The Enduring Fascination with the Mitford Sisters Won’t Die

In those footloose days when I am going to UK, I’ve searched for some tourist attractions online and then it comes out this:

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The Chatsworth House!

Then, I’ve been a bit fascinated by story of the previous house owner, Mrs. Mitford and the semi-creepy Mitford family of her.

What explains the endless obsession with six British socialites of a bygone era? Probably their beauty, wit, eccentricity . . . and epic split over Hitler’s rise. Two were friends with Hitler, one eloped with her cousin, another attempted suicide while the eldest became an acclaimed novelist: As the last of the Mitford sister dies, how their lives were far more scandalous than any Downton Abbey plot.

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The Mitfords. One of modern history’s most remarkable families. Back row (L-R) Nancy, Diana, Tom. Centre(L-R) Diana, Pamela. Front (L-R) Unity, Decca and Deborah, 1922, Astral Manor.

The Mitford family

  • Nancy Mitford (1904-1973)
  • Pamela Mitford (1907-1994)
  • Thomas Mitford (1909-1945)
  • Diana Mitford (1910-2003)
  • Unity Mitford (1914-1948)
  • Decca Mitford (1917-1996)
  • Deborah Mitford (1920-2014)

1.Nancy

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The eldest sister was an author and journalist who examined her own aristocratic class in books such as “Noblesse Oblige”. Her fiction includes the big selling “Love in a Cold Climate”. After WWII she ended a sham marriage in which both partners had a variety of affairs, and moved to Paris. She had fallen in love with a French military officer whom she never married. When Nancy was dying,Jessica and Diana came to Paris to be with her. But they still could not speak to each other, their political positions kept them forever apart.

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Nancy was the worldly Mitford, chain smoking, a competitive drinker, acclaimed writer and adventure lover.

She was a stark contrast to her sibling closest in age.

2.Pamela

The least assuming sister, Pamela stayed out of the headlines (despite several proposals from John Betjeman and a long-term female companion in later life).  Pam was teased by her sisters who usually referred to her simply as Woman.

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(Don’t you think the Edith in Downtown Abbey looks resembles Pamela!!)

  

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(And it seems the prototype of Mary inDowntown Abbey is exactly Nancy Mitford!)

Pamela made no great impact on world affairs and kept to her farm life. But her ability to live as she wanted rather than be drawn into Mitford fights showed a strong determination.

After a divorce she set up a home with an Italian horse woman, her companion for the rest of her life. “She’s a you-know-what-bias,” Decca explained in a family letter.

3.Diana

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Diana was a great beauty whose second husband was Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists which supported Hitler’s Nazis while rejecting a German invasion. The 1936 wedding was held at the home of Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda), with Hitler himself a guest of honour.

Writer and admirer Evelyn Waugh said her beauty “ran through the room like a peal of bells”, but many Britons found her politics unattractive and there were demands she and her husband be detained for the duration of WWII.

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In an autobiography she said of her political life, “I can’t regret it, it was so interesting.”

Another sister went even further in right wing politics.

4.Unity

Following Diana’s lead, Unity travelled to German, fell in love with Hitler and became part of his close group of friends and advisers. She was torn when war was declared between Britain and Germany. In Munich she tried with kill herself with a small pistol Hitler had given her for protection. The suicide bid failed, and she was sent back to Britain for health care. She never recovered the botched attempt on her own life.

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(4 January 1940: Unity Mitford being carried on a stretcher from a hotel at Folkestone to a waiting ambulance Photograph: Fred Ramage/Getty Images)

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(The Mitford Sisters: Unity, Diana and Nancy, 1932 Photo: Getty)

5.Decca

The woman known as Decca moved to Spain aged 19 during its civil war in the late 1930s. She married a cousin after opposition from her family, and had a daughter, Julia whom she later ignored, not even mentioning her in an autobiography.

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(January 1940: Jessica Mitford and Esmond Romilly working in a bar in Miami Photograph: POPPERFOTO)

Decca had another daughter, Constance in Washington in 1941. Her husband joined the Canadian air force and went missing in action.

She became a US citizen in 1944 and married a civil rights activist. This led her to a life of protests, renouncing her privileged upbringing by supporting Communist campaigns. She was also an investigative journalist and wrote a hugely influential book, “The American Way of Death” exposing the mortuary industry. “You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty,” she said at one point.

She died having never reconciled with sisters who took a different path.

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(Nine year old Unity Mitford with her sister Jessica at their home in Asthall Photo: Getty)

6.Deborah

Deborah was the only one of the Mitford sisters to follow the aristocratic path society expected of her.

She led a contented country life. Riding and hunting were her favourite pursuits, and she described herself as apolitical. She was a popular debutante, and during her “season” she met Kathleen Kennedy, and her brother John – the future US president.

Deborah married Lord Andrew Cavendish in 1941, and the Cavendish family became intertwined through marriage (Kathleen and Billy Cavendish wed in 1939) with the Kennedys. Thus Deborah was linked with the most famous of presidents, and to Adele Astaire, sister of Fred, who was an aunt by marriage.

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And Deborah’s husband, Andrew Cavendish succeeded his father as 11th Duke of Devonshire in 1950. So Debo devoted her life to running the Chatsworth estate with her husband.

While many other stately homes have fallen into disrepair, the Derbyshire house remains not only a home but a successful business as a popular tourist attraction which is testament to the Dowager’s efforts.

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The Dowager was the last of the surviving Mitford sisters but their legacy remains in their works of literature and at Chatsworth.

In her book, ‘The Mitford Girls: The Biography of an Extraordinary Family’ ,Mary S. Lovell sums up why the girls were so intriguing in their day – and remain so after their deaths.”

‘These six girls, brought up in exactly the same way yet developing in such an individual manner, seem to have taken the twentieth century by the throat,’ she writes.

‘It is not so much that they were historically important – but that they were so much larger than life – easily as interesting as the characters’s in Nancy’s novels.’

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