bertie was the lover’s child, but that did not stop people thinking it, just as they believed Lady Diana Manners – later Cooper – to be the natural daughter of the editor of the
Pall Mall Gazette.
‘I am cheered very much by
Tom Jones
on bastards,’ was Diana’s reaction. Bertie would probably have felt much the same. As his granddaughter wrote in ‘The English Aristocracy’: ‘Shame is a bourgeois notion.’ Certainly the hovering taint of scandal did not hold him back, either in his career or his private life. Soon after Edward VII took the throne in 1901, Bertie was reported to be ‘dining with His Majesty’ at Windsor, and his wife, Lady Clementine Ogilvy, was a daughter of the Earl of Airlie. This was a definite social leg-up – the Airlies had a proper castle, rather than a self-built one – which may have been the reason why Bertie’s mother-in-law always addressed her daughter by her maiden name.

BOOK: Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
10.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Libertad by Jonathan Franzen
Angel Eyes by Eric van Lustbader
Send Me An Angel by Ellis, alysha
Ghost Camera by Darcy Coates
Everyone but You by Sandra Novack