The Mitford files: Exploring the extraordinary lives of six sisters

Surely more forests have been felled in the name of the Mitford girls than any other family circle in history, and the death recently of 94-year-old Deborah, the youngest and longest-lived, prompts a consideration of the sisters’ contribution to the world of letters – as both authors and subjects.

By Mark McGinness.

First published in The National, 2 October 2014.

Between 1904 and 1920, Lord and Lady Redesdale produced a son, Tom, and six daughters – Nancy, the novelist and Francophile; Pam, a horsewoman, farmer and cook; Diana, a fascist beauty; Unity, a besotted Nazi; Jessica (“Decca”), an American communist and writer; and Deborah (“Debo”), the Duchess of Devonshire. They were six variations of the same face and voice with an obsessive dedication to a person or cause. Nancy’s love for Gaston Palewski, Unity’s for Hitler and Diana’s for the English fascist Oswald Mosley, blighted their lives – although none of them would ever admit it. Jessica’s dedication to communism and Deborah’s to her home, Chatsworth House, were just as strong but cast no shadows.

Four of the sisters – Nancy, Diana, Jessica and Deborah – took to print. Memoirs from the last three of them (and more than 40 books among them); novels and historical biographies from Nancy; biographies and reviews from Diana; and exposés from Jessica, the Queen of Muckrakers. Three volumes of Nancy’s letters have been published (one, her correspondence with Evelyn Waugh), 700 pages of letters from Jessica, and Deborah’s 54 years of brilliant badinage with the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, In Tearing Haste. There are also the 843 pages of correspondence between all six sisters, covering 77 years.

These tomes join four previous biographies of Nancy (by Harold Acton, Selina Hastings, Laura Thompson and Lisa Hilton); two of Diana (by Jan Dalley and Anne de Courcy); three of Unity (the most comprehensive – and controversial – by David Pryce-Jones); one of Pamela, the quietest and, according to John Betjeman, “the most rural of them all”; and two of all six sisters: The House of Mitford by Diana’s son, Jonathan Guinness and his daughter Catherine; and Mary Lovell’s quite definitive The Mitford Girls. There was even a musical of the same name in 1981. Deborah’s daughter, Sophia Murphy, also produced The Mitford Family Album. Biographies of Deborah are certain, like her beloved chickens, to be hatched before long.

Why the fascination? The lives of the Mitford sisters have riveted, and repelled, Anglophiles, romantics and readers since the 1930s. Diana Mitford once wrote, “I must admit ‘the Mitfords’ would madden ME if I didn’t chance to be one.” Their hold on the public imagination, through their loves and marriages, their politics and opinions, their friendships and sense of fun, can be attributed to a mixture of aristocratic eccentricity, romance, rebellion, devotion, betrayal, estrangement, tragedy and loss; and through it all, a uniquely irrepressible wit. This absolute self-possession and determination to treat the gravest aspects of life as a lark are what make the Mitfords such an enduring study.

The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters (2008), superbly edited by Diana’s daughter-in-law, Charlotte Mosley, presents the sisters at their vivid best, bouncing off each other, revealing a distinctive, instantly recognisable style that shines through each one’s letters. The lives of the Mitford girls seem as remote today as the Bennett sisters. The latter were fictional and the Mitfords have become so, too.

It is almost impossible for many to separate the family from their fictional equivalents. The books that made them so, and grew into what Jessica dubbed the Mitford Industry, were Nancy’s The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949), which become classics, still in print today, creating cult figures of her already notorious family.

The intensely autobiographical nature of Nancy’s fiction might suggest a lack of creative imagination, but the real-life models she was so brilliantly able to draw on – with some, but not much, embellishment – made it all the more fascinating for appearing to be true. Published in December 1945, The Pursuit of Love, a hilarious, high-spirited and sweepingly romantic tale came at just the right time to a country exhausted and numb after six years of war.

That spirit and the ingredients of love, childhood and the eccentricities of the English aristocracy in the guise of the Radlett family make it still so eminently readable today. Nancy trumped her success with Love in a Cold Climate four years later, again drawing on life with the Radletts, but focusing on their neighbours.

Half a century passed between Nancy’s first novel, Highland Fling (1931), and Debo’s first book. Eldest green-eyed Nancy never recovered from not being an only child and was relentless in her teasing. She called Debo “Nine” – her apparent mental age – and claimed she had to point to the words on a page to read. Debo played on this, claiming never to read; rather like Favre (as they called their father), who apparently only ever read one book, White Fang, which he found so good there was no need to read another.

Debo was certainly a late developer but would write almost as many books as Nancy, and proved herself as gifted, original and funny as her supposedly cleverer sisters. Most of them reflected her life’s work, Chatsworth House, the seat of the Cavendishes for 16 generations since 1549, the 175-room caramel-coloured pile, known as “the Palace on the Peak” in Derbyshire, which in 1959, she and her husband, Andrew, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, occupied (with their son and two daughters) and set about to rescue. Debo was arguably the greatest chatelaine of the 20th century.

In 1980, at the age of 60, she produced Chatsworth: The House (1980); then in 1990, The Estate: A View from Chatsworth. The Treasures of Chatsworth and The Farmyard at Chatsworth were published in 1991 and, in 1999, The Garden at Chatsworth. Two years later a bestselling collection of home thoughts and reviews, Counting My Chickens (2001), appeared. She was a hen breeder and chicken lover for more than 80 years.

The Chatsworth Cookery Book ­appeared in 2003. Debo’s hairdresser thought she had a nerve as she had not cooked since 1945. But she was better than two of her sisters. Nancy, looking after her father during the war, threw an egg into a pot of water and was appalled when “a sinister sort of octopus grew out of it”. So she threw in two more – the whole week’s ration – and the same thing happened. She then gave up. Jessica was no more adept. Her recipe for roast goose reads: “Take a goose and roast till done.”

In 2005, Round About Chatsworth was published, featuring the 35,000 acres that surround the house – plumb full of houses and architectural curiosities: bridges and byres, mills and a mortuary, turrets, towers and troughs, forests, fountains and follies – brimming with Devonshire knowledge and Mitford dash.

Writing about Chatsworth was the most natural thing in the world for Deborah and so it read. She listed her occupation in Who’s Who as “housewife” and would refer to Chatsworth as “the dump”. As Alan Bennett said in his introduction to the second collection of her journalism, Home to Roost … And Other Peckings (2009), a bestseller like her predecessor, “Deborah Devonshire is not someone to whom one can say ‘joking apart …’: with her it’s of the essence, even at the most serious and saddest of moments.”

And in a long life, she had her tragedies and her trials. She lost three children at birth and like many a duke, her husband had affairs. He was also an alcoholic and a gambler but gave these up so their last two decades were warm and companionable.

“Happiness is very rare and totally overrated,” Deborah would say. “Contentment is completely different and Chatsworth has made me content … I am the most easily pleased of the sisters.”

By December 2005, sisterless and widowed (her last sister, Diana, died in 2003 and the Duke the following year), Debo left Chatsworth to her son, the 12th duke, and his wife, moving nearby to the Old Vicarage at Edensor. She called it the Old Vic and soon made it her own. She continued to contribute to The Spectator as a columnist and reviewer. Her views were sturdily conservative – Crown and countryside, the social order and stiff upper lip, good manners, loyalty and friendship, but always expressed with originality and humour.

Then, at the age of 90 and by then almost blind, she published her memoirs, Wait for Me!, perhaps the most reliable and rational account of life as a Mitford sister, recalling the stumpy-legged infant trying to catch up to her five big sisters. Indifferent to their politics, her love for her sisters was unwavering. Debo had been the Redesdales’ last chance for another son. Mabel the parlourmaid recalled, “I knew it was a girl by the look on his lordship’s face.” Yet, unlike her tearaway sisters she loved life at home with Muv and Favre and became her father’s favourite. Apart from preserving Chatsworth and protecting the legacy of her sisters, the Duchess of Devonshire championed, through her writing and her patronages, traditional values and the importance of country life; proving in the end, to be the grandest and most remarkable of that remarkable brood.

Mark McGinness is a freelance writer and reviewer based in Dubai.

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