A Nazi, a Fascist, a Communist, a Novelist, a Countrywoman, a Duchess — Mitford Sisters ALL
By TINA BROWN
SEPT. 12, 2016
The Mitford sisters (and, second from left, brother) in Oxfordshire, 1935. Credit The Illustrated London News Picture Library, London, UK, via Bridgeman Images
The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
By Laura Thompson
Illustrated. 388 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $29.99.
Oh no! Not another book about the Mitfords! That was my instant reaction when Laura Thompson’s “The Six,” a group biography of the notorious sisters, all half-dozen of them, landed on my desk. Do we really need another take on the brittle, bright-eyed saga of 20th-century England’s wittiest, drawliest, most written-about (by themselves and others) litter of female aristocrats?
Could anything be left to say about Nancy (the novelist Mitford, 1904-73), Pamela (the boring Mitford, 1907-94), Diana (the fascist-turned-jailbird-turned-littérateuse Mitford, 1910-2003), Unity (the Nazi Mitford, 1914-48), Jessica (the Communist-turned-journalist Mitford, 1917-96) and Deborah (the duchess-turned-author-and-businesswoman Mitford, 1920-2014)? Having read my share of Mitfordiana, including David Pryce-Jones’s 1977 study of Unity and Selina Hastings’s brilliant 1985 biography of Nancy (whose popular 1945 book “The Pursuit of Love” was a mythmaking roman à clef), I had my doubts.
How wrong I was. “The Six” is riveting. It captures all the wayward magnetism and levity that have enchanted countless writers without neglecting the tragic darkness of many of the sisters’ life choices and the savage sociopolitical currents that fueled them. Over the 16 years between the coming-out ball of the oldest Mitford, Nancy, in 1922 and that of the youngest, Deborah, in 1938, Britain’s political scene grew ever more extreme and polarized. That scene — especially the rise of the demagogue Sir Oswald Mosley, who as leader of the British Union of Fascists mesmerized the angry unemployed left-behinds of London’s East End — has its not-so-faint modern echoes. On the other side were youthful Communist radicals like Winston Churchill’s nephew Esmond Romilly, who, to the devastation of the Mitford sisters’ parents, Lord and Lady Redesdale, eloped with Jessica when she was just 19.
The period’s incendiary passions blazed through the antic charm of the Mitfords’ rarefied Cotswolds upbringing and ultimately tore apart their lives in ways Nancy’s joyful comic novel “The Pursuit of Love” chose to omit. Thompson is especially good at rescuing poor, half-baked Unity from one-dimensional derision. Hyper-romantic, desperate for self-definition, far less clever than her sisters, Unity in Thompson’s portrait is the kind of girl who today might be the target of a recruiter for ISIS. She had the blond locks and cornflower-blue eyes of all the Mitfords, but she was big-boned and clumsy and pathologically naïve. In July 1934, when Ernst Röhm was dragged from his bed and shot on Hitler’s orders and a hundred other officers executed in the Night of the Long Knives, Unity wrote to Diana, “I am so terribly sorry for the Führer — you know Röhm was his oldest comrade and friend.” Thompson movingly describes what Unity’s life became after the war began and she tried to blow her brains out in a Munich park. She returned to England with the bullet still lodged in her skull — a garrulous, incontinent, overgrown child, cared for till death by her increasingly desperate mother.
The most fascinating of the portraits in “The Six” is of Diana, the peerless beauty of the family, with her “dynamic serenity, her sphinx smile.” Even in old age Diana’s Grecian profile and hooded sapphire eyes were cool perfection. Thompson wonderfully evokes her coup de foudre with Oswald Mosley. He, like her, was married with no thought of divorce when they met at a society party in 1932. Diana abruptly left her adoring, hugely rich young husband, the brewing heir Bryan Guinness, whom she had defied her parents to marry and with whom she had two small children. With characteristic contempt for others’ opinions, she set herself up alone in a residence on Eaton Square to be near Mosley, whose wife suddenly died in 1933. Three years later, Diana Mitford and Oswald Mosley were married in a small, private ceremony in the Berlin drawing room of Joseph Goebbels. The guest of honor was Adolf Hitler.
Diana remained in Mosley’s dark thrall for the rest of her life, despite his constant infidelities and despised opinions. Jessica refused to see her at all until, in a great scene in the book, they met at the bedside of the dying Nancy in 1973. The price Diana paid went beyond estrangement from her family. She had to endure a harrowing three years’ internment in Holloway prison during World War II for supporting her husband’s activities and, on release, the permanent status of a social pariah. Till her death in Paris at 94 she was unrepentant. “Being hated means absolutely nothing to me, as you know,” she wrote to Deborah in 2001.
Thompson emphasizes that Diana could be kind, loyal and protective (and like her other sisters, a very good writer), but watching a Thames TV interview with her at the end of her life I felt an evil undercurrent to her hauteur. Why did she and Unity find the shimmer of totalitarian violence so attractive? Why were they dazzled by the glamour of authoritarianism — the jackboots, the rallies, Unity’s “darling storms,” as she appallingly called the Nazi storm troopers?
Why were even their milder siblings — placid Pam, brother Tom, and their refined, aloof mother, Sydney — also fascist sympathizers, happy to visit Unity in Munich and socialize with Hitler? Why was Jessica drawn to — or blind to — Stalin’s nominally left-wing brand of murderous tyranny?
Perhaps it was a fearful sense that the British ruling class was becoming irrelevant, that it represented a crumbling world order that war and depression had hollowed out. Perhaps they imagined that a strongman’s brute force and absolute certainty would protect them, along with the rest of humanity, from chaos and confusion. Thompson doesn’t entirely nail an explanation, perhaps because it’s impossible to know.
Through all this drama, the Mitfords’ rivalries were as intense as their loyalties. Thompson makes it clear that Diana is the still, chill touchstone for them all. The spiky, possessive Nancy was forever jealous when her own admirer Evelyn Waugh fell at Diana’s feet.
After the war the Mosleys exiled themselves to Orsay in France. Nancy loyally visited Diana but never introduced her to her glittering circle of Paris friends. Competition with Diana also stoked Unity’s determination to outdo Diana’s fascism by following Hitler. A tinderbox dynamic played out through all their lives — Jessica, eloping with the radical Communist firebrand Romilly because Unity was a Nazi, Unity becoming a Nazi because Diana was a fascist. Nancy ricocheted back and forth with her alliances and feuds.
When Diana was in Holloway prison she had no idea that Nancy had secretly testified against her, telling the British Foreign Office that Diana, who had given birth to a son seven weeks before, was as dangerous as Mosley himself. It was an act of self-righteous treachery that seems fueled more by Nancy’s long-suppressed jealousy and her sorrow at her disappointments in love than by her disapproval of Diana’s allegiance to Mosley’s repellent politics.
So which of “The Six” does one come to admire? Nancy was a captivating writer. Jessica became a marvelous investigative journalist, famous for “The American Way of Death,” her scintillating exposé of the funeral industry.
The title of her memoir that covers her time in the Communist Party, “A Fine Old Conflict,” alluded to her charmingly clueless mishearing of “Tis the final conflict,” a line from “The Internationale,” the revolutionary anthem — a cunning instance of having it both ways. But the most appealing sister in the book is the one I’ve scarcely mentioned: Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire. She seems to have embodied the best of each of them — Nancy’s wit, Diana’s loyalty, Pam’s devotion to the countryside and the sense of humor they all shared — wedded to a devoted Englishness expressed in her role as the brilliant chatelaine of Chatsworth House. With her efficiency, her style, her willingness to move with the times she made the ducal stately home thrive as a commercial enterprise as well as a monument of historic and artistic significance. In Thompson’s words, Deborah “strode dauntlessly through the contemporary landscape while at the same time symbolizing a vanished past. It was very Mitford. And, as such, the public seemed to treasure it.”
She died in September 2014 at the age of 94, adored by all. It is tempting to recall the great last line from Nancy’s biography of Madame de Pompadour: “After this a very great dullness fell upon the chateau of Versailles.”
Tina Brown is the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and the author of “The Diana Chronicles.”