Take Six Girls – The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
By Laura Thompson
Head Zeus 2015
RRP – $39.99 hb
Reviewed by Anne Henderson
To give something of the flavour of the amorality and perverse jollity of popular post-war UK writer Nancy Mitford, author Laura Thompson in her recently released Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters quotes Nancy in a letter to a friend writing: “Randolph C[hurchill] tried to rape me. It was very funny.” For any not familiar with Nancy Mitford’s style, her tendency to exaggerate (as in “rape”) and laugh at the outrageous is captured succinctly in this short comment.
In our politically correct times, recollections of the lives of the six Mitford sisters – products of an entrenched British aristocratic milieu of the early to mid twentieth century – are not so easy to fathom. Unless you have been or still are a fan or reader of Nancy Mitford’s heady and hilarious novels centring on the Radletts of Alconleigh as a fictional version of the Mitford children and their terrifying Uncle Matthew based on their father, David Mitford, the second Baron Redesdale.
India Knight, reviewing an edited collection of the Mitford sisters’ letters for The Times in 2007, called the lives of the Mitford sisters “the story of the twentieth century, told from the front row”. This is very true – in relation to Britain, Europe and quite a bit of North America. Thompson recognises that the combination of such “blithe Mitford confidence” with the clash of rivalry and attention seeking among such a cluster of female energy at a time when upper class women had few roles other than the social and domestic was to be expected.
In this, it is not surprising that the most outrageous of the Mitford sisters set their caps at extreme ideological moorings through social contact rather than formative indoctrination. Diana would scandalise first by leaving her perfect marriage to Bryan Guinness, heir to a fortune, (and two young sons) to become one of the British fascist leader Oswald Mosely’s mistresses and later his second wife. Her fascist beliefs went undaunted; she visited Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler prior to the war, although would never become a Nazi like her sister Unity who, besotted like a schoolgirl over a pop idol (her sister Deborah described Unity as a “stalker”), mixed in Hitler’s circles and attempted to kill herself when war was declared. Being related to both Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine, the Mitford sisters offered Hitler information on the British.
Jessica Mitford, at the other extreme, would abandon her family to marry her strident communist cousin Esmond Romilly and relocate to the United States. She would continue her rage at the Mitford capitalist milieu to the extent of demanding that a sixth of the family’s meagre estate, a boat ride from the Isle of Mull, be given to the Communist Party, even as her mother struggled after David Mitford’s death in March 1958.
The Mitford sisters – Nancy (1904–1973), Pamela (1907-1994), Diana (1910-2003), Unity (1914-1948), Jessica (1917-1996) and Deborah (1920-2014) or, as Thompson labels them, “Writer; Countrywoman; Fascist, Nazi; Communist; Duchess” – were making their own headlines well before Nancy Mitford became a popular novelist. Most of the headlines the Mitford sisters made were scandalous, leaving the reducing fortunes of their father Baron Redesdale to continue alongside his immediate family’s diminishing reputation throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. Lone brother Tom Mitford (1909-1945) could be counted on to hold steady the family name, but he would be killed in Burma in the last stages of the Pacific War.
As Laura Thompson makes clear in her enticing study of the lives of the six Mitford girls, their early family life around David and Sydney (the Redesdale parents) was not particularly different from the way most of their aristocratic peers (“Hons” as Nancy called them in her novels) passed their time. After their father had inherited the title and land from his father Bertie in 1916, the family pursued the usual round of hunts and long weekends and all manner of social interaction among the gentry. Girls were educated “at home” – something that irked Jessica Mitford for the rest of her life – and boys went to Eton or some such equivalent.
The British elite was not only well connected but also well and truly intermarried so that the picture of its activities is that of a large extended family – with its loyalties and enmities, scandals and secrets and much infidelity.
The Mitford family shifted abode a number of times as David moved the family from their modest home near Sloane Square to the family estate at Batsford Park. This, however, he sold a few years later, in 1919, at well below its value. He then built his grand Swinbrook House (“hated by all his children except Deborah”), which he was later forced to sell along with his precious land.
Downsized to 26 Rutland Gate in Knightsbridge, this became the family’s main residence, although for much of the time it was rented out and the family lived behind in the mews. And there was a cottage in Wiltshire. In time, as Baron Redesdale’s income declined and his business ventures failed, such upmarket properties were sold until David was left owning Inch Kenneth, a remote grassy island on which was a turreted four story mansion home, to the west of the Isle of Mull,
The outcome for the Mitfords parallels much of the political and social upheaval that came for the West before, during and after the world wars. There was a shift of plates that left the ruling elite at the centre of the British Empire very much swimming in troubled waters. Some swam – some sank. And the heightened political battle between left and right was at the core of much of it. What Thompson also achieves is to develop a context around these divisions prior to World War II making it clear that, until 1938, the fascist versus communist battle was one between two equally nasty extremes.
Among the Mitford sisters, Nancy would tread water with her literary set and early writings, friendship with Evelyn Waugh and other literary giants, but also be dependant on finding a husband before she became tagged as a spinster. She was neither fish nor fowl – unable to embrace the elite bohemia of others like Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington who hung about her sister Diana’s Guinness owned Biddesden where writers came for gatherings. John Betjeman described them as “a sort of Oxford set, we used to see things as an endless party”.
But while Thompson gives weight to the argument that much of the blame for the notorious reputations of the Mitford sisters lay at David’s feet, a “reactionary-cum-liberal” a “potent mixture of restraint and freedom” it is still Sydney (who in time would be a rock of support for her most outrageous daughters – Unity and Diana – as they suffered social exile) who takes most of the blame. As Thompson puts it:
It was not David’s fault that he had so many daughters, that were bright and mischievous and competitive, that they fought for the attention of a distant mother, that they came of age when the world went mad.
Thompson also seems to excuse David Mitford for losing his hereditary fortune on the grounds that he was “hopeless with money”. Surely the Baron might have used a financial adviser in the interests of his family and heirs. But, in the atmosphere of those aristocratic times, David is judged as simply a “big man” with a “theatricality that blossomed when he acquired his inheritance”. Noblesse oblige not at all.
Nancy Mitford caught the attitude sharply in her assessment that David’s forebears too often “regarded their estates with the eyes of sportsmen rather than cultivators” and went on to ask rhetorically whether it had occurred to any of them “to get a job and retrieve the family fortunes?” Her reply of course – “It does not.”
In fact, it was exactly this strong headedness to do as one feels that is so prevalent in many of the Mitford sisters and which is very much like their father’s careless pursuit of imaginary fortune, whether searching (literally) on gold fields or investing in hopelessly thought out schemes to make money. That this spirit prevailed made the Mitfords a sort of mid twentieth century emblem of all that the ruling elite had become at the centre of the British Empire.
That Nancy swam so effortlessly as a writer post-war symbolised the way forward for the rapidly dwindling gentleperson class – professionalism and an earned income, the world of “trade” that had so offended their ilk over centuries would save those who saw the answer. Deborah Mitford, married to Andrew Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, would likewise stay afloat. She and her husband would open Chatsworth House to the public and turn it into one of heritage Britain’s most successful businesses.
Experiences around Nancy offered a treasure trove of material for her novels. That four of the six Mitford sisters proved gifted writers also said a lot about informal education and the genes they had inherited. It is not a coincidence that the girls’ maternal grandfather Thomas Gibson-Bowles was a publisher and writer.
Nancy Mitford’s post-war novels became instant bestsellers leaving her extremely comfortable and able to divorce her philandering husband Peter Rodd. She would become the lynchpin of a more socially acceptable Mitford clan. In doing this, as Thompson writes, Nancy Mitford also would “reimagine the family that no longer existed and make it an enduring English myth”.
Nancy’s authorial voice, says Thompson, beginning with The Pursuit of Love first published in 1945, would grow “as delightfully familiar as that of Noel Coward, so the word ‘Mitford’ would come to symbolise the World According to Nancy. Charm, ‘creamy English charm’ (in [Evelyn] Waugh’s immortal phrase), would triumph over causes.” Thompson goes on:
… it was her great gift to her family, to distil them into this creed. Of course, it left out other things, as did the novel: The Pursuit of Love contains no portrait of Unity, no Diana; war comes to the book, but the wrecking ball of the 1930s does not swing among the Radletts with that same annihilating force. The revolt of the children against parental control is portrayed as a collective act of youthful folly.
Nancy certainly rescued the Mitford name from its legacy of many years of disgrace. For all that, the wayward sisters took their indignities in turn. Unity was brought back from Germany in 1940, with the bullet she had fired still lodged at the back of her head in a place too delicate for it to be removed. She would spend her last years in the care of her mother, incontinent, delusional and an invalid. Her death in 1948 resulted from complications around the dislodged bullet, infection and the remoteness of Inch Kenneth.
Diana withstood the archaic deprivations of Holloway Prison when interned there during the war until released with Mosley in 1943 to house arrest. By the time of their release, Diana was still in her thirties but her health had all but collapsed. Once out of prison, they were pariahs but the Mosely money kept them in some style. Mosely managed to buy the abandoned Crux Easton near Newbury, complete with servants, where they saw out those years of exile in the UK. After the war, Diana re-established herself with Mosely in a charming mini castle in Parisian Orsay – and became part of the social set around the exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor and many more.
Jessica never moved from her rigid belief in the communist way. After Romilly’s death in action during the war Jessica married Robert Treuhaft who likewise was a fervent Communist supporter. In time, buying her sisters out, she would become the sole owner of Inch Kenneth – joking that it might make a good site for a Soviet submarine base. Pamela married, suffered the usual infidelities in marriage but prospered after a financially generous divorce settlement. Deborah kept the Mitford name alive among the aristocracy, marrying the Devonshires’ second son and then seeing her husband inherit the title after the death of his brother. She would become as successful as her (quite different) sister Nancy in restoring the Mitford name.
In capturing not only the history of the Mitford sisters but also their spirit and the spirit of their times, Laura Thompson has produced part romp, part empathetic study of a famous family but, above all, a significant contribution to any understanding of social and political Britain between the wars.
Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War – shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for History