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

Authors: Laura Thompson

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Historical

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BOOK: Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
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Pam’s role, laid down by character and circumstance at an early age, was probably a necessary one within the family. ‘There’ll never be any one remotely like her, will there?’ wrote Deborah, when her sister died. Despite Nancy’s taunts – calling Pam nicknames like ‘Chunkie’ (in youth she was rather fat, and all her life obsessed with food) – she was never exactly a butt. She had too much innate dignity for that. After her death she was described as remarkable for her goodness, but in fact she could be surprisingly tough – for example she did not really like children – and obtuse, as when she allowed her beloved dachshunds (‘the Elles’) to romp unchecked over the sofas at Chatsworth: ‘She was herself with knobs on’, wrote Deborah to Diana. This was a typical description. Pamela was the still centre of the Mitford girls – comforting in her oddity, untouched and untouchable – whose placid mad sayings would be relayed back and forth with intoxicated delight by the other, more mutable sisters, always with the postscript: ‘She ees
.’ John Betjeman, who proposed to her twice in 1932, saw an English magic in her countrywoman’s demeanour. Compared with the rest of the family, she can seem like a vacuity. In fact she had the unignorable presence of one of her grandfather’s shire horses, quiescent in the face of Nancy’s jabbing little insect bites.

So at Batsford a substantial part of the Mitford dynamic was established. Nancy was black queen, dominating and dazzling. Pam was essentially withdrawn from the fight. Diana and Tom – close in age, cool and controlled – were soulmates, remaining steadfast in this even after the start of his schooling in 1918. Then at Asthall, where Deborah was born in 1920, a new dynamic was formed by the younger children. They talked in private languages, not just the ‘do admit’ stuff but actual, near-unintelligible variations on English, as if they were mini-tribes within the family. Unity and Jessica, who called each other ‘Boud’, spoke ‘Boudledidge’ (understood only by Deborah, who nevertheless did not presume to join in). This continued into adulthood: ‘Jung va ja leddra,’ wrote Unity to Jessica in 1937, meaning ‘thanks for your letter’, before going on to lecture ‘my good Boud’ about her elopement, and describing how Hitler had forbidden German newspapers to print the story, ‘which was nice of him wasn’t it’. The closeness between Unity and Jessica, which developed to the full in adolescence, was such that political polarization could not quite break it: the girls would discuss whether one would shoot the other under orders, yet they remained oddly allied.

Between Jessica and Deborah, there was an intense childhood bond. They called themselves the ‘Hons’ – this meant ‘hen’, rather than ‘Honourable’, and derived from the great brood of hens kept by their mother. They spoke ‘Honnish’. In later life their letters were still full of this language: ‘do write to yr old Hen,’ and so on. Nevertheless, from Deborah’s point of view, Jessica’s elopement created a deeper rupture than her sister ever wanted to accept. Jessica herself later suggested that she had been jealous of Deborah.
Despite the constant enforced companionship that came with being the two youngest, the ceaseless skittish stream of Honnish, the relationship was probably more one-sided than that between Jessica and Unity; both of whom were misfits, although in childhood this was apparent only in Unity. Deborah, on the other hand, had a supremely well-adjusted nature, which may have been in some way inimical to Jessica.

In 1936, the three younger girls were taken on a Hellenic cruise by their mother. Perhaps Sydney scented trouble, and was trying to divert Unity and Jessica before too late. However Unity behaved in what was by then her usual way, arguing with a left-wing shipboard lecturer – the Duchess of Atholl, no less – and wearing her swastika badge in Spain, where she narrowly avoided attack. According to
Hons and Rebels
, Jessica then had a physical set-to with Unity about the Spanish Civil War. This is not mentioned in Deborah’s account, which is determinedly normal in tone, and in which she and Jessica carry on in the sweet, irritating way of the younger sisters in Nancy’s novels, calling a harmless academic ‘the lecherous lecturer’ (this made its way into
Love in a Cold Climate
) and staring mesmerized at a pair of eunuchs at the Topkapi Palace (‘Children’, said Sydney, ‘you are not to mention those eunuchs at dinner’). The impression given by Deborah is of two silly and happy young girls. Jessica later wrote that she was all the while plotting her escape, which would be effected within a year.

The stories told by the sisters are versions of the Mitford childhood, just like
The Pursuit of Love
. Without Nancy’s novel it is probable that no other account would have been written; as it was, the Mitfords became a commodity, and Jessica, Diana and Deborah all produced memoirs (Pamela also considered a book, but this did not happen).
Diana wrote in a clear, bare way that resisted fancifulness. Deborah – described by Diana as ‘one of the truthful ones’
– relished her family’s eccentricities, but refused to sensationalize. Jessica, on the other hand, produced in
Hons and Rebels
an autobiography so partial as to stray into the territory of fiction. ‘Shameless but most diverting,’ as one reviewer had it. It was also highly imitative of
The Pursuit of Love
. ‘What I think is this,’ wrote Nancy to Evelyn Waugh. ‘In some respects she has seen the family, quite without knowing it herself, through the eyes of my books.’ Yet there was a fundamental difference between the two accounts, and not simply that one was a novel, the other autobiography. Nancy’s book was joyful, while her sister’s was resentful.
Hons and Rebels
was full of vociferous complaints: about her parents’ refusal to send Jessica to school, the blinkered conservatism of her upbringing, the prejudiced right-wingery that encased her early life. David Redesdale, wrote his daughter, regarded the entire world as ‘outsiders’: the only exceptions were certain family members and ‘a very few tweeded, red-faced country neighbours to whom my father had for some reason taken a liking.’ This was fairly predictable stuff, Nancy with the rogue element of genius removed. More grotesque, and deeply distressing to the other sisters, was an unfounded accusation made against their uncle Bertram (always known as Tommy): Jessica claimed that he got a kick out of his Justice of the Peace duty of being a witness at hangings. All of this was breezily relayed, but the reader was left in no doubt as to where his or her sympathies should lie.

Hons and Rebels
is a very clever book, managing to have it both ways; attacking the reactionary eccentricities that nevertheless made such excellent copy. According to her sisters, it was also a very dishonest book. ‘Silly old Hen,’ was Deborah’s characteristic killer judgment. Diana, meanwhile, was sufficiently roused by the review in the
Times Literary Supplement
to fire off a letter refuting some of its claims. What enraged her particularly was the suggestion that the Mitford household was devoid of culture (the Batsford library?) and her parents actively opposed to enlightenment: ‘scorn of intellectual values was a matter of choice for the individual child, not of necessity.’ The
, gulping down Jessica’s tales like so many communion wafers, wrote a fierce attack on the Redesdales. Deborah remarked to Nancy that their mother could practically have sued for the implication that she had been unfit to bring up her children. When Sydney died, three years after the book’s publication, her obituarist James Lees-Milne seized the chance to address its caricatured portrayal. Nothing, he wrote, ‘is further from the truth than the popular conception of her, gleaned from
Hons and Rebels
, as a philistine mother with hidebound social standards’. According to Lees-Milne – a man of high culture himself – Sydney encouraged her children’s interest in the arts, and ‘probably inculcated the mental independence which has distinguished them’.

This, almost certainly, is right. For such a progressive, Jessica takes a very conventional view. It is quite possible that school would have enhanced her life with things that she otherwise lacked, but only somebody who did
spend their childhood years at school could see it in quite such an idealized light. As it happened, Jessica and Deborah did spend a term at a day establishment in High Wycombe, when they were aged about eleven and nine respectively. Clearly this wasn’t enough for Jessica, but it was far too much for Deborah. ‘I did not understand what the teachers wanted or why.’ Confronted with lunch, she said simply: ‘No thank you.’ When she was fourteen another attempt was made with her, and she became a weekly boarder in Oxford – ‘no dog, no pony, no Nanny’
– where she lasted three days, during which time she fainted in geometry. After finishing the term as a day girl, she was allowed to give up, for which she was forever grateful to her mother (various interfering aunts had told Sydney that Deborah should be made to stick it out). The Mitford sister for whom school was tried most frequently was Unity, whose ‘mental independence’ was developing a little too freely at home. In 1929 she boarded at St Margaret’s, Bushey, then two years later was a day girl at Queen’s College in London, and was expelled from both establishments (or, as Sydney would faintly protest: ‘no, no,
asked to leave.
’) She had made no attempt to fit in. A fellow student recalled that she ‘seemed not to get the point, on purpose’. Yet she was also said to have been saddened by this failure.
If formal education had been an attempt at ‘socializing’ Unity, then it did not succeed. Which rather implies that school or no school made little difference, in the end.

What made a difference to Jessica, almost certainly, was the fact that her close companion Unity had been sent to school, and she had not: the year 1929 was when her dissatisfaction with home really began. Nancy, who had attended Francis Holland aged five, shared Jessica’s yearnings to escape, although this was perhaps more a show than a reality. At sixteen she was sent to a quasi-finishing school, Hatherop Castle. ‘School, for her, was synonymous with paradise,’ wrote Diana (who was terrified by the prospect, and was never sent). Naturally: to Nancy it represented something new, different, and above all sister-free. ‘She prayed every night to be made, in some mysterious way she preferred not to think about, an only child.’
True, in a way, that Nancy longed to be alone and unassailably special, cut loose from that scurrying train of noisy little sisters. In another way she would have hated it – getting what one professes to want is rarely as enjoyable as wanting it – and her boredom would have been of a less productive quality.


This, of course, is at the heart of the Mitford sisters’ story: the collective life against which they chafed, to varying degrees, and which made them so singular. Exaggerated though it became, there is truth in the image of the family at Asthall, richly vital, running free yet rooted within the English countryside.

David – now Lord Redesdale – cherished a great dream of building a house of his own, on the hill just outside Swinbrook. Asthall was only ever meant to be a stopgap. Yet as soon as he moved there he began to use his fiery energy on DIY, building stables, kennels, bedrooms and ‘cloisters’ – a very successful addition, unorthodox yet of a piece with the house – leading to the library-cum-music room that he created from a large barn in the garden. This barn, a separate little house, allowed the privacy of Batsford to be replicated at Asthall. Tom, who had inherited his grandfather’s passion for music, could play the piano undisturbed. Diana and Nancy could read and listen. Bach and Sir Walter Scott, Handel and Balzac, the creative heights of civilization were absorbed in an Oxfordshire barn while, all around, seethed the rural life of hunting, shooting and trapping, the Mitford life of dogs, mice, rats, guinea pigs, ponies, healthy blond children in jodhpurs jabbering away in Boudledidge and Honnish, Sydney with her hens, David with his stock whips, a beautiful life while it lasted.

Asthall itself, casual and handsome, had the precious quality of homeliness. Sydney had a great gift for interior design (inherited by Nancy), and Diana later described the natural flair with which her mother furnished the house. Bertie’s Chinese screens were used to keep out the draughts in the long panelled hall, which had a fire at each end and windows on either side. The Japanese screens, painted with birds of prey, stood in the dining room. Outside the drawing-room windows was the church, so close as to form part of the same landscape; the children went there to evensong, and on one occasion heard the vicar preach a sermon attacking ‘people who run shouting with their dogs across God’s holy acre’. This referred to David, who habitually took his coursing dogs on a shortcut through the churchyard. From the age of fourteen Diana played the ancient organ in the church, into which a village boy pumped air: ‘I used two stops, one for noise, one for pathos.’ The Mitford sisters rode, hunted, went to tennis parties and dancing classes – ‘we did everything badly,’ wrote Diana
– but the spreading, teeming house was their life, with its nursery, its chilly schoolroom at the foot of the great oak staircase, its legendary poltergeist who was said to have pulled off the cook’s bedclothes, its magical barn.

The Pursuit of Love
has no equivalent of the Asthall barn. Instead, as the Radlett children’s refuge, it has the ‘Hons’ Cupboard’: in reality a large linen cupboard at Swinbrook House from which Jessica and Deborah ran the ‘Hons’ Society’ (an alternative venue was an old bread oven at the High Wycombe cottage) and, with Unity, spoke their strange languages. Nancy was twenty-one by the time the family moved to Swinbrook, past the age of huddling in cupboards, but she used the image for her novel and it has become totemic, a kind of metaphorical HQ for the Mitford mythology. In
The Pursuit of Love
the cupboard is, more pragmatically, a retreat where the children go to be warm, exchange news and speculate upon subjects like childbirth and abortions (‘Well, tremendous jumpings and hot baths anyway’). The heroine Linda, when she falls pregnant, lies in the cupboard with her dog and reads fairy stories.

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