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The Mitford Sisters Who Scandalized Society

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Between 1904 and 1920, Lord and Lady Redesdale gave life to seven children, six girls and one boy. The girls distinguished themselves, sometimes outrageously, in their pursuits. Poet John Betjemin once extolled them in verse with

The Mitford girls! The Mitford Girls/ I love them for their sins.

And, their sins were plentiful.

The Mitford family in 1928.

The Mitford family in 1928.

An Eccentric Upbringing

The Mitfords lived in what is sometimes called genteel poverty. The family owned huge estates in England and, while they lived in stately homes, Lord Redesdale was always short of money. He showed little talent for, or interest, in any useful form of employment; the only occupation he had enthusiasm for was riding his horses.

Lord Redesdale, or, to give him his full title, David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale was a grade-A eccentric. His lordship had no use for education, having himself failed academically at school; he even flunked the entrance exam to get into Sandhurst military college. No matter, he was an aristocrat so, by default, he was awarded a commission and sent off to fight in the Boer War.

He claimed to have read only one book, Jack London's White Fang; it was so good, he said, that reading anything else would be a letdown. Author Lyndsy Spence says the education of the Mitford children was put in the hands of “a succession of dotty governesses.”

Somewhere in his travels, Lord Redesdale had picked up the erroneous nugget of wisdom that Jews did not get cancer. So, he decreed that the family should eat a kosher diet.

He was also a fiery xenophobe, with a massive hate on for all Roman Catholics and foreigners.

The girls' mother, Sydney Bowles Mitford, Lady Redesdale, is described everywhere as “vague,” without further amplification. She became enamoured with the Nazis, a sentiment that was to be found in many places among Britain's aristocrats, but most definitely not subscribed to be Lord Redesdale. The marriage did not survive the difference of political opinions.

Asthall Manor one of the country homes in which the Mitford family lived.

Asthall Manor one of the country homes in which the Mitford family lived.

The Political Mitfords

As the girls came of age, three of them developed strong political leanings. Diana (born in 1910) became a Fascist, Unity (1914) chose Nazism, and Jessica (1917) was a Communist.

As with all the Mitford girls, Diana was beautiful and attracted many suitors. She picked Bryan Guinness, 2nd Baron Moyne, and brewery heir, out of the herd. But, the marriage didn't last. She was still only 21 when she met a man who claimed to have the answers to solving the abyss between the rich and the poor in the churning dislocation of the Great Depression. That man was Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of The British Union of Fascists.

Diana scandalized society by living with Mosley without the blessing of marriage vows. The wedding came later, in 1936, in Germany. The ceremony was held in the home of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, and Adolf Hitler was a guest of honour.

When war broke out, both Oswald and Diana Mosley were imprisoned. In 1943, they were released but placed under house arrest. Not welcome in Britain, they went to live in Paris when the war ended. The Mosleys became friends with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, another pariah British couple who had toyed with supporting Hitler.

Diana Mitford.

Diana Mitford.

Unity Mitford was virulently anti-Semitic and a devotee of Adolf Hitler. She moved to Germany in 1934 to be near her hero and soon became noticed by him.

She moved into the Führer's inner-circle and they were believed by some to be lovers and that a child resulted, but that does sound a bit tabloid-pressy.

When Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939 Unity Mitford became deeply depressed. She went to the English Garden in Munich and shot herself in the head with a pistol Hitler had given her.

The bullet only caused severe brain damage not death. She was somehow spirited back to England where she died in 1948 of meningitis caused by the bullet lodged in her brain.

Unity Mitford with Hitler.

Unity Mitford with Hitler.

Jessica, known as Decca, took up with the other side of the political spectrum. She eloped with a second cousin, Esmond Romilly, to Spain to report on the Spanish Civil War.

The couple moved to the United States in 1939 and squeezed out a living doing odd jobs. Romilly joined the Royal Canadian Air Force as a navigator and in December 1941 his aircraft crashed into the North Sea and all aboard were lost.

In 1943, Jessica married the American civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft. The couple moved to the West Coast and joined the San Francisco chapter of the American Communist Party.

They both campaigned for the civil rights of African Americans, but their communist affiliations came to the attention of the Joe McCarthy's Un-American Activities Committee horror show. They escaped any significant sanctions and became disillusioned with Communism when the excesses of the Soviet Union started to emerge.

Jessica took up writing, for which she had a gift, and penned Daughters and Rebels in 1960 about growing up in the Mitford Household

And, so she joined her sister Nancy in the writing trade.

Jessica Mitford.

Jessica Mitford.

The Writing Mitfords

The writer Christopher Hitchens described Jessica as “the exceptional one” among her extraordinary sisters. Jessica became deeply involved in the U.S. civil rights movement and had several brushes with the Ku Klux Klan as a result.

In 1963, she wrote a scathing exposé of the funeral industry in The American Way of Death. In it, she blew the lid off the outrageous profits undertakers/morticians changed their customers. In particular, she focussed her attention on the entirely unnecessary process of embalming, describing how bodies are “sprayed, sliced, pierced, pickled, trussed, trimmed, creamed, waxed, painted, rouged, and neatly dressed—transformed from a common corpse into a Beautiful Memory Picture.”

She revealed how The Famous Writers School was a scam and delivered a blistering critique on American prisons in Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business (1973).

The first-born of the sisters, novelist Nancy Mitford has been described as “superbly funny, but also capable of astonishing cruelty.” Selina Hastings writes of her in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that as a child she was very self-centered and given to “roaring, red-faced rages.” She took great pleasure in tormenting and mocking her siblings. But, in common with the other Mitford children, she was highly intelligent and, in the 1930s, she began writing. Magazine columns and a few unsuccessful novels followed.

Success finally arrived after the war with four novels that satirized the misadventures of an upper-class British family. The patriarch in The Pursuit of Love (1945) and subsequent books is Uncle Matthew; he is a man who is supremely out of touch with the world in which he lives and who hates just about everything and everybody. He was clearly modelled on Nancy Mitford's father, Lord Redesdale.

Later, she moved to France and wrote biographies of Voltaire and Louis XIV.

Nancy Mitford.

Nancy Mitford.

The Other Mitfords

Pamela Mitford was the second child, born in 1907. She lived out of the public eye, devoted to a quiet country life, involved with horses and dogs. Married to an Oxford University science professor, historian Sarah Roller writes that “Some have speculated this was a marriage of convenience: both were almost certainly bisexual.”

The youngest daughter, Deborah, arrived in 1920. At the age of 21, she did what was expected of young women of her class by marrying well. Her spouse was Lord Andrew Cavendish. In due course, Lord Andrew's father died and the couple became the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Deborah led an exemplary life and was the last of the sisters to die in 2014.

That leaves Tom, the only male child. He studied law in Berlin in the late 1920s where he developed sympathies for Nazism. When war broke out, he managed to get himself posted to Burma because he couldn't bring himself to fight, and perhaps kill, Germans. He was killed in action in March 1945.

Bonus Factoids

  • In the winter of 1913-14, Lord and Lady Redesdale took off for Canada on a cockamamie scheme to dig for gold on a claim they had bought. It was here that Unity Mitford, the one who got cozy with Hitler, was conceived. The name of the place where the search for gold and the conception took place was Swastika, Ontario.
  • Sydney, mother of the Mitford girls had a dictum that “the name of a decent woman should appear in the newspapers only twice: first on her marriage, and second in her obituary.”
  • Late in life, Jessica Mitford attempted to launch a career in popular music by making a recording with her group Decca and the Dectones. All that can said is it was a good thing that she had her skill as a writer to keep earning money. It has to be assumed to be one of her wicked jokes.

Sources

  • “The Mitfords: Six Sisters Who Captured the Maelstrom.” Lyndsy Spence, BBC, September 25, 2014.
  • “Mrs. Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford.” Lyndsy Spence, The History Press, undated.
  • “Unity Mitford: When Hitler Took Cocaine.” Giles Milton, thehistoryreader.com, January 8, 2016.
  • “Those Utterly Maddening Mitford Girls.” Ben Macintyre, The Times, October 12, 2007.
  • “The Indomitable Jessica Mitford.” Molly Finnegan, The Atlantic, October 2006.
  • “ ‘Bright Young People’: The 6 Extraordinary Mitford Sisters.” Sarah Roller, historyhit.com, April 27, 2021.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 13, 2021:

Rupert, thanks for the interesting read. But the family is awful.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 13, 2021:

Thanks Mr. Happy. Glad you enjoyed the article. I read The American Way of Death in the 1960s and found it to be a brilliant book. I don't know if it holds up today but you could likely pick it up in a second-hand bookstore for a couple of dollars.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on August 13, 2021:

"the only occupation he had enthusiasm for was riding his horses." - That's nice. Like Holden and I just want to play "the catcher in the rye".

"Daughters and Rebels" - Might have to pick this one up. Thanks for sharing!!

"cockamamie" - I thought it'd be some British word but it's actually American slang, used in the 40s and popularized in the 60s. That was nice to learn. Thank You. Never heard that one before.

You got me with the "sisters who scandalized society", as a non-conformist. Titles are important.

Cheers!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 13, 2021:

What an interesting family! You always write things of interest and this was no exception. Thanks!

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 13, 2021:

What a colorful family. Dark colors, perhaps, but colorful nonetheless. This is an interesting read, Rupert. I can always count on you for entertainment and/or a captivating history lesson.

I'll be back to watch the interview with Jessica Mitford. I'm at work right now so can't play the volume.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on August 13, 2021:

This was all very interesting, Rupert. What an intriguing family.

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