Six Sisters, Six Books: The Mitfords
The Mitford Sisters: Six fascinating women
If you don't know about the Mitford girls, you're in for a treat. These sisters, born in England in the first part of the twentieth century, were scandalous yet sincere, witty yet sharp, aristocratic yet rebellious. Their biographies read like incredible novels, peppered with the most astonishing characters.Such as who?
Well, two sisters knew Hitler (one intimately) and he was a guest at the wedding of one sister. Another married a member of Winston Churchill's family. Another wrote a biography of her good friends Edward and Wallis Simpson. They knew the Kennedys - in fact one of the sisters became sister-in-law to JFK's own sister, Kathleen
Just look at the index of any of the books below and you'll see names that you know well from world history.Their love lives were scandalous and often unhappy. They all had their own style, all were gifted writers with wonderful senses of fun and humor. These British girls were bright, breezy, beautiful and just a bit bonkers. Perfect.You couldn't make this up.
Images copyright-free from Wikimedia Commons. Decca and Pamela images are photographs of plates from my own copies of the books below.
Having a favourite Mitford sister is a bit like having a favourite Beatle. They are all fascinating but you're drawn to one just a tiny bit more.
In the case of the sisters, it's Diana for me.She first married a member of the Guinness family (yes, that Guinness) but scandalously left him for Sir Oswald Mosley. If that name seems familiar to you that's because he was the leader of the British Union of Fascists.Hence, the couple were married in Goebel's home with a 'special' guest of honour - Adolph Hitler.
Diana and Oswald were imprisoned by the British government in the Second World War; Diana having been shopped by her sister Nancy. (Truly).But the couple were absolutely devoted to each other.
After the war they were largely shunned by Britain so went to live in Paris as neighbours and friends of that other shunned couple, Edward and Mrs Simpson.
This is fascinating. This is the official biography in that Diana herself authorised it and it is based on a series of interviews with her.It's a frank account of her German sympathies, her first marriage and scandalous divorce and her life after the war when she and Sir Oswald were ostracised.
She was clearly besotted by her husband and the remained married for almost forty five years - until his death.As Diana herself grew older, she became the only person alive who had known both Churchill and Hitler. Even in old age, she remained a charming - and still beautiful - woman whose life was filled with events and people we find hard to imagine today.
The family all had nicknames for one another and Deborah was always known - rather predictably - as Debo. But later in life she was known as something far more aristocratic - the Duchess of Devonshire.
Her duke was merely a lord when she met and married him but, as happened with so many families during the war, the older brother died and Debo and Andrew inherited the title and the wonderful stately home, Chatsworth House.
She was the youngest of the girls and admits that as children, they were allowed to run wild. She had the distinction of dancing with John Kennedy and taking tea with Adolph Hitler - all within the space of one week.She had a tempestuous marriage but claims that it was 'easier than getting divorced'.
At time of writing Deborah, now the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire is still alive (in her mid-nineties) enjoying her hobby of .... breeding hens.
This is the only book on this page actually written by one of the sisters (if you discount the biography of Nancy which is based on her letters - see below).Despite the fact that she was born into minor aristocracy and married into the upper echelons, Debo was never afraid of hard work as this book shows.
She describes her parents, her childhood and her sisters with delightful frankness and humour. The books title is inspired by the fact that she was the youngest of the siblings and always trying to catch up.
It's hard to choose which of the sisters was the most interesting but if I had to choose, it would be Unity. She was devoted (some might say obsessed) with Hitler and spent most of her time in Germany before the war.
They became close friends (some say that she had the Fuhrer's illegitimate baby - Debo scoffs at this) and on the day that war was declared she took a gun and shot herself in the head. She miraculously survived.
Hitler paid all her medical and transportation bills. Her mother and Debo took her home to England where the public called for her to be imprisoned as a traitor to Britain. She wasn't but like Diana, was shunned by society.The bullet was never removed from her head and she died a few years later.
Interestingly her middle name was Valkyrie which no doubt interested the Fuhrer.
To be honest, I'm not absolutely certain that this book should be seen strictly as a biography.True, it outlines Unity's life and especially her involvement with Hitler, but I also suspect that much of the book is conjecture.However, that doesn't make it any less of a good read.
Here's a curious thing - her father tried mining for gold (unsuccessfully) in Canada and it was there that Unity was conceived.The name of the town was Swastika.
In true Mitford fashion, Jessica was always known by her nickname - Decca. So far,we have a sister who is a fascist, another who is a duchess, one who is a Nazi and now we have Decca - a communist.
Decca was still a teenager when she eloped with her first husband, Esmond. He was a nephew of Winston Churchill's by marriage although it was largely suspected at the time that he was actually Churchill's illegitimate son.The fled to Spain (during the Spanish Civil War) and just before the Second World War broke out, they moved to America.
They had a variety of adventures and took a strange selection of jobs - at one time running a bar in Miami.Esmond became a pilot during WW2 and was shot down and died at the age of only twenty three. Decca went on to marry a Jewish man (what pro-Nazi Unity thought of that can only be imagined) - also a life-long communist.
In common with all the sisters,Decca's story reads more like a fascinating novel than a real life story. The sisters lived in a strange era of British and European society and much of Decca's life was shaped by the times.
She had her tragedies to deal with, the loss of a baby daughter and her young husband.She remained an activist all her life and was the only sister to turn her back on Britain completely - she became an American citizen.
Nancy was the eldest of the girls. Although all the sisters were writers in one form or another, it was Nancy who made a career of it.
In her earlier years, she was what could be referred to as a socialite, one the very peak of English bright society. Nancy knew everyone who was worth knowing at the time, including those who would become literary giants.Her own love life was far from happy though. Her first engagement was to a homosexual who jilted her.
Her subsequent marriage was marred by miscarriages and was relatively short-lived.She then fell in love - and it was largely unrequited - with a French diplomat and moved to Paris to be near him. Despite seemingly unhappy life, she was a wonderfully humorous writer.
Nancy intended to write an autobiography but time wasn't on her side - she died when she was only sixty eight years old.Her early death, I suspect, was due to the fact that she learned that the man she was passionately in love with - and had been for many years - had married another woman.
This seems to coincide with the decline in her health although I'm not sure that to say she 'died of a broken heart' is exactly true.This biography is written by a close friend of Nancy's and is based on her enchanting (and often hilarious) letters. Her sister Diana wrote the foreword.
As you can imagine, with six scandalous sisters there has to be one who was labelled as 'the quiet one'. That is how Pamela is usually described.
But she was just as much of a character and personality as her sisters.I don't know the statistics regarding the percentages of how many women are lesbian but if the statistic is one in six, then the Mitford sisters have it covered with Pamela. Her sisters referred to her in their letters as you-know-what-bian.Nevertheless, she married - and then divorced - a millionaire who was also a brilliant physicist. (He was also a successful jockey, newspaper-owner and a war hero, which seems like an odd combination.)
Pamela is often the forgotten Mitford sister.
She was rarely in the limelight like the rest of the girls. However, she too had a tumultuous life and was devoted to all her siblings.