The Mitfords - You could not invent them
For one member of a family to achieve national fame is noteworthy, for two to do it in different fields is unusual, for six sisters, each of great beauty to do it, in different, completely divergent ways, is nothing sort of miraculous. They must each be strong, resourceful, independent, gifted and highly motivated.
They must, in short, be, the outrageous, appalling, overprivileged, but endlessly fascinating Mitford sisters.
It is not only the sisters' own lives that are so interesting, but the way their lives often intersected with other important figures of the 20th century. In a Forest Gump sort of way, they were always on the edge of history and sometimes actively involved.
For instance, Deborah Mitford married Harold Macmillan’s nephew, later the Duke of Devonshire. Jessica married Winston Churchill’s nephew. Nancy was related to President John F. Kennedy by marriage. Diana married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, in secret in 1936, in Joseph Goebbels’s home in Berlin. Unity was admired by Adolf Hitler and attempted suicide with a gun he had given her. The sisters infiltrated every aspect of society and led very different but very entwined lives.
If a fiction writer were to write this story it would be rejected as too fanciful. But what follows is not fiction; it is true, absolute hard fact.
The heyday of the Mitford sisters marked the high-water mark of British upper-class dominance. To a certain extent they were the relics of a lost era.
The six sisters and one brother came from and came to epitomise the Bright Young Thing generation of London society in the 1920s and 30's, hosting and attending extravagant, giddy parties and utterly secure in their privileged certainties, even when those certainties were completely wrong.
It is impossible not to enjoy the Mitfords, but hard to really like them. They were maddening, supremely talented, and endlessly delighted to be members of their own exclusive society.
Their father was David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Lord Redesdale (1878-1958), the second Baron Redesdale , who lived at the family estate in Oxfordshire.
His wife, Lady Redesdale, was born Sydney Bowles, the granddaughter of Thomas Bowles who established the two well-known magazines, "Vanity Fair" and "The Lady" in the late 1890's.
Lord Redesdale's early career was as the office manager for "The Lady" where he was employed for a number of years. He enjoyed his work there and was sorry when his elevation to the peerage and increased family responsibilities prevented him taking any further part in its management. As his family grew, he settled into the busy life of a hardworking, although possibly misunderstood, landowner.
Despite their pedigree (and inherited fortune), Lord and Lady Redesdale were uneducated and made no effort to educate their daughters. (Only Deborah went to school.) They were extremely eccentric characters of the sort that has since died out. Lord Redesdale was fiercely conservative, and supported the British Union of Fascists. After WWI, he purchased a Canadian mining operation and named it, incredibly, The Swastika Gold Mine.
The Mitford family life was far from conventional as both parents held many alternative beliefs about modern living, healthcare, medical treatment, diet and education but despite their eccentricities, both seem to have been loving and supportive of their talented offspring.
In 1943 Lord and Lady Redesdale separated, blaming "irreconcilable political differences" for the break. Lady Redesdale took up residence on the Isle of Inchkenneth in the far north of Scotland, purchased earlier by Lord Redesdale. She lived there until her death.
The British Author - Nancy Mitford (Mrs Peter Rodd) (1904–73)
The Farmer - Pamela Mitford (Mrs Derek Jackson) (1907–94)
The Gay Soldier - Major Thomas Mitford (1909–45) (killed in action)
The Fascist - Diana Mitford ( Lady Mosley) (1910–2003)
The Nazi - Unity Vallkyrie Mitford (1914–48)
The American Author - Jessica Mitford (Mrs Robert Treuhaft) (1917–1996)
The Duchess - Deborah Mitford (now the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire) (born 1920)
Nancy Mitford 1904-1973
Nancy was one of the original Bright Young Things in the roaring 20's. She was the eldest child and was the first of the family to rebel, upsetting her parents by cutting her hair short, using lipstick and wearing trousers.
She became a successful authoress, writing eight novels (the most well known of which are Love in Cold Climate, The Pursuit of Love and Don't Tell Alfred) affectionately satirizing upper-class life in England and France, and several biographies. She was also a prolific letter writer and also wrote many articles for newspapers. A moderate socialist, she did not share her sisters' extreme political views.
Nancy's private life was less fulfilled than her professional one. After her first love revealed he was gay, she married on the rebound Peter Rodd, the youngest son of the 1st Baron Rennell, and the marriage was unhappy from the start. Although they remained friendly throughout their lifetimes, the Rodds separated in the late 30s, and eventually divorced in 1958.
During World War Two she met and fell in love with a French politician, Colonel Gaston Palewski, Charles de Gaulle’s Chief of Staff. She moved to Paris to be near him but he eventually married someone else and she remained alone.
Spending the rest of her life in the city, she became known to her sisters as 'the French lady writer'. Nancy was soon the toast of Paris society, known for entertaining and her hectic social life. She loved fashion - her favourite designers were Dior and Lanvin - and embraced Dior's New Look to the full.
One of her greatest and oldest friends was Evelyn Waugh, to whom she frequently appealed for advice on her writing, which he was always happy to provide, and from whom she learned much.
She remains famous and popular today for her writings, sayings and humour - as well as for immortalising her family in her novels.
Pamela Mitford 1907-1994
Known as the 'quiet one', Pam was overshadowed by Nancy in childhood. She was more shy and private than the rest of the family, but was close to all her sisters - she looked after Nancy when she was dying of cancer and cared for Diana's children when their mother was in prison.
The poet John Betjeman fell in love with her and regarded her as one of his muses – one of his most famous poems is about her - but she did not feel the same and married a brilliant scientist, Derek Jackson. Both she and her husband had pro-Nazi views.
Pam had a love of animals and agriculture and spent much of her life managing farms. She was also famous among her sisters for her cooking and skill with interior décor.
After divorcing her husband she lived the remainder of her life with a woman.
Thomas Mitford 1909 - 1945
The only son, Tom Mitford was educated at Eton and at the outbreak of the Second World War joined the Army.
Serving with distinction throughout the hostilities, he was shot by bandits in Burma nine weeks before the war ended. He never married and was reputed to have had many gay affairs.
Diana Mitford 1910 - 2003
In her youth Diana was considered one of society's great beauties, and her status as a social icon was assured when in 1929 she married Bryan Guinness, heir to the Guinness fortune. Their parties were notorious and the glamorous set revolved around them. She had many admirers including Evelyn Waugh ("her beauty ran through the room like a peal of bells") who dedicated to her his novel Vile Bodies, inspired by a party the couple had thrown.
It all stopped in 1932 when Diana met Oswald Mosley, then the enfant terrible of British politics, later to be the founder of the British Union of Fascists. There is no doubt that she fell in love with him, almost from first sight and she subsequently left Guinness to set herself up as Mosley's mistress - a shocking and brave step at that time.
She married Mosley secretly, by special Reich permission at the family home of the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels in Berlin in 1936, with Hitler as guest.
Because of her association with Mosley Diana was considered a security risk by the British Intelligence Service and she spent much of the second world war in a prison cell. She was joined by Mosley and they stayed together through internment during the war, and the years after.
She remained a rock of support and encouragement to him and when he died in 1970 she mourned him for the rest of her life.
Unity Mitford 1914 - 1948
Unity was by far the most controversial sister and her story is tragic and fascinating. A striking Nordic and yes, Aryan, beauty, she was conceived during her parents' sojourn in the town of Swastika, Canada where her father had bought a mine. As a debutante she gained a reputation as a joker and was prone to taking a pet rat to society dances. She lived up to her middle name of Valkyrie by becoming obsessed with Nazism in her late teens.
She first went to Germany in the early 1930s, when the Nazis were on the rise, and the young woman was so overwhelmed by a visit to the Nuremberg rallies that she became determined to meet Hitler. This she managed by visiting his known haunts so regularly that he noticed her and began talking to her. She ingratiated herself to the point where he described her to friends as “a perfect specimen of Aryan womanhood”.
She met the Führer on over 130 occasions between 1935 and 1939, achieving a real friendship. As her obsession grew, the British press and her old friends in England were outraged by her behaviour. The British secret service felt she was ‘more Nazi than the Nazis’.
It all came to an end in 1939 when England and Germany declared war. Distraught, she tried to commit suicide by shooting herself in the head (with a pistol given to her for her protection by Hitler), but not killing herself. Hitler himself arranged her return to England where, with the mental age of 9, she lived in the care of her mother for another ten years.
Jessica Mitford 1917 - 1996
Like all her elder siblings, Jessica Mitford never went to school but was educated at home by her mother.
As a teenager she became fascinated by pacifism and left-wing politics then communism, which led to feuds with her once ‘favourite sisters’, the flagrantly right wing Diana and Unity.
Her 'coming out' year as a debutante made her more aware of the inequalities in society and she felt out of place in the seemingly endless matchmaking parties.
When she was 19 she and her second cousin, Esmond Romilly (Winston Churchill’s nephew and an outspoken communist) ran away to Spain, where Esmond had already fought in the civil war, and was now working as a journalist on the war. After various members of her family - plus a destroyer sent by Churchill – failed to persuade her to return home, the couple married.
They moved to the USA in 1939 but tragedy struck when Esmond, after enlisting in the Air Force was shot down during a raid on Germany.
Jessica went to work for Office of Price Administration (OPA) where she met the radical lawyer, Robert Treuhaft, who she married in 1943. They both joined the American Communist Party and were active in the Civil Rights movement which led them to be investigated by the FBI.
As a trade union lawyer Treuhaft became aware of the financial problems that deaths caused in working class families. In an attempt to reduce the high costs of funerals he established the Bay Area Funeral Society, a non-profit undertaking service. In 1963 he and Jessica published the best-selling book, The American Way of Death.
Jessica also wrote for several magazines and newspapers, and taught journalism. Other books by her include the autobiography, Hons and Rebels (1960), (cited by J K Rowling as one of her most influential books), The Trial of Dr. Spock (1970), A Fine Old Conflict (1977), an account of her time in the American Communist Party, and The Making of a Muckraker (1979). Jessica Mitford died in 1996.
Deborah Mitford b1920
Deborah (known as Debo) famously declared when she was 6 that she wanted to be a Duchess and she did.
She met Andrew Cavendish, second son of the Duke of Devonshire, at the age of 18 and they married three years later. The couple became Duke and Duchess of Devonshire in 1950 and took over the enormous and decaying Chatsworth Estate. The house has flourished under her keen business sense and dedication and she has even been known to run its ticket office when the estate is short-staffed.
In many ways Debo is the only Mitford to have lived the life her parents would have expected, but hers has not been any less eventful - it has, for example, been rumoured that she had an affair with John F Kennedy and her letters are full of interesting references to him.
As the youngest of the sisters, she was still growing up while the others were living hectic lives of excitement and scandal. She was the only one of the girls to be allowed to attend school and she is largely depicted as the only well balanced one in the family. Although, like her sisters, sociable, charming and fun, she preferred a quiet country life and was more interested in animals and sport than parties and society. She has been able to dedicate herself to Chatsworth and has made it one of the premier tourist attractions in England.
It is amazing that these sharply intelligent, strong, feisty and opinionated women achieved such notoriety (or fame) at a time when women of their class had a very definite path in life expected of them. Growing up in a grand country house, they would be taught by a governess before making their debut in society, finding a suitable husband and settling down in his grand country house to produce an heir or two.
Despite none of them having more than a cursory formal education, (they were taught by their mother and a series of governesses with varying levels of commitment), they all took on formidable lifestyles and, in varying degrees,excelled at them.
Their unique humour and outlook on life is well-known and a source of great entertainment through their letters, memoirs and interviews. Love them or hate them, you cannot ignore them. The Mitford sisters are inherently fascinating.
Some books about or by the Mitford girls
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Deirdre R on June 12, 2011:
Very interesting well written Hub!
Oliver Chettle on September 17, 2010:
You make it sound like they were especially deprived of education, but they had governesses, which was the norm for girls of their time and class.
kate delano-condax decker on May 23, 2010:
I have a short letter that Jessica Mitford wrote to me in the 1980's (in orange crayon!) in reply to my letter to her commenting on something in one of her books. She had written that a young photographer had traveled all over Mexico in the 1930s with the photographer Tina Modotti (whose work is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City among other places) and that these photographs were thought to have been extraordinary, but had been lost and no one knew what had become of either the photographer or the photographs. The photographer was my father, John Condax; he and my mother Laura Delano Condax had been introduced to Tina Modotti by Constancia de la Mora (author of In Place of Splendor) and they travelled into parts of Mexico, with Tina Modotti (using the false name of Maria because of death threats) that almost no one else had been able to get into. I have the collection of original photographs. They had originally been intended for a book, publication of which was cancelled by the advent of World War II. The catalogue listed the book with photographs by John Condax and a text written by Constancia de la Mora. I have her original text, but it was nearly unusable -- the wonderful writing in her autobiography In Place of Splendor had been, it turned out, actually ghost written by Ruth McKinney (author of My Sister Eileen). Jessica Mitford was familiar with some of this account, but no all of it, so I told her about it, and got a nice reply from her.
gunsock (author) from South Coast of England on March 14, 2010:
Peter, my omission is now rectified!
I am most certainly going to try your book and I'm sure I'll like it.
Peter Sussman on March 14, 2010:
Someone directed me to this site because of a glaring omission at the end of this essay: There is another major Mitford book that's also in print and available on Amazon, in both the U.S. and the U.K., but isn't mentioned here -- mine! It's "Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford," which is, in effect if not in intent, a biography in letters of the extraordinary American sister, Jessica, known as Decca. Try it; you'll like it. And meanwhile, it should be on your list.
gunsock (author) from South Coast of England on September 14, 2009:
Thanks kellyheath. Hollywood and the Mitfords, what a thought! It would be an interesting mix of two worlds colliding.
kellyheath on September 14, 2009:
Fascinating story. I'm wondering how ling before Hollywood tells a version of it? Thanks Gunsock for a fabolous Hub
gunsock (author) from South Coast of England on August 04, 2009:
Thanks fastfreta, the Mitford girls aren't boring, that's for sure.
Alfreta Sailor from Southern California on August 03, 2009:
I just ran across this very interesting hub. I was totally captivated. If this is any indication of your writing, I am a fan.
gunsock (author) from South Coast of England on February 27, 2009:
Thanks William, and London Girl for your comments. The Mitfords' story is just incredible and I'm sure we'll never see their like again.
William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on February 26, 2009:
The sisters sure are fascinating, gunsock. Like LondonGirl, I found the photos captivating. Your descriptions are marvelous. I enjoyed this hub very much. Thanks.
LondonGirl from London on February 19, 2009:
wonderful hub, and I love all the photos!
The Mitfords are, I agree, a fascinating and odd lot. It is incredible how each one achieved such prominence.