Mitford sisters’ world, The
the sisters: the saga of the mitford girls by mary lovell
1. The Wonderful World of Mitford
“Oh, why do all my daughters fall for dictators?” Lady Redesdale exclaimed to her eldest daughter, Nancy Mitford, when she confessed her affair with Colonel Gaston Palewski, a French diplomat in De Gaulle’s inner circle. This anecdote, which has all of the dramatic punch of Nancy’s best-selling fiction of the 1940s, is recounted without comment in Mary Lovell’s The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Girls. Lovell misses the opportunity to make hay here and many other places, but her account does tell the family story in a way that should inspire others to unleash their scythes and pitchforks on a splendid and engaging family. One especially longs to hear “Queen of the Teasers” Nancy’s reply to her mother’s rhetorical question-which is, incidentally, both valid and telling-something along the lines of, “But Muv, you fell for one too.”
For those uninitiated into the wonderful world of Mitford and Mitfordiana, Lovell neatly chronicles a “select family tree”: Sydney Bowles, daughter of a “consistently eccentric, back-bench M.P.” married David Mitford, a cousin of the Churchills, in 1904. Mitford became the second Lord Redesdale in 1915, and the couple had seven children, six girls and one boy, in the following order: Nancy (born in 1904), Pamela (1907), Thomas (1909), Diana (1910), Unity (1914), Jessica (1917, called Decca), and Deborah (1920, called Debo). A list of their most dubious achievements-a Miffords’ cheat sheet-might also be in order here. Nancy was a novelist and historian of some note, and a stalwart of the smart set known as the Bright Young Things. Diana was the mistress and then wife of Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. The British press called her Mrs. Hitler-or was that title reserved for Unity Valkyrie, whose intimacy with the Fuhrer netted her an apartment that had been vacated by a Jewish family who suddenly “went abroad”? Finally, there was Decca, who escaped to America, where she was a staunch Communist, muckraker, and author of the classic expose The American Way of Death. The other three siblings led quieter lives.
The Mitfords were a one-generation British dynasty whose name was synonymous with a curious combination of frivolity and serious political commitment, one of those ruling-class families whose lives and progeny were larger and more dramatic than ordinary people’s. Families like this-the Kennedys spring to mind as American equivalents-are simultaneously welcoming and exclusive. These fantasy families are better-looking, tighter-knit versions of our own families (happy or not), like the people at a party laughing loudly at in-jokes they’d be happy to explain but you could never possibly understand. Lovell’s group biography of the Mitford sisters retells the jokes but, alas, cannot possibly explain them, because she, too, is on the outside. Only Diana and Debo are still alive to participate in Lovell’s book, and though Lovell had access to some letters and other written accounts of the deceased, her book is decidedly skewed toward the living sisters’ versions of events. As these two were in direct conflict with others in the family for much of the post-World War II period, Lovell’s “saga” unceremoniously dismisses Nancy’s hilarious family stories as literary license and Communist Decca’s as a too-easy conflation of her upper-class family with “the enemy.”
For people who were quite famous for many years, the Mitfords have unceremoniously fallen out of public consciousness. Their rise and fall can be attributed to the nature of their fame: the Mitfords made headlines because they were controversial aristocrats, adjectives that now seem banal but that once squirmed uncomfortably when seated together. Lovell claims when she would talk about this book that recognition of the Mitford name and history was immediate for people over fifty; those younger would nod politely and ask, “Who are they?” But time was that the Mitfords were so well scrutinized that Decca reported that her mother sighed whenever she saw “Peer’s Daughter” in a headline, “I know it’s going to be something about one of you children.” This must have caused Lady Redesdale considerable pain, as she subscribed to the old chestnut that a lady’s name should appear in print only upon her birth, marriage, and death. While keeping track of the rich and otherwise noteworthy has now become rote, the Mitfords belonged to an age when a scandal was really scandalous, and good people stopped associating with those whose names appeared in boldface in the newspapers.
Being scandalous and well documented certainly contributed to the fascination with the Mitford sisters, who belonged first to the celebrated realm of the Bright Young Things-the British Jazz babies with a similar bent for all-night parties and quotable slang-and then to the harsh days of World War II and the nostalgic Anglophilia that followed. Lovell is content to dwell in the spirit of the early, frothy times; her mission has less to do with telling the truth than repackaging the myths of the English rural aristocracy. Lovell’s entre into the Mitford’s world comes as the result of a dinner party in Gloustershire in the 1980s, where a woman called Pamela Jackson (nee Mitford) “was interested in my hunter, Flashman, and his breeding.” She does not inform us as to whether anything came of that gentle inquiry, but the giddy, movie-star-like enchantment she has for the upper-crust Mitfords animates The Sisters.
Despite this title-worship, or, perhaps, because of it, Lovell neglects one of the most significant aspects of their lives and their fame: politics. She declares up front that hers is “not a political book,” yet concedes that “politics plays a major part” in the stories of the sisters. What’s left when politics is subtracted from a family that disintegrated because of extreme political polarization is merely an exploration of the “richness of personalities” among the Mitfords. Thus, reading Lovell to learn about the Mitfords is like getting the news of the day from women’s magazines. Yet, The Sisters does provide an introduction to the glamorous world of the Mitfords, and, like flipping through Vogue to discern the skirt lengths this season, there are basics covered in The Sisters that equip the reader for more worthwhile adventures in Mitfordiana.
What salient truths about the Mitfords can we learn from Lovell? Were they rich? Not really, and never ostentatiously so during a very flashy time. Though he did inherit the village of Swinbrook (in Oxfordshire) along with some other property, Lord Redesdale had no talent for making money. Rather, in the classic way of the aristocracy, “He had an uncanny knack for investing at the top of a market, and selling at the bottom.” They were better known for their thrift than for being at all profligate. One of the most famous headlines about the Mitfords concerned Lady Redesdale’s frugality, “Peeress Saves Ha’pence,” was an item in the Daily Sketch that described how forgoing linen napkins netted them a bit extra in the till. They were titled, when titles really meant something, though they wore them lightly, like tiaras rather than sacramental crowns. The “Hons” named in Decca’s 1960 memoir Hons and Rebels (Daughters and Rebels in the less title-savvy United States) did not stand for “Honorable” but was the word for hen in the secret language that Decca and Unity devised called Boudledidge. The hens they and their mother famously raised were a major part of life for the Mitfords: Decca was always saving her earned pence for a running-away fund that she eventually used, and Debo helped with the hens’ upkeep, selling the eggs to their mother “for a slight profit.” Could they be accused of feeding the publicity machine they so despised? Perhaps, but one gets the sense that the Mitfords were celebrities by birth rather than by choice. Nancy was comfortable in the public eye-her younger sisters much less so-and Decca spent much of her life avoiding reporters until she became one, but she chose to be an investigative journalist rather than a society columnist like Nancy. Did they have fabulous love affairs with notorious men, which made for excellent tabloid headlines? Certainly, but they were hardly the Hilton sisters of their day. They were writers, political activists, and vocal critics of the class system, feminists, and international women of mystery.
Given her sense of awe at the foot of the mountain of the Mitford mythology and the unexplicated remark about daughters and dictators, Lovell’s overriding query may well be, “What’s a nice girl like you, Miss Mitford(s), doing in a world like this?” This romanticism compels Lovell to present the Mitfords as inhabiting a world of their own inside the real world, though they were complicit in this attitude. Lovell passes much too lightly over Lord Redesdale’s many prejudices, denoted by Decca as encompassing the following “outsiders”: “Huns, Frogs, Americans, blacks and all other foreigners, but also other people’s children, the majority of my older sisters’ acquaintances, almost all young men-in fact, the whole teeming population of the earth’s surface, except for some, though not all, of our relations and a very few tweeded, red-faced country neighbors to whom my father had for some reason taken a liking.” It’s no wonder, then, that the Mitford children grew up isolated from all but a few cousins, especially as only Tom was formally educated (at Eton and Oxford), much to the outrage of both Nancy and Decca, who longed for education outside of the family schoolroom. The girls were permitted various social outlets when they were older, like debutante balls and finishing courses in Paris, mainly to help them find and charm appropriate husbands. Overall, the world of Mitford was a country with sealed borders, where the only legal means of emigration was marriage.
Though the genteel Lovell would never say it, surely the Mitford girls’ willingness to cleave to dictators derives from the notion that they made the best liberators. Each of their first marriages, on the whole, was disastrous and short-lived. Through a potent cocktail of sheer force of will and cleverness in a time when single women still required chaperons even to go shopping, Nancy became one of the charter members of the Bright Young Things. Though her suitors proved fascists only in matters of aesthetics, in the timeless manner of youth cultures they had definite ideas about the way things should be done. Unhappily married after a broken engagement at the ripe age of 28 to the ineffectual Peter Rodd (known as “Prod” among the family)-a gambler, a drunk, a philanderer, and an all-around upper-class prat-she moved to Paris in 1945 to be closer to the womanizing Colonel Palewski, with whom she had fallen “headlong, obsessionally” in love in 1942. Nancy wrote several well-received books about French history following her career as a novelist, but happiness (in Lovell’s marriage-and-children sense) eluded her; even after divorcing Rodd her position in relation to her beloved Palewski was as a “supplicant” for “crumbs of his affection.” Pamela also married late, and chose Derek Jackson, a scientist; they divorced on friendly terms after World War II. She never remarried; he made a habit of it, marrying seven more times. Beautiful Diana, “generally acknowledged in the family as `the only one of us who had a face,’ fell in love with the married, “enfant terrible” head of the British fascist movement, Oswald Mosley, in 1931. She divorced her first husband, brewing heir Bryan Guinness, after three years of marriage in order to be with the charismatic promiscuous politician. As a teenager Unity had boasted to Decca, “I’m going to Germany to meet Hitler.” Despite this girlish enthusiasm, Lovell vigorously rejects the characterization of Unity as some sort of “Hitler groupie,” and it’s probably the case that the Mitford and the Fuhrer never shared anything more than friendship. Communist Decca ran off to fight the fascists in Spain with her cousin, Esmond Romilly, in 1937, whom she married in a great scandal; the Romillys moved to America together, where Decca had a long career as a leftist agitator and journalist. Debo was the happy exception to the unhappy Mitford marriage rule: she correctly predicted that one day a duke would come and make her a duchess. She married Andrew Cavendish, who was the Duke of Chatsworth, and has spent her life raising children and keeping his illustrious manor.
Ultimately, what’s striking about the Mitfords is what Lovell fails to notice: how eager they were to abandon the holy trinity of England, aristocracy, and family. The fact is that the sisters lived together in various family manses for a fairly brief time– Nancy was sixteen and already restless when Debo was born, and the world intervenes in Mitfordiana early and often-but the destruction of Lovell’s illusions is a business impervious to chronology or, for that matter, reality. Her fantasy of the Mitfords was very much informed by Nancy’s two popular novels that foregrounded the Mitford children, The Pursuit of Love (1945), and a sequel of sorts, Love in a Cold Climate (1949). Though the family was renamed the Radletts, a decidedly Mitford mania was spurred by Nancy’s works, testament to both her skill as a writer and her personal charisma. These novels also planted the characters of the Mitford parents, called Muv and Farve, as aristocratic eccentrics in the public imagination, especially the comically tyrannical Farve.
The heroine of Pursuit, Linda Radlett, was loosely based on Nancy and Diana; she and her cousin Fanny (also a Nancy stand-in, curiously outside and inside the family at once) were constantly hounded by the younger ones: Jassy, with her “running away money,” was clearly Decca, and Vicki was Debo. The Radlett girls had a secret society, the Hons, that met in the Hons’ cupboard to plot against the terrible Counter-Hons; the Mitfords also had this secret society, called hons due to their affection for the aforementioned hens, which leant its name to Decca’s memoir of her childhood-the one Lovell so vigorously discounts.
II. Mitford Property Values
The likeliest culprit for enduring interest in the Mitfords is the subject Lovell finds most distasteful: the well-documented political split within the family, where Unity and Diana go right and Nancy and Decca go left. Despite her disinterestedness, Lovell does much to defend her darlings, asserting “Diana and Unity were not the only people impressed by the showmanship of Hitler’s party” and that “few intelligent English visitors to Germany in the thirties would have turned down an opportunity to see or speak to Hitler.” For all of Nancy’s whimsicality and snobbishness, she was stalwartly antifascist, and her wartime affair with Palewski galvanized her Allied sympathies. She worked on behalf of the refugees in the Spanish Civil War and weathered World War II in London, toiling in a bookshop to help support herself and her parents. Nancy was also among those who informed on Diana; she justified herself by saying: “Not very sisterly behavior but in such times I think it one’s duty.” Diana’s marriage to Mosley (whom Lovell claims was a sexual compulsive along the lines of Bill Clinton!) sealed her political fate. They had a quiet ceremony in 1936 in Germany, at the apartment of their dear friends the Goebbels. Torn apart by Sydney’s loyalty to Unity and Diana-which David interpreted as loving the Hun enemy-Muv and Farve live apart for the duration of the War and never really reconcile, but they never formally separate either.
The biggest fissure, though, was the one between Decca and Unity, who had been “favourite sisters.” They called each other “Boud,” much as Decca and Debo called each other “Hen,” and Nancy and Decca called each other “Susan” in later life, for reasons neither can recall. As Decca started reading more about communism, Unity became enthralled with fascism and anti-Semitism. They divided the schoolroom at Swinbrook down the middle, Decca’s left side had her “Communist library, a small bust of Lenin, a file of Daily Worker’s,” and Unity’s had framed Mussolini photos, photographs “of Mosley trying to look like Mussolini,” and her record collection with Nazi and Italian youth songs. Decca said, “When Boud become a fascist I declared myself a Communist. thus by the time she was eighteen and I was fifteen we had chosen opposite sides in the conflict of the day.” What’s remarkable was how extreme this conflict became: Unity, who by that time had, in Decca’s formulation, “grown from a giant– sized schoolgirl into a huge and rather alarming debutante,” did indeed meet Hitler himself as she had promised she would, “more than 140 times.” Unity and Diana grew very close during these years (though Diana had been briefly off-limits to the younger girls because of her divorce and affair), as Diana and Mosley spent lots of time in Germany as well. Decca, who longed for nothing more than to be “a Grownup,” saw from Nancy’s example how difficult it was to escape parental control. She schemed to meet her erstwhile cousin Romilly, who was already controversial as a dedicated antifascist and the “infant left-wing editor” of a public-school revolutionary journal called Out of Bounds. Decca and Romilly ran away together and married in Spain in 1937 (Nancy and Prod were dispatched to lure Decca back, but she caught on to the family’s scheme and refused to board the English warship the Rodds had traveled on). The Romillys returned to England briefly before emigrating to New York in 1939. Sadly, both Romilly and Tom were killed in service during World War II. Afterwards, Decca remained in America, and never spoke to Unity or Diana again. She devoted herself professionally to the class struggle, and personally to the struggle against being born into privilege, until her death in 1996.
As children Debo and Decca had devised a chant that went: “From Batsford Mansion, to Asthall Manor, to Swinbrook House, to Old Mill Cottage,” to mark the rise and fall in the Mitford fortune (according to Lovell, Decca attributes the song to Nancy). The two most important of these residences were Asthall and Swinbrook, the house Farve meticulously built after he inherited his title. Asthall was a beloved, cozy place, but Swinbrook was the location of the Hon’s cupboard memorialized in Nancy’s novels, a linen closet where the younger girls sat because “it was the warmest room” in the typically damp and drafty house. Decca later recalled the cupboard’s “distinctive stuffy smell and enchanting promise of complete privacy from the grownups.” Houses were dear to the Mitfords-the moving center of their family world, as Lovell is prone to remind her readers-and the constant expansion of the family and shrinking of finances was to blame for all of these uprootings and replantings. Indeed, Diana’s autobiography goes so far as to be organized by domicile, from the Guinness’s illustrious mansion, Bailiffscourt, to the chapter simply entitled “Prison,” chronicling her four-year confinement at the hands of the M15 during World War II when she was “the most hated woman in England.” As if Diana was spurring her on, Lovell indulges quite freely in a peculiarly British brand of house pornography in The Sisters: a near obsession with the size and position of the manse on the lovingly detailed grounds, the dimensions of every room, the curve of every staircase, and the careful inventory of all worldly possessions, including servants.
Nancy is the Mitford most conscious of upper-crust material life, and her passion for beautiful things runs through her writing like an electric current, a remnant of the contradictions inherent in her aristocratic yet impoverished childhood. From her writing it’s evident that Nancy understood the role property played as a vehicle for control and status, especially for women. Her biography of Madame de Pompadour, the powerful bourgeois mistress of Louis XV, recreated the court at Versailles in a curiously Mitfordian spirit: a place driven by gossip where “variations of esteem” can be discerned in how deep one’s curtsey was and the amount one was allowed to spend was proportionate to one’s place in the king’s affections. Nancy had a real love of finery, most pronounced in Love in a Cold Climate, where the character of the supremely charming aesthete and homosexual Cedric scolds the heroine Fanny: “Things have a signature, if you use your eyes, and mine seem to be trained over a greater range of object than yours, Schiaparelli-Reboux-Faberge– Viollet le Duc-I can tell at a glance, literally a glance.” One gets the feeling this happened to Nancy many times: an outsider invades her life and opens her eyes to luxurious possibilities in the world, both materially and emotionally. For Decca, outside invaders, including her two husbands, were her adoring instructors in politics and paucity. Decca’s writing, of course, also focuses on material life, but she comes at it from the opposite angle. Aside from her memoirs, her most famous and enduring work, The American Way ofDeath (1963; a revised version came out in 1998 ), was a scathing indictment of how the funeral industry took advantage of grieving consumers, and her journalism (she called it the “gentle art of muckraking”) focused on the outrages and dear price of the requirements of everyday life.
As the Mitfords were not given Cedric’s training, Nancy sought it out on her own from the Bright Young Things. Pam, known as “Woman” for her motherly qualities, was the only one of the Mitfords suited to country living and thus content to keep company with animals and her younger siblings; she sits the entire BYT phenomenon out. Diana, however, gets swept up in the parties along with Nancy, and in this set she met Guinness, nearly considered an unacceptable suitor by her parents because he was so ridiculously rich. Nancy, made “spinsterish” by her younger sister’s marriage in 1928, takes up writing, Lovell tells us, in part to counter feelings of uselessness. She started out contributing short, first-person pieces to various society pages. Her first novel, Highland Fling, whose hero was based on her debonair gay fiance, Hamish St. Clair Erskine, came out in the shadow of her friend Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, published in January 1930 and dedicated to Bryan and Diana. Vile Bodies contains this marvelous description of the excesses of the BYTs:
(… Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as someone else, almost naked parties in St. John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs… parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris– all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…. Those vile bodies …. )
Waugh’s novel was a genuine sensation, and the newspapers helped make the BYTs a national fixation. Highland Fling sold respectably for a first novel, but it wasn’t until a decade and a couple of books later that Nancy mined the material of her childhood and hit her stride as a writer. The publication of these books inaugurates the “odious” (to the family) age of the “Mitford Industry.”
The irony of aristocrats creating an industry of their own arcana was hardly lost on the Mitfords. The “Industry,” Decca wrote in her introduction to the 1982 reissue of Nancy’s Radlett novels, hit its heights around 1979, when historian Harold Acton’s memoir of Nancy Mitford, as well as a biography of Unity, Diana’s autobiography, and Decca’s second memoir chronicling her years in the American Communist Party, A Fine Old Conflict, were all in bookstores. Around the same time, there was a musical based on the family playing on the London stage cleverly titled “The Mitford Girls,” which Debo “cruelly dubbed `La Triviata.”‘ Several Mitford friends and descendents have profited off of the family name, as nearly every major player inside and close to the Mitfords has written something about them (see Lovell’s bibliography for specifics). The Industry has future projected earnings from a forthcoming collection of Decca’s never-before published letters, and Diana’s granddaughter, Charlotte Mosley, is currently assembling letters passed among all six sisters. Lovell is not the only one who just can’t get enough of the Mitfords.
III. Mitford Family Values
Though all of the Mitford girls married except Unity, who became a near-vegetable after a suicide attempt at the beginning of World War II, none seem to have made great or devoted mothers (again, with the exception of Debo). Lovell defends Sydney’s mothering, which both Decca and Nancy criticized in their writings, scolding them for a “portrayal of her as a dilettante mother leaving the upbringing of her children to nannies,” but she admits the older children especially saw little of Muv. Neither biographer nor daughters, though, dispute Muv’s fetish for household economy: in addition to the napkins, there were no doctors for the children except in the direst of circumstances, a peculiar diet (like the prejudice against doctors, ideas inherited from her father), and the girls’ home schooling. Nancy and Pam had no children, Diana had four in total, two with Guinness and two with Mosley (Diana’s children were in Pam’s charge during her prison years), and Decca had two daughters with Romilly (one of whom died in infancy) and two sons (one of whom died in an automobile accident) with her second husband, Oakland civil rights attorney Robert Treuhaft. Decca’s children, though by no means neglected, were not the first priority for her and Bob: their family was the Party until they left in 1955, and even after that her work took precedence. None of the sisters attempted to recreate with their own children the English country life Lovell so admires. As Debo remembered, “We either laughed so uproariously that it drove the grown-ups mad, or else it was a frightful row which ended in one of us bouncing out of the room in floods of tears, banging the door as loud as possible.” As a parent, perhaps neither option seemed very appealing.
As much as they clearly enjoyed each other’s company, the Mitford sisters as imparted by Lovell have a definite sense of being birds in a gilded cage. This was especially pronounced once the older sisters, Nancy and Diana, had flown the family coop and Tom had gone off to school. The younger three sisters’ secret societies feel like a reaction against being abandoned. Large families like the Mitfords have a paradoxical effect on personality: the children seem to emerge pre-socialized, used to being around others and demanding their share of recognition, yet they also seem needier of this attention than other people. To wit, in one of Nancy’s later novels, The Blessing (1951), a spoiled boy with a French father and British mother plots to keep his estranged parents separated since it considerably enriched his circumstances; here and elsewhere, Nancy’s fantasy of remaining an only child seems apparent. There’s little testimony from the other Mitfords on this point, save Decca, who is said to have remarked once in the schoolroom, “Oliver Twist was so lucky to live in a fascinating orphanage.” Furthermore, when a London reporter asked Nancy in 1966 for a comment about sisters, she said, “Sisters stand between one and life’s cruel circumstances.” Decca, interviewed by the same reporter, was .startled into saying that to me, sisters-and especially Nancy-were life’s cruel circumstances, a remark that did not find favor with her when it appeared in print.” As the oldest, Nancy was anointed “Queen of the Teasers” by Decca. She certainly had “an uncanny ability to ferret out one’s weaknesses,” as she instructed the others by example in how to cajole younger siblings and get a laugh to ease the sting of the insult.
Despite their closeness, or perhaps because of it, the family fights were complicated and highly charged. As they became more pronounced, beginning with some turmoil around Diana’s wedding and even more around her divorce, whether or not one was “on speakers” with any other sibling was increasingly difficult to inventory. Decca remembers only Tom being consistently on speakers with all of his sisters, so heated and enduring was the Mitford infighting, where everything Decca remembered-“a haircut, the acquisition of a new dog, the introduction of a new friend- was bound to cause a passionate flare-up, followed by an uneasy period of strife before truce was finally achieved.” Despite her loathing of politics, Lovell does report that the truce sometimes never came, especially between Decca and her right-wing sisters.
“Growing up in the English countryside was an interminable process,” Decca whined in Hons and Rebels, precisely the kind of statement that Lovell disregards in her own account of the Mitfords’ upbringing. Inarguably the most rebellious of the sisters, Decca was also center of the two secret societies, the Hons and the Bouds, both of which resolved to fight the Counter-Hons. Lovell does not notice it, but these were clearly Decca’s early attempts to evade parental control while stuck at home. Hons’ meetings were conducted in “Honnish, a sort of mixture of North of England and American accents” and the other sisters understood Boudelige, but Decca and Unity became so proficient “that they could tell rude stories in front of strangers.” Indeed, the peculiar vernacular of the BYTs was drawn largely from the Mitford way of talking. Evelyn Waugh admittedly borrowed two expressions from Decca, whose devotion to her lamb, Miranda, was such that all “divine” things were “sheepish,” where .vile” things were “goatish.” Nancy’s friend John Betjeman (Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984) raved to her about The Pursuit of Love: “You have produced something that is really a monument to our friends. It is exactly as we used to talk.” Along with their slang, part of the Mitfords’ distinctness was in the dazzling array of nicknames they had for one another. Diana remembers knowing she was in trouble when she was summoned by her given name, for “I was never called Diana in the family. Muv called me Dana, Farve Dina, Nancy Bodley, Pam and Unity Nardy, Decca Corduroy and Debo Honks. The very word, Diana, was in itself sinister.” The Mitfords thus were a family in which intimacy meant having your own special name, and the line between cruelty and adoration was deliberately and constantly blurred.
While Nancy started writing in part as a response to Diana’s marriage, Decca took up writing, in part, in response to Nancy’s success. One of the most famous later works associated with Nancy was an essay called “U and Non-U,” which was published in a collection she edited, Noblesse Oblige, alongside works by her old BYT friends, John Betjeman and Evelyn Waugh. The essay exposed the nuances of U, or Upperclass, usage, and Nancy’s dissemination simultaneously asserted her U status and invited non-U speakers to take up the cause. Decca’s first writing project advocated and gently mocked her cause, communism. It was a 1956 pamphlet entitled “Lifesitselfmanship, or how to become a Precisely-Because Man: An Investigation into Current L (or Left-Wing Usage)” included as an appendix to A Fine Old Conflict. Written under her married name Decca Treuhaft (her memoirs and later writings were published under Jessica Mitford), Decca explained Nancy’s U and Non-U equivalents-such as the Non-U .wealthy” becoming the U “rich”-and then compiled her own Non-L and L examples, as well as a few quizzes and quotations from the pages of Political Affairs to illustrate her points. The Non-L “Time will tell whether that plan was O.K.” translated to “The correctness of that policy will be tested in life itself (Alt., In the crucible of the struggle).” The success of the pamphlet among her peers encouraged Decca to start Hons and Rebels, and the rest is revisionist history.
In Nancy’s own most notable Noblesse Oblige essay, “The English Artistocracy,” there is a telling line, stuck in the original inside parentheses: “Heiresses have caused the extinction of as well as the enrichment of many an English family, since the heiress, who must be an only child if she is to be really rich, often comes of barren or enfeebled stock.” Nancy herself was precisely not this type of heiress, but was at the end of the Mitford line, strictly speaking, since Tom did not produce any heirs. The Mitfords proper are now extinct, a natural consequence of a family overrun with daughters. Waugh, in his characteristic response to Nancy’s essay, teased her about being a “class agitatrix,” adding, in the wake of the commotion her essay caused, “There are some subjects too intimate for print. Surely class is one?” But Nancy and her sisters had effectively escaped their class when they became headline fodder: except for Debo, who traded up for an even better title, none of them were particularly “Honorable” for quite some time. Furthermore, was her class really more intimate, one wonders, than her family, which Nancy and Decca, the most talented Mitfords, used as raw material for many years, and others, including Lovell, have now come to pillage. The fascination with the Mitfords lies in the unraveling of this matrix of class and familial intimacy, that by knowing them well one might know upper-class England at its height and in its decline. In the end, the Mitfords were a microcosm and a utopia, a family at once invaded by world-historical forces and mockingly impervious to them.
The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Girls, Mary Lovell. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. 384pp.
Additional bibliography (first publication followed by edition used)
Mitford, Jessica. Hons and Rebels (Victor Golancz, 1960). In the United States: Daughters and Rebels (Houghton Mifflin, 1960).
– A Fine Old Conflict (1977; Vintage Books, 1978).
– The American Way of Death Revisited (1963; Vintage Books, 2000).
– Poison Penmanship (1979; Vintage Books, 1980). Mitford, Nancy. The Pursuit ofLove and Love in a Cold
Climate (1945, 1949; Modern Library, 1994).
– The Blessing (Hamish Hamilton 1951; Penguin, 1957).
– Madame de Pompadour (1953; New York Review of Books, 2001).
– ed., Noblesse Oblige (Hamish Hamilton 1956; Penguin, 1959).
Mosley, Diana Mitford. A Life of Contrasts (Hamish Hamilton, 1977).
Waugh, Evelyn. Vile Bodies (1930; Chapman and Hall, 1965).
Copyright Center For Social Research and Education Apr 2002
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