the mitford sisters


The Vicarage, Edensor, Chatsworth Estate

Home of the late Debo, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire after the death of her husband, the Duke

Photos: Sotheby’s Auction House

The Mitford Family 1925

The father was David Freeman-Mitford, later Lord Redesdale, whose family could trace its origins back to the eleventh century Norman settlement of England. In 1904 he married Sydney Bowles who was the granddaughter of Thomas Bowles who established the two well-known London society magazines, “Vanity Fair” and “The Lady” in the late 1890’s. They had seven children, six girls and a boy, all of whom achieved public distinction or disgrace in varying degrees. In the above picture, taken in 1925, are, back row Nancy and Thomas, middle, Diana and Pamela, and front, Unity, Jessica and Deborah

Nancy Mitford (1904-73) A moderate socialist, she became a highly successful authoress, writing eight novels (the most well known of which are ‘Love in Cold Climate’, ‘The Pursuit of Love’ and ‘Don’t Tell Alfred’), affectionately satirizing upper-class life in England and France, as well as several biographies. She had a longstanding relationship with French politician and statesman Gaston Palewski and lived in France much of her adult life.

Pamela Mitford (1907-94) The ‘quiet one’ was overshadowed by her brilliant sisters in childhood. The poet John Betjeman fell in love with her and one of his most famous poems is about her - but she married a brilliant scientist, Derek Jackson. Both she and her husband had pro-Nazi views. After divorcing her husband she lived the remainder of her life with a woman.

Unity Mitford (1914-48) Unity was a strong-willed, rebellious child with a wild sense of humor. Unity first came to public attention as a debutante, a society beauty, during the 1930’s. She was a member of a family of modern-thinking, high achieving girls, who scandalized and titillated the establishment with an exciting concoction combining British hauteur, sublime literary skill and wild and extreme political activities. Unity achieved her peak of notoriety in the mid 1930’s when she became a fervent supporter and admirer of Adolf Hitler and went to Germany to spend years as his adoring disciple. She achieved legendary status when she shot herself in a Munich park at the outbreak of The Second World War. Although the bullet entered her brain, Unity survived and was allowed by Hitler to return to Britain. She lived out the last few years of her life as a brain damaged invalid.

Major Thomas Mitford (1909-45) Tom Mitford was the only son. Brilliantly articulate, he was educated at Eton, and used to pay his sisters a shilling an hour to argue with him to practice his debating skills. He went on to become a barrister, and at the outbreak of the Second World War joined the Army, but was shot in Burma nine weeks before the war ended. He never married and was reputed to have had many gay affairs

Diana Mitford (1910-2003) The beautiful Diana became a social icon in 1929 when she married Bryan Guinness, heir to the Guinness fortune. After falling in love with Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Fascist party in 1932, she subsequently left Guinness, in the society scandal of the year, to set herself up as Mosley’s mistress. Because of this she spent much of the second world war in a prison cell with Mosley. She supported him totally from that time on and when he died in 1970 she mourned him for the rest of her long life

Jessica Mitford (1917-96) Jessica, known as Decca, became fascinated by pacifism and left-wing politics and ran away at the age of 19 with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s nephew, and then moved to America. After Romilly’s death during the war she married again to the radical lawyer, Robert Treuhaft and they both joined the American Communist party. She wrote several books, including ‘The American Way of Death’, in 1963, which changed the way people felt about the funeral business.

Deborah Mitford (1920-2014) Deborah, when she was 6, made it clear to all that her ambition was to be a Duchess and that is exactly what she did. At 21 she married Andrew Cavendish, second son of the Duke of Devonshire, and they inherited the enormous Chatsworth Estate which had become very run down. The house has since flourished under her keen business sense and dedication and she has made it one of the premier tourist attractions in England.

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The Mitford sisters were the daughters of Lord and Lady Redesdale and members of a minor aristocratic English family. They achieved notoriety for their controversial, but stylish lives as young people, then for their very public political divisions between communism and fascism. They became celebrated and at times scandalous figures that were caricatured as “Diana the fascist, Jessica the communist, Unity the Hitler-lover, Nancy the novelist, Deborah the Duchess, and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur.”

I’ve seen the Mitfords compared to the Black sisters–usually it’s Unity = Bellatrix, Diana = Narcissa, Jessica = Andromeda. It kinda makes sense on a very superficial level, but I think if you consider their actual characteristics, then it should be:

Diana + Unity = Bellatrix (Diana’s striking beauty and intelligence, Unity’s fanaticism, fearlessness, forthright nature; their warmth and loyalty to family)

Deborah = Narcissa (pretty enough, calm, smart, takes things in stride, not impressed with the politics etc.). Debo is still my favorite by far.

Jessica and Andromeda both have the ‘running away’ thing, but Jessica was very politically involved, while Andromeda doesn’t strike me as such.

Also, if they had gone to Hogwarts:

Nancy: Ravenclaw

Pamela: Hufflepuff

Tom: Ravenclaw (A great arguer, he was fascinated by the theory of politics rather than their practical application and was able, unlike my sisters, to discuss politics dispassionately.)

Diana: Slytherin

Unity: Gryffindor

Jessica: Gryffindor

Deborah: Slytherin

There were four dances a week, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and in a way it was just like going to the office. You couldn’t do anything else. It was like a full-time job. I loved it. Was that very bad of me? My sister Decca even guiltily enjoyed it, even though she was against signes extérieurs de richesse. My sister Unity would bring her pet rat to dances.
—  Deborah Mitford in The New Season Starts Here, by Hannah Rothschild (Harper’s Bazaar UK, June 2013)

* Sorry for the long text post, y'all.  "Read more" isn’t working, for some reason.  And these people cannot be explained in anything less than an obnoxiously long post.

The wonderful Moonsiren just asked me about “these Mitford sisters, if you feel like explaining.”

Girl, you don’t even know.  I live to explain the Mitfords.

They were six sisters born to a vaguely aristocratic British family at the start of the 19th century.  And like all groups with whom I’m obsessed, theirs is a story drenched in drama.

Nancy, the eldest, became a famous novelist.  She wrote fabulously witty stories, often satires of her own family.  

Pamela was the only one to make it through life with notoriety, “the Rural Mitford.”

Diana was the family beauty, one of the famous “Bright Young Things,” and the wife of Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists.  She and Nancy had a bitter and lifelong feud, and when Diana was in prison after the war, Nancy even wrote to Winston Churchill and discouraged him from releasing her.  Grandmother of Daphne Guinness.

Unity was mad for Hitler.  She went to Germany and essentially stalked him until she made it into his inner circle.  When war was declared she shot herself in the head, but didn’t quite manage to kill herself.  She lived for another 9 years, brain-damaged, incontinent, and with a bullet lodged in her head, before finally succumbing.  Conspiracy theorists believe she may have given birth to Hitler’s child, and her wounds were a cover for it.

Jessica was the communist.  She ran away with Esmond Romilly, her second cousin and the nephew of Winston Churchill, to fight in the Spanish Civil War.  She eventually moved to America, wrote The American Way of Death, and became a Civil Rights activist.  Favorite author of J.K. Rowling, who even named her daughter after her.

Deborah married the Duke of Devonshire, is is best known for turning Chatsworth into one of the greatest estates in England.  Grandmother of Stella Tennant.

As a group, they fascinate and terrify me.  Which is what all the groups I love most do.

I loved Nancy’s novels Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate as a tween, and in Stevie Girl fashion, loved them so much more when I learned that they were heavily autobiographical.  Nancy really did grow up in this fabulous big family with a bonkers father and secret society in the cupboard and little sister with a “running away fund.”  And imagine my excitement when I read Jessica’s divine autobiography Hons and Rebels, and learned that she actually did use the “running away fund” to run off and join the Spanish Civil War!

Bonkers as most of them were, the four who wrote (all but Unity and Pamela) were all brilliant at it.  I have yet to come across a cleverer writer than Jessica, and the others aren’t far behind.

My favorite Mitfordism of all: the window of the room Jessica and Unity Mitford shared still has hammers & sickels carved into it on one side, swastikas on the other. 

As for further reading, I’d recommend anyone getting started on the Mitfords with Pursuit of Love, switching over to Hons and Rebels, and then onto Wait for Me…! (Debo’s autobiography) and Letters Between Six Sisters.

His wife, Rita Hayworth, was one of the four most beautiful women I have ever seen (the others were Elizabeth von Hofmannsthal, Madame Martinez de Hoz, wife of a South American diplomat, and my sister Diana). Her features were perfect, her mass of truly auburn hair sprang straight from her forehead and cascaded down to her shoulders, and she moved like the dancer she was.
—  Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, Wait For Me