The Mitford Sisters

The next  biography I read was about the six Mitford sisters.  Apparently they’re infamous in England, but I’d never heard of them.  One thing’s for sure though, this family was a whole lot of fun 🙂

The six were the daughters of Sydney and David Mitford (aka Lord and Lady Redesdale), who had married in 1904.  Sydney was somewhat cold and distant to her children, perhaps stemming from the fact that her own mother had died when she was a child, and she was raised by her father out on the family yacht.  David had horrible bursts of temper and wasn’t all that close with most of the kids either.

There were actually seven children in all (the sisters had a brother) and all but one sister lived extraordinary, entertaining lives.  The children grew up in modest circumstances, but without proper education.  The parents didn’t believe in the modern education system (just as they didn’t believe in modern medicine).  This became an explosive issue later in their lives.


The first born, Nancy was the mean-spirited sister.  She would mercilessly tease her siblings, instinctively knowing which barbs would hit home hardest.  But she somehow managed to balance that with immeasurable charisma and wit, which kept her in the hearts of her victims.  She greatly enjoyed being a debutante, and would lie to her parents in order to go out to parties with her friends.  But what irritated her parents the most was when she got her hair bobbed and wore trousers around the house.  From David’s reaction, you’d think she’d killed someone.

As she got older, her circle of friends began to include more and more members of the young socialist party of England.  It was this ideology Nancy would be dedicated to for the rest of her life though, as she once told her sister Decca, she and her friends were “more thinkers than actors.”  She spent many years trying to win the heart of a young man, Hamish.  It was futile, as he was gay (something everyone but Nancy seemed to know).  Fearing that she would become an old maid, Nancy married Peter Rodd, a womanizer she didn’t love. Neither partner was faithful and they separated on amicable terms in 1939, divorcing in 1958.  After WWII, Nancy moved to Paris and met the French soldier Palewski.  She fell completely in love, while he saw her as just a pleasant dalliance.  She would spend the rest of her life pining after him, even after he married a French divorcée whom he had also been involved with for several years.  Nancy is best known for her novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.  The characters were based off her own dysfunctional family and were a huge hit. She died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1973, after a long, painful illness.  Palewski was at her bedside.


The second oldest was Pam.  She was called “the boring one” by her siblings, and comparatively, she was.  She lived a rather quiet life, earning the nickname “the most rural Mitford.”  She married Derek Jackson in 1936, though they divorced in 1951, and she spent the rest of her life with a woman.  Since she avoided the spotlight, much less is known about her than the others, but she was well liked by all who met her, and the famous English poet John Betjeman openly used her as a muse.


The only son of the family, Tom was also the only one always “on speakers” with all his other siblings.  Since the biography I read focused on the sisters, Tom wasn’t mentioned too much, but I did learn that he had slept with many boys while off at university, then slept with dozens and dozens of women to try to compensate for it.  He went abroad to learn German in Munich, and it was through one of his friends that Unity and Diana met Hitler.  He was killed in the Pacific during WWII.


Diana was the beauty of the family.  Her blonde hair and blue eyes led Hitler to describe her as “the perfect Aryan,” which she took as a huge compliment.  At 18 she became officially engaged to Bryan Guinness, heir to the brewing empire, as well as the barony of Moyne.  Her parents didn’t like the match at first, but were eventually persuaded.  Hers was the society wedding of the year in 1929.  The couple was extremely wealth and renowned for the lavish parties they hosted.  Their glamorous life came to an end, however, when Diana met Oswald Mosely, leader of the Fascist party in England.  She fell in love, divorcing her husband.  At the time, this amounted to social suicide, especially as Mosely was married and refused to leave his wife.  It was only in 1936, a few years after his wife’s death, that Mosely decided to marry Diana.  Hitler was present at the small ceremony.  Diana’s decision to divorce led to a brief estrangement with her entire family, and a permanent one with Decca.  In fact, only Debo and Pam seemed able to completely accept the situation, relations with the other sisters coming and going.

Diana had been introduced to Hitler in 1935 by her sister Unity, who was obsessively in love with the dictator and part of his inner circle.  Diana liked him from the start, and she and her sister were frequent guests of his.  Because of this connection, she and Mosely were imprisoned in England during WWII, and for a couple years afterwards.  After the war, Diana and Mosely got on with life as usual.  They had homes in Ireland, London, and Paris, and Mosely continued to be unfaithful to her, as he always had.  Like Nancy, Diana published some translations and two memoirs to earn income.  She died in 2003, at the age of 93.


I have to say, I found Unity to be the most interesting.  Her full name was Unity Valkyrie Mitford, and she was conceived in Swastika, Canada.  So it seems only fitting that she was a committed Nazi and hopelessly in love with Hitler.  She always lived to shock, often bringing pet rats or snakes to debutante balls.  She had been attracted to Fascism from a very early age, and traveled to Germany in 1933 to attend a Rally, where she first saw Hitler.  She returned to Munich the next year, enrolling in a language course.  She staked out the cafes Hitler was known to frequent, and after ten months the dictator became curious about the “Nordic Englishwoman” who was always alone, and always staring at him.  Their relationship blossomed from there, though there are doubts about whether it was sexual or not.  Unity certainly wouldn’t have said no, but reports state that Hitler wasn’t interested in that kind of thing.  He was already neglecting his mistress, Eva Braun, after all.  Another reason Hitler may have been interested in Unity (and Diana too) is that the Mitford family were cousins to the Churchill family.  In the end though, it seems that the two genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.

Up until war was declared, Unity had been in denial about it, claiming that it could never happen.  She stated that if it ever did, she would kill herself, because she could not choose between England and Germany.  And that’s exactly what she tried to do.  In 1939 she went to a park in Munich and shot herself in the head.  Somehow she survived, though she incurred brain damage and had to be cared for by her mother back in England.  She was stuck at the mental age of 11 until her death in 1947 from meningitis caused by the swelling around the bullet (which had never been removed).

Jessica “Decca” (1917-1998)

What Unity felt about Fascism, Decca felt about Communism.  Strangely enough though, the two stayed close throughout their lives, never letting politics get in the way (though Decca shunned Diana for her views).  Out of all the sisters, she was the one who most detested her lack of proper education, something she never let her mother forget.  She was the “red sheep” of the family, and planned from a young age to run away.  In fact, when she was a teenager she opened a “running away” account at a local bank.  This would come in handy when she and her cousin, Esmond Romilly, eloped to Spain to help with the Spanish Civil War. Romilly was a fervent Communist who forbid Decca to communicate with her “Nazi family” more than necessary, and Unity was completely off limits (Decca ignored him in this respect).  The Romilly’s emigrated to the US, networking in DC and Florida.  Esmond joined the British Airforce in 1941, and was killed later that year.

Decca then fell in love with Bob Treuhaft, and the two eventually settled in California with Decca and Esmond’s daughter, and joined the US Communist Party.  They only left the party after the “red scare” in the 1950s, when they were called to testify before Congress.  It still took several years for them to receive passports so that they could visit the Mitfords in Europe.

Like Nancy, Decca was well known for her novels.  Hons and Rebels was a best selling memoir, and she also published several investigative works regarding birth and death in the US.  She died of lung cancer in 1998.

Deborah “Debo” 1920-

The youngest (and last surviving) Mitford is Debo.  She was the one who bore the brunt of her sibling’s actions.  She was at home for the fallout from Diana’s divorce, Unity’s public antisemitism, Decca’s elopement and political views, and the breakdown of her parent’s marriage due to politics as well(Sydney was pro-Hitler, David was not….).

Debo asserted from a very young age that she would become a Duchess, and that’s exactly what she did. She married Lord Andrew Cavendish in 1941, and after the death of his elder brother, she became the heir to the title Duchess of Devonshire (side note: the duchy of Devonshire was founded by Bess of Hardwick’s second husband, and their properties included Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth).  Compared to her radical sisters, Debo lived a quiet life. She was content to hunt, ride horses, and tend Chatsworth.  After Sydney’s death, Debo became the “mother” of the family, doing whatever she could to keep the peace.  She inherited writing genes as well, but puts her talents to use writing historical accounts of Chatsworth and other great houses in England, to try to ensure they are properly preserved.


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