Authors: Laura Thompson
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Historical
She, meanwhile, was rumoured to have been in love with another man, and to have accepted David as a way of healing
particular injury. The reasons why people marry each other are not always straightforward, although the simplicity of physical attraction can make them seem so. It may be that David would have done better, in the end, with a warmer woman, and Sydney with a stronger man, one more like her father. Nevertheless the union between these two was contented, close enough to its representation in
The Pursuit of Love
, until the 1930s tested it to destruction. In 1937 David spoke out in the House of Lords against an amendment to the Marriage Bill, a clause stating that no petition for divorce could be made within five years of a wedding. He wanted the clause removed. Forcing couples to stay together would, he said, cause suffering.
For such a conservative man, this was an unusually liberal viewpoint. It is unlikely that he was thinking of himself – his relationship with Sydney was intact at this point – but the fragmentation of his world had begun with Diana’s desertion of her first husband and Jessica’s elopement. Every certainty, including that of marriage as a lifelong commitment, was now open to question.
Not so back in 1904, when people like David and Sydney Mitford could live behind Sloane Square with six servants on £1,000 a year, and the cataclysms of the next forty years were quite simply unimaginable. The young couple seemed ordinary representatives of their class. The most obviously exceptional thing about them was their looks. They were born to slightly unusual stock, but that in itself was quite usual. The fact is that one can trace back, discover creativity, musicality, brains, charm, eccentricity, love of Germany and so on within the Mitford pedigree – yet finding these traits after the event is something of a charlatan’s art, like palmistry. There was nothing, when Nancy was born in November 1904, to say that she would grow up to be anything other than an upper-class wife and mother. Just before her third birthday, however, another baby arrived, and the first rivalry between the sisters began to shape the family. The birth of Pamela, Nancy later said, ‘threw me into a permanent rage for about twenty years’. A joke; but not entirely. One day not long after her sister’s arrival Nancy, walking with her parents along a London street, began to scream uncontrollably. Nothing would stop her until, quite suddenly, she said: ‘The houses are all laughing at me.’ Her mother was naturally embarrassed and displeased; years later she wrote to her daughter, saying ‘you used to get into tremendous rages, often shaming us in the street.’ Her father, who adored Nancy, may have been more indulgent. But an interesting thing for a child to say?
Those who know the Mitford childhood only through Nancy’s mythmaking may be surprised by how urban it was, at least until the outbreak of the First World War. Her ‘Radletts’ are absolutely country people, steeped in the robust beauty of the rural seasons, with a love of hunting in their ‘blood and bones’ and a defining sense of freedom. Yet for the first ten years of Nancy’s life – through the births of Pam, Tom in 1909, Diana the following year – the family’s main home was in London. Upmarket London, naturally, with Harrods and the Army and Navy stores on hand, but nevertheless with the attendant constraints of city streets, hansom-cab traffic jams, lack of space. The greenest thing the children saw was Kensington Gardens on their twice-daily outings with a nanny. David worked at
(impossible to conceive of Uncle Matthew doing such a thing, or even to think of him walking through Covent Garden), dutifully supplementing his £400 a year from Bertie, and Sydney’s allowance from Tap.
At first the Mitfords lived at 1 Graham Street, described by Diana as ‘hardly more than a doll’s house’; an exaggeration, of course, although with four young children it was certainly chock-full of prams and servants. There was a cook, three maids and two nannies: Laura Dicks – known as ‘Blor’, adored by the children – and a young girl called Ada Bowden. ‘So what did my mother do all day?’ Nancy later wrote. ‘She says now, when cross-examined, that she lived for us. Perhaps she did, but nobody could say that she lived with us...’ The 1911 census finds David and Sydney at Graham Street with the cook while the children, plus nannies, are named as ‘boarders’ at a house on the Undercliff at Bournemouth. This was April. That summer the family acquired a holiday home of its own, Old Mill Cottage in High Wycombe, leased by Tap and later bought by Sydney (a wise investment on her part: when retrenchment was required, as was often the case, the house could be a retreat or a source of rental income). The family travelled to it by train with their servants, a menagerie of dogs, mice, guinea pigs and grass snakes, plus – that first year – a Shetland pony that had taken David’s fancy the previous day on his way home from
(and that spent the night on a landing at Graham Street). The Shetland having been denied access to the guard’s van, David took a third-class compartment in order to accommodate it. ‘Of course it was most unusual for ANYONE to travel third class in those days,’ Pamela later recalled, straight-faced, for a television documentary.
This vignette is reminiscent of a story recounted by Deborah, who during the Second World War travelled third class from Scotland to London with her goat, and in the middle of the night milked it in the first-class waiting room: ‘which I should not have done’.
Very Mitford. Charming, eccentric, unselfconscious – except perhaps in the telling.
And so life continued, away from the Edwardian era (Nancy had a powerful memory, which she admitted was probably false, of her parents weeping into black-edged newspapers at the death of the king in 1910), into the sweetly unaware period in which things apparently stayed the same, but were in fact preparing for the great change of August 1914. Clement, heir to the Redesdale estates, married his cousin Lady Helen Ogilvy, and had a baby, Rosemary. Bertie Mitford was rich in sons – five (that we know of) plus three daughters – but his boys produced just three between them. David began prospecting for gold in Canada, travelling to Ontario for the first time with Sydney in 1913. They lived in a cabin in a small mining community in Swastika, where Unity was conceived. It was somehow typical of David, first that he should have tried such a bold and manly scheme, second that a property barely a mile away struck a rich seam of gold.
His own finances remained essentially unimproved. Nevertheless back in England he moved his family to a large house on Kensington’s Victoria Road, where Unity was born four days after the outbreak of war.
War with Germany must have seemed particularly strange to Bertie Mitford, then aged seventy-seven. His son Jack had recently had a spectacular Berlin wedding (although the marriage to Fräulein Fuld was over within the year); his friend Houston Stewart Chamberlain was admired by the Kaiser. The conflict within Bertie would have been nothing like as strong as it was in Unity, who twenty-five years later was torn apart by the enmity between Britain and Germany, as to a lesser extent were Diana, Tom and Sydney. But Bertie may have felt some of this; especially when his son Clement was killed near Ypres in May 1915.
Nancy, never a friend to Germany, later wrote that she had ‘prayed, as hard as I could, for war’.
What she had craved (aged nine) was the prospect of living in a tree, like Robin Hood, and killing an invader. In fact war
change her fortunes in a way that was ultimately favourable, but Clement’s death caused her to feel intense guilt, as well as great sadness. Everybody had adored him. Pamela later recalled his death as the first time that she saw grown-ups cry. In February 1915 he had received the DSO, having been badly wounded when the 10th Hussars were attacked early in the war. He returned to active service as soon as possible, and died not long afterwards. His wife Helen was three months’ pregnant; when she gave birth to a daughter, Clementine (who in 1937 would accompany Unity and Hitler to the Bayreuth Festival), David became heir to Lord Redesdale.
Aged thirty-six and with one lung, he had obviously been unsuited to active service, but he joined up anyway. Until the death of his brother he may have been glad of the war. Again it was a solution, of sorts, to the problem of what to do. Contented though he was in his family life, he undeniably burst forth when let loose, in the vast expanses of Ontario or upon the Oxfordshire land; one has the sense of a tame tiger padding back and forth to
every day, longing to spring and flex its unused muscles. Small wonder, really, that David persuaded doctors to let him go to France as part of a group of officer reinforcements. He was not remotely fit enough, but in April 1915 he was made transport officer – in theory a less strenuous post, except that the appointment was instantly followed by the 2nd Battle of Ypres. David’s efficient bravery in directing operations, leading wagons through the town at full gallop under heavy bombardment, sometimes twice nightly, surely proves that he should have had a military career; being robbed of it was part of what left him directionless. The battalion was never without supplies and did not lose a single man. It was David’s finest hour. In a way he probably enjoyed it, but the strain was great, and horribly increased by grief for Clement. The middle years of the war were tough – Sydney was also struggling, living with five young children in a little house in Oxford, deprived of her husband’s salary from
– although on one of his leaves they managed to conceive Jessica, born in September 1917, not long after David was invalided home for good. By that time he was the 2nd Lord Redesdale. Dressed in his uniform, he took his seat in the Lords.
Bertie had died in August 1916. He had published his
a few months earlier, after the death of Clement: a final act of defiant vitality. He bequeathed to David around £17,000 and 36,000 acres. There should have been more money – Thomas Bowles left twice as much in 1921 – but the Redesdales had lived in that grand
way that implied belief in an infinity of munificence; Bertie’s widow Clementine, daughter of an earl, who moved to Northumberland and died in 1932 leaving £1,667 13s 8d, had probably never conceived such a thing as a day of financial reckoning. She had spent freely during her marriage, although the real expense had been the rebuilding of Batsford. As soon as he acquired the house, David knew that he would have to sell. There was simply not enough money to run such a place. Nevertheless the Mitford inheritance was considerable: relatively light on cash, but a treasure trove of land, furniture and paintings. A great deal of disposable wealth, in other words, which was extremely fortunate for a man like David. He began casting off in May 1917, when Batsford was first advertised for sale (‘Tudor domestic reproduction in Bourton stone’... ‘Park covers 350 acres’... ‘part of villages and Moreton-in-Marsh, about 800 acres of woodland...’). Thereafter he never really stopped. He was like Nancy’s fictional Lord Fortinbras, selling off everything in order to stave off want. In fact David was so blessed with possessions that he could hold on to many wonderfully civilized items, such as his father’s collection of Chinese and Japanese screens. But the recital of what went to auction in just a couple of years – a Reynolds that made £14,800; a collection of Bertie’s oriental porcelain that sold for £4,600; thousands of acres at Otterburn, Northumberland (‘coal deposits possibly underground’); the Batsford Estate – leaves a slightly queasy impression of financial cluelessness.
In 1919, however, David still owned the heart of his inheritance: the village of Swinbrook, the trout fishing in the Windrush, the spreading acres in the shallow valley. ‘All this belongs to you,’ the kindly and dramatic Blanche Hozier said to her niece Nancy, then aged twelve, as they were standing on top of the hill at Batsford, overlooking the greater part of the Cotswolds. ‘Oh, what utter rubbish,’ was Sydney’s reaction, when Nancy ran to tell her this tremendous news. ‘
belongs to you.’
Then the life of ‘the Mitfords’ began. With part of the proceeds from his selling spree, David bought 1,000 acres adjoining Swinbrook, including Asthall Manor, the house where the family would remain for the next seven years. With the exception of Jessica (and Deborah, who never lived there at all), the children retained memories of Batsford. They had been given a home on the estate in early 1916, when they ceased to be Londoners. From 1917 they lived in the main house, congregated in a few rooms, like lodgers who happened to be in possession. Nancy in particular – almost fifteen when the house was sold – would have remembered the glorious golden grandeur hidden beneath the dustsheets, the great ballroom with its impossibly vaulted ceiling, the five staircases, the long window seats in dusky panelled rooms. This was aristocratic living: Nancy never had it again for herself (that was Deborah’s lucky fate) but she always conjured it as an image of ineffable romance, about which she wrote with comfortable realism. For instance Hampton, the country house where the opening scenes of
Love in a Cold Climate
take place, is described in terms that approximate to Batsford, as a showy gothic castle built to replace a delightfully plain Adam house. (‘“I suppose it is beautiful,” people used to say, “but I don’t admire it”...’)
Diana, who was nine when Batsford was sold, remembered it chiefly as a place where one could always find an enormous room to read in, alone. This urgent passion for reading was shared by Nancy – later it would be a supreme solace for both sisters – and by Tom. When the Batsford contents were sold in 1919, David Mitford asked his son, then aged ten, to decide which books to keep; Tom was what his father called ‘a literary cove’.
The cleverness of these three children was highly remarkable. And the fact that it developed into adulthood is an argument for a very simple educative plan: teach them to read, give them access to a marvellous library – like Bertie’s – then let them get on with it. Of course this approach (which was really the opposite of a plan) left gaps in their knowledge, but it did the fundamental job of making them
to learn. They were also taken to nearby Stratford-upon-Avon three or four times a year, and became familiar with Shakespeare. There were two governesses, one French and one English, but the essential work the children did themselves. These sequestered Batsford years were thus formative for the older Mitfords; although Pamela did not progress in the same way. This was part-nature, part the nature of events. In 1911 Pam was stricken by infantile paralysis, which left her hesitant, with one leg slightly shorter than the other. And she suffered from Nancy’s teasing, which she could not withstand (as when, during the General Strike, Nancy and Pamela ran a café supplying tea to the emergency services; Nancy disguised herself as a tramp and pretended to accost her sister. Most people would have seen through this ruse, but by all accounts Pam was completely terrorized by it). What Pamela really thought about Nancy thereafter is unknowable, because in a way Pam’s façade was the most complete. She was passive, which was very non-Mitford. Yet she had her own slow, serene version of the family assurance, and a mode of expression that was perhaps the most natural of them all: viz, her description of Hitler as ‘like a farmer in his old brown suit’. This really was somebody saying only and absolutely what they meant, the key to the Mitford idiom, and nobody did it better than Pamela. Some years later she bought an expensive Guernsey dairy cow only to find, as she put it, that ‘the brute was bagless’. Not even Nancy was capable of this kind of direct phrase-making, although she stole it for her books.