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Authors: Laura Thompson

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Historical

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The Countess of Airlie, who died in 1921 aged ninety, belonged to the Stanley family whose letters Nancy would later edit. These two books,
The Ladies of Alderley
The Stanleys of Alderley
, were published in 1938–9 (‘apart from a few rather irritating gibes about Munich, Miss Mitford has done her task in exemplary fashion’, wrote a reviewer). An obituary of Nancy’s father described him as carrying the ‘redoubtable strain of the Stanleys of Alderley’, which was certainly evident in Henrietta Blanche Airlie. When Nancy was four, Blanche instructed her – in the epigrammatic manner favoured in
Downton Abbey

that ‘there is nothing so inferior as a gentlewoman who has no French’. It was the sort of statement that made its mark on Nancy. She may also have been influenced by Blanche’s admiration for Voltaire, with whom she herself became intensely fascinated (her historical biography
Voltaire in Love
was published in 1957). Blanche was not a joker like the Mitfords, but Nancy – whose
côté snob
was undeniable – would have relished her cultured grandeur, her friendships with Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold and Gladstone. As a girl Blanche had attended salons at Holland House in Kensington, where the last grand ball was held before the outbreak of war in 1939. A century earlier the great house had been the social, artistic and political heart of London, visited by everybody from Disraeli to Byron. When Nancy was dying, she joked bravely about the importance of getting into the ‘right set’ in heaven – might the Holland House lot suit?

Blanche, like Nancy, took inordinate pleasure in the company of clever men. It has been suggested that these included Bertie Mitford, and that first-hand knowledge of his womanizing was the real reason for the objections to his marrying her daughter.

Again, who knows? What
almost certain is that Bertie had an affair with his sister-in-law Blanche Hozier, whose daughter Clementine bore a strong resemblance to David Mitford. Blanche, who was unhappily married, had several affairs, but apparently admitted to a friend that Clementine was Bertie’s child.
This inter-familial bed-hopping may have continued in the next generation. Clementine’s husband, Winston Churchill, was said to have had an affair with his sister-in-law Nellie Romilly, whose son Esmond – the future husband of Jessica Mitford – was rumoured to be Churchill’s child. Esmond himself hinted at the truth of this (he did look like Churchill), but he may simply have got a kick out of doing so – the red-flag-waving scourge of the Establishment, son of the First Lord of the Admiralty! As Diana Mosley later quoted, in explanation of Esmond’s provocative behaviour: ‘He only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases...’

Of course the Mitford sisters would not have batted an eyelid at any of this excitable misconduct. They were sophisticates, one and all. Their parents, David and Sydney, did not go in for adultery, but their maternal grandfather, Thomas Gibson Bowles, was made of similar stuff to Bertie Mitford. There was no doubt about
illegitimacy: he was the son of the MP Milner Gibson and his mistress Susan Bowles. Thomas’s wife died young, after an abortion performed to save her from a fifth, life-threatening pregnancy (faint echoes here of the end of
The Pursuit of Love
), and he then took several mistresses. Among them was the family governess, Henrietta Shell, or ‘Tello’, with whom he had three sons. No attempt was made to shove this under the carpet. Sydney calmly acknowledged her half-brothers and Tello – who had another son, by a naval officer whom she met in Egypt – was friendly with the Mitford girls.
She often stayed at Asthall. In 1894 Thomas Bowles had appointed her editor of
The Lady
, the magazine that he founded: this capable, free-spirited woman held the position for twenty-five years. In 1930, when Thomas’s son George was general manager,
The Lady
gave Nancy one of her first writing jobs, a weekly column on social events like point-to-points, satirical in tone but actually as mild as honey. This connection did not launch her career: she was already doing bits and bobs for
, and her first novel
Highland Fling
– published in 1931 – caused family disapproval, if anything, for being ‘awfully indecent’
and for drawing attention to its pretty young author (there was, for instance, a large photograph of Nancy in the
Sunday Dispatch
). Probably the Thomas Bowles and Bertie generation would have been broader-minded. Probably, too, their literary leanings gave Nancy the idea that she too might write, and that it would be easy to get published. (‘I never had any trouble,’ she later said. ‘Luckily, because if I had it would have put me orf completely.’

According to his obituary in
The Times
, Thomas Bowles – known as ‘Tap’ – was born in 1844
although he himself said ‘I believe I was born in 1841.’ Like his friend Bertie Mitford, he was a dynamic, hyper-industrious character. Like his daughter Sydney, he was eccentric rather than charming. The person in this story whom he also resembles is, oddly enough, Sir Oswald Mosley: both men made notable entries into Parliament, and both – either from principle or wilfulness – took isolated stands that effectively scuppered their governmental careers. Tap, wrote his obituarist, had ‘a temperamental dislike of compromise, which was doubtless the chief reason why he never held office’. Similarly, Mosley moved from Conservative to Independent to Labour in the space of six years (1918–24) before, in 1931, forming the New Party then the British Union of Fascists. Tap was elected the Conservative member for King’s Lynn in 1892, stood as a Free Trader in 1906, was returned as a Liberal in 1910 then rejoined the Conservatives in 1911. He was something of an attention-seeker: a trait that his granddaughters inherited, to varying degrees. He conducted his first campaign from his yacht and spoke in the local Norfolk dialect. He brought – and won – an action against the Bank of England, which he accused of having made tax deductions specified in the 1910 Finance Act before the law was actually passed. Impressive, of course. One can picture him today, telling everybody about it on

This almost aggressive desire to be
may have been connected to Tap’s uncertain upbringing (he was accepted into his father’s household, but educated in France). Certainly he became a formidable achiever, founding
Vanity Fair
as well as
The Lady
, and he lived well. So too did Bertie, who – in addition to Batsford, with its arboretum, its lake and its deer park – had a splendid house on Kensington High Street; Nancy remembered sitting on ‘Grandfather Redesdale’s’ balcony during the First World War, crocheting for the war effort ‘like a
’. The house did not long outlive its owner. A theme of Nancy’s later novels was the destruction of London family residences – she describes how a particular mansion on Park Lane was replaced by a hotel ‘the colour of old teeth’
– and indeed Bertie’s home became part of the Milestone Hotel, whose 1926 advertising campaign stated, reverentially, that visitors would be treading the same floors as King Edward VII. The stable and courtyard had become the ‘much admired restaurant’, although still intact was an oak-panelled ballroom and, intriguingly, a private chapel. Quite a place, in other words; Bertie and his wife might have been living at the very edge of their means, but at the turn of the century the Mitford fortunes were high.

Tap Bowles, meanwhile, lived on Lowndes Square, which was even grander. And his housekeeper was Sydney; having lost her mother when she was aged just seven, she became inextricably wrapped up in her father’s life and, despite the presence of Tello, acted something like a wife. She and her younger sister Dorothy (‘Weenie’) helped Tap canvass on his yacht and attended his dinner parties. From the age of fourteen, Sydney ran the huge Knightsbridge house. It is testament to her efficiency, but it was not much of a childhood. She never really had a mother and was treated like an adult by her father. This surely in part explains Sydney’s mysterious, reserved character, which affected all her daughters in different ways.

Sydney, in turn, had been profoundly influenced by her father. She took on his rather bombastic quirks. He was a food bore, which she also became: she wrote frequently to newspapers about the importance of making one’s own bread (a letter on this subject was published in November 1939, not long after Unity’s attempted suicide), and about the value of unpasteurized milk (Deborah later claimed, quite unworriedly, that a lump in her neck – which remained all her life – developed after drinking the produce of her mother’s TB-infected herd of Guernseys). ‘Women should put their best brains to the study of food in relation to health (beginning with the Laws of Moses),’ Sydney wrote to
The Times.
This was in line with Tap’s belief that Jews did not get cancer. He also had a complete distrust of doctors; Sydney accordingly believed that the ‘Good Body’ would heal itself of pretty much anything. It was left to Jessica, aged around twelve, to telephone the doctor and inform him of her own case of appendicitis. Or so she wrote in
Hons and Rebels
: a book that was considered, by Diana, Deborah and Nancy, to be closer to fiction than fact. Jessica claimed, for instance, that after her appendix was removed she sold it to Deborah for £1. Years later Deborah would say that this was impossible, for the simple reason that she did not at that time have £1. A small instance of a theme that will recur: the question of truth and lies, multiplied and magnified within the charmed circle of the Mitford sisters.


Despite its oddity, it may be that life with the demanding, difficult but always invigorating Thomas Gibson Bowles was congenial to Sydney. She was intelligent – considered Girton material – and Tap associated with clever people. She loved his house in Wiltshire, whose eighteenth-century architecture was the style that she admired but would never again inhabit. She shared her father’s pleasure in sailing, which he would do for months at a time, spending idyllic summers on his little yacht in the painters’ paradises of Trouville and Deauville. ‘My mother adored the sea, which she saw in terms of Tissot rather than Conrad,’ wrote Nancy.
In her 1963 obituary, the family friend James Lees-Milne suggested that Sydney ‘looked at life with the philosophic detachment of a mariner’: an interesting
. He also called her ‘a woman out of the common. It would be strange indeed if a daughter of Thomas Gibson Bowles had been anything else.’

Her future husband, David Mitford – born two years before her, in 1878 – was also the child of a rare parent, although it was Bertie’s heir, Clement, who showed most plainly his father’s qualities. Clement was a paragon, kind and clever and popular. David was a slight problem. Clement went to Eton, David to Radley. Clement was a 2nd lieutenant with the glamorous 10th Royal Hussars. David was sent to Ceylon as a tea-planter after failing the written exam for Sandhurst.

But war is something of a leveller. Both young men fought in the Boer War, David in the Northumberland Fusiliers, and like his alter ego Uncle Matthew he was a brave fighter. Appointed orderly to his commanding officer, then (like his brother at last) a lieutenant, he saw a chance for the military career that he had wanted, and in 1901 wrote to his father, asking if Bertie would try to get him a commission. In March 1902, however, he was reported as ‘severely wounded’. Then – according to the terse bulletins in
The Times

he went from ‘progressing very favourably’ to ‘gunshot wound, dangerously ill’. David had spent four days lying in a bullock wagon, his chest swarming with maggots and one of his lungs shot away (which did not stop him chain-smoking). He was invalided home, and at the age of twenty-four any hope of a life in the army was over.

It would have suited him: his casual gallantry, his relentless energy – he had all Bertie Mitford’s vigour but few of the same outlets. (‘The trouble with my father,’ Nancy later said, ‘is he simply hadn’t got enough to
) David was less cultured, but somehow more sensitive, than Bertie. He was full of bravura but lacking in confidence. His portrayal as Uncle Matthew captures this contradiction, although for comic purposes it emphasizes the bravura: the stock whips that he cracks on the lawn, the bloodhounds with which he hunts his children. True of David Mitford, and inevitably not the whole truth. Similarly Uncle Matthew is unquestioningly uxorious, indeed worshipping of the vague but astute Aunt Sadie, and their marriage is portrayed as a quietly happy constant. Again, real life was a little more complicated.

David Mitford and Sydney Bowles first met through their fathers: Tap visited his friend Bertie at Batsford in 1894 and took Sydney with him. It is not surprising that she should have been dazzled by David, who was astonishingly good-looking (no surprise either that this pair produced seven beautiful children). Ten years later they married at St Margaret’s, Westminster. By then the scales had balanced, or even tipped the other way. David was still handsome, of course, but a slight crock with his missing lung, while Sydney was now hugely attractive. Having made her society debut she had, at last, some proper clothes (her father had previously supplied her mainly with sailor suits), as well as what James Lees-Milne described, in her eulogistic obituary, as a ‘divinely formed, slightly drooping mouth which expressed worlds of humour and tragedy’. What she had, too, was a quality of control, of withholding, which can put a vulnerable man in a constant position of seeking to please. The fact that David proposed not long after a near-fatal injury, and the death of his hopes of an army career, might imply that he got married because he did not know what else to do with his life. Yet he had written a love letter to Sydney from hospital in South Africa, to be given to her in the event of his death. His feelings for her were real. The gunshot wound probably pushed him to act upon them.

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