Laura Thompson, Take Six Girls,
The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
Is there anything more or original left to say about the Mitford sisters, those six girls born into the English upper class between 1904 and 1920 and became household names in the fraught 1930s, achieving both fame and notoriety that would endure throughout World War II and the entire post-war period, up until the last died in 2014? Freelance author and journalist Laura Thompson thinks so. Adding to a long list of works about the Mitfords — enough to fill a mid-size library if you include the many books by the sisters themselves – Thompson seeks to capture a collective Mitford spirit rooted in the times in which the sisters lived and their inter-family relations — a “veritable morass of female rivalries, shifting and reconfiguring throughout their lives” (p.25), as she puts it in Take Six Girls, The Lives of the Mitford Sisters.
Thompson says the Mitford girls were like a “social experiment, the results of which would have staggered even the most imaginative scientist” (p.1). Oldest daughter Nancy (1904-1973) became a highly acclaimed novelist and writer. Second daughter Pamela (1907-1994) married a brilliant but eccentric physicist and accomplished horseman, who had five additional marriages; when her marriage broke up, she took up with an Italian horsewoman. Diana (1910-2003) left what from the outside looked like the perfect high society marriage for Oswald Mosley, the demagogic leader of Britain’s fascist party, and she and Mosley spent time in jail during World War II as potential traitors to Britain. Unity (1914-1948) in her early 20s became a particular favorite of Adolph Hitler, meeting with the Führer on more than 100 occasions, and thereby made herself the object of thoroughgoing public revulsion as relations between Britain and Germany worsened in the late 1930s. Jessica ((1917-1996), a fervent communist, went to Spain to support the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War, and ended up in the United States, where she became a leading American progressive. Only Deborah (1920-2014), the youngest sister, managed to live something akin to a conventional aristocratic life. And then there was brother Tom (1909-1945) , born between Pamela and Diana, an integral if outmatched part of the family.
The term “Mitfordian” has a meaning, Thompson contends, much like Dickensian or Proustian, although that meaning never quite emerges in these pages. The sisters’ complexity and their feisty individualism would likely thwart any attempt to provide a tidy definition to the term. Still, Thompson identifies some commonalities between the six Mitford sisters. The sisters were “never going to be ignored,” she writes. “Being what they were, they did not want to be. They had a feel for the limelight, a desire to prance in the in the glow” (p.10). They were “naturally and comfortably shameless” or at least “shame free” (p.9). A “blend of formality and anarchy that is impossible now to achieve,” with an “indestructibly feminine way of breaking the rules,” the sisters “always operated within certain boundaries” (p.24).
Thompson arranges her book in approximate chronological order, in four parts: Part I, family background and early years; Part II, the 1930s; Part III, World War II; and Part IV, post-war. But the parts are unnamed, with no titles, leaving readers on their own to figure out the focus and direction for each. Thompson writes in a breezy, informal style that at times becomes too cute. We can imagine that we the readers are seated next to her on a couch as she goes through a family photograph album and provides commentary, caustic and defensive in equal doses, while showing us family photos.
Eldest daughter Nancy and third daughter Diana loom larger than the rest in Thompson’s account, the two centerpieces to the story of six sisters. “When people talk about the ‘Mitford Girls,’” Thompson writes, it is Diana and Nancy whom they really mean, “because without the separate components of Diana and Nancy the spell of the whole would never have been created” (p.11). Nancy and Diana were the two queens “who dominated the rest, and who each would have dominated outright had it not been for the other” (p.113).
Thompson draws freely upon Nancy’s novels as keys to understanding the family. The Pursuit of Love, Nancy’s 1945 best seller that Thompson compares to Brideshead Revisited, “contains the genesis of the Mitford myth” (p.12). It was Nancy’s “mythologizing skills” and the way she marketed herself, her family and her social class that gave rise to the sustained public interest in what Thompson terms the “full six-pack” (p.19). Without these mythologizing skills, the girls would have been looked at individually, with most focus on Unity and her friendship with Hitler.
The Mitford girls were born into the early 20th century English aristocracy, at a time when its wealth was diminished and its influence increasingly under question. The girls’ upbringing manifested many of the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that go with generations of inherited privilege. While brother Tom went off to Eton, the girls were educated at home, at the three different country houses they inhabited. Home education was handled partially by governesses, but more by giving the girls access to the family library, full of books of all genres, and being told to read. And read they did, voraciously.
The head of the household, David Mitford, was the 2nd Baron Redesdale, a loving father by the standards of the times but at a loss as to how he should react to his “bright and mischievous and competitive” daughters (p.77). Like many of his social class, David, a peer in the House of Lords, was hopeless with money. David’s wife, Sydney Bowles, the girls’ mother, was cold, reserved, judgmental, miserly with praise – “not innately maternal” (p.64), as Thompson delicately puts it. Unlike her husband, however, Sydney was fastidious when it came to money. But in Thompson’s account, David and Sydney are mostly perplexed parents, not quite sure what to make of or do with the seven children they brought into the world.
Whereas many English aristocratic families identified culturally with France, David and Sydney entertained an affinity for German culture. They were attracted to the writings of Goethe and Schiller, the music of Bach and Brahms, the operas of the Wagners. This affinity proved problematic in the 1930s, after Hitler came to power. Like many in the English upper classes, David and Sydney saw Hitler and the Nazis as a bulwark against communism, which they considered by far the greater menace. David in the 1930s became one of Britain’s most outspoken proponents of appeasement of Hitler. Of the seven Mitford children, all but Nancy and Jessica shared this generally benign view of Hitler and the Nazis prior to World War II.
Thompson notes that oldest daughter Nancy’s debutante ball at age 18 was in 1922, the year Mussolini came to power in Italy. Deborah, the last sibling, had her coming out ball in 1938, just after Hitler’s Anchluss with Austria. The Mitford girls thus came of age during “one of the most politically explosive periods in history” (p.1). In this tense period, politics became “ever more openly polarized and extreme. Communism and Fascism stood at each end of the global chessboard like clumsy monoliths. Democracy seemed a feeble little beast by contrast, bleating of moderation in the face of the aftermath of war and the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression and mass unemployment” (p.5). While the book covers the sisters into the 21st century, the Mitford phenomenon finds its origins in the tumultuous period prior to World War II. The “nature of the girls, the nature of the world at that time: such a configuration can never happen again” (p.3).
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Eldest daughter Nancy was not the only talented writer among the sisters, but she was the unofficial family raconteur and scribe. She was also the token Francophile in a family drawn to German culture. By the standards of the time, she married quite late, at the ripe age of 28, to Peter Rodd, after having pursued a dashing homosexual who was more interested in brother Tom. Her marriage to Rodd proved unsatisfactory. Like most of the men who entered the Mitford women’s lives, Rodd chased numerous other women during the marriage (he purportedly proposed to several others on the night she accepted his marriage proposal). But in the end, Rodd was “simply too boring” for Nancy (p.150). During World War II, Nancy struck up a relationship with Gaston Palewski, a Free French officer close to Charles de Gaulle, and followed him to Paris after the war. Palewski was even more proficient than Rodd in pursuing multiple women simultaneously. They never married, but Nancy’s affection for Palewski remained unwavering during the post-war years, which she spent in Paris, writing prolifically. Through it all, her relationship with Diana was riddled with tension.
Diana was in Thompson’s view the most physically attractive of the sisters, “beautiful as a goddess” (p.8). At age 19, she married Bryan Guinness, heir to a family fortune derived in part from the beer of that name. Although Bryan was a “worshipping husband” and the couple had two young sons together, Diana left her life of “picture book perfection” (p.8) with Guinness for Oswald Mosley, head of Britain’s Fascist Party, the British Union of Fascists, and 14 years Diana’s senior. Married at the time, Mosley too was a serial womanizer. But he continued to live with wife during his affair with the 22-year-old Diana, while pursuing other women. Diana lived for nearly two years in a separate residence, an outcast in her family, waiting for Mosley’s attentions. Her conduct seems mad, Thompson writes. She had walked out on a man who had “given her everything, to face a future of absolute uncertainty” with “London’s worst philanderer” (p.136-37). In 1932, open adultery of this kind was “scandalous beyond comprehension” (p.137). Thompson describes Diana’s otherwise inexplicable attraction to Mosley as the “unfathomable paradox” within Diana: “a woman of the most intensely civilized values . . . was, in her deepest soul, attracted to something dark, harsh, dictatorial and violent” (p.140).
Only after Mosley’s wife died did he and Diana marry – at the home of chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, with Adolph Hitler as the guest of honor. Although Mosley’s philandering did not end with the marriage, they stayed married for the remainder of their lives. The Mosleys actually came closest together as a couple during World War II, after both were interned as wartime security risks, without charges or trial. When public authorities sought to intern Mosley, Nancy suggested that his internment would be “quite useless if [Diana] is still at large” (p.244). After three years’ imprisonment, the couple was released in November 1943 because of Mosley’s ill health. Jessica stated in an open letter to Prime Minister Churchill that their release betrayed “those who have died for the cause of anti-fascism” (p.249).
Diana’s sister Unity, four years younger, introduced Diana to Hitler after the two sisters had attended a major Nazi rally in Nuremberg. Unity was most likely conceived in a small Canadian mining town called Swastika, Thompson indicates, when Sydney accompanied David on an otherwise unsuccessful mining venture. Cynics might therefore contend that the Nazi symbol remained embedded in her genes from that point forward. In early 1934, at age 20, Unity went to Munich, with the crazy schoolgirl dream of meeting Hitler. Thompson speculates that this was her way of competing with older sister Diana, who was by then with Mosley. Somehow, she did meet the Führer, and spent substantial time in his presence between 1936 and 1940, with 140 documented meetings.
Unity was treated “like an honored guest at rallies, [and] at events such as the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and the Bayreuth Festival; she was twice invited to [Hitler’s] retreat at Berchtesgaden . . . Effectively Unity was admitted to Hitler’s inner circle” (p.168). Her relationship with Hitler, Thompson indicates, was most probably platonic. There’s no clue that Unity was a romantic rival to Eva Braun, the Führer’s official mistress (see my review of two books on Hitler’s relationship with Braun, reviewed here in March 2013). Thompson describes Hitler’s attraction to Unity as “light relief, a combination of younger sister, court jester and talisman . . . [Hitler] was impressed by Britain, fascinated by its ability to command an empire, and like so many people he was compelled by the British aristocracy” (p.169). For her part, Unity in her early twenties came to consider herself an intermediary between Britain and Germany, capable of steering the two countries away from war.
More than Diana, Unity was vilified in the public eye for her coziness with the Nazis as Britain and Germany inched toward war. In August 1939, just before the war’s outbreak, Unity attempted unsuccessfully to take her own life, leaving her with substantial brain damage from which she never recovered. The bullet lodged itself at the back of her head, in a position too precarious to allow its removal, “causing her to become wholly childlike in her moods, her lack of co-ordination and her incontinence. Yet somehow she remained very much herself” (p.209). Unity was the first of the Mitford sisters to die, in 1948, at age 34.
Although always under the spell of her older sister Diana, Unity somehow remained close to her sister Jessica, the family’s official lefty, a communist who unlike most of the rest of the family looked upon Hitler as a grave threat. While Jessica never wavered in her dislike for Diana, and saw her only rarely in adult life, she considered her Nazi-loving sister Unity “easily my favorite sister” (p.255), an innocent, led astray by Diana.
Jessica’s embrace of communism was for her parents almost completely beyond comprehension. Jessica created her own family scandal, akin to Diana leaving her marriage for Mosley, when she eloped with a fellow communist, Esmond Romilly, the nephew and rumored son of Winston Churchill, whom she had met in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Romilly was an Alpha male, much like Mosley in that regard — “Mosley with a red flag” (p.182) – and still another man who did not attach a high priority to marital fidelity.
The pair traveled to the United States as war loomed, owning and running a bar in Miami purchased with the assistance of Washington Post owner Phillip Graham. Esmond joined Canadian Air Force in 1940, and was lost in action after a bombing raid over Germany in 1941. Jessica stayed in Washington during the war, where she worked for the government. She eventually remarried, to American civil rights lawyer Phillip Truehart, a leading American progressive and also – surprise – a serial philanderer.
Jessica and Truehaft were actively engaged in the civil rights struggles of the late ‘40s and 1950s, and both came under suspicion for their Communist Party affiliations during the McCarthy era. She and Truehaft left the Party in 1958. In the 1960s, Jessica became a best-selling author with her The American Way of Death, an exposé of the exploitative practices of the American funeral industry. She continued investigative journalism and the pursuit of liberal causes in the United States and wrote prolifically for the remainder of her life.
Pamela and Deborah are the sisters most difficult to decipher in this account, seeming to get lost amongst their flashier sisters. Second-oldest Pamela married the eccentric Derek Jackson, a brilliant physicist and accomplished horseman, with a colorful personal life who married six times. Thompson contends that Jackson was at one time or another in love with all the Mitford girls except Nancy, as well as with brother Tom. After her divorce from Jackson in the 1950s, Pamela took up with an Italian horsewoman, Giuditta Tommasi, in what turned out to be a lasting partnership.
The last daughter, Deborah, had the life that most closely conformed to whatDavid and Sydney had in mind for all their daughters. As a young woman, she became friendly with the Kennedy family. At a party at the United States Embassy, she not only danced with the future American president, she also met Andrew Cavendish, the nephew of future British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (Andrew’s brother Billy married Kathleen Kennedy in 1944, but was killed in the war shortly thereafter; Kathleen died in a plane crash in 1948). Deborah married Andrew in 1941 and became the Duchess of Devonshire. Her marriage proved to be the most stable by far among the sisters. Thompson describes Deborah as “emollient. She really was the only Mitford girl to retain good relations with all the others and to receive, and deftly juggle, all their confidences” (p.65). The last of the Mitfords to die, in 2014, Deborah’s most conspicuous eccentricity was that she was an inveterate fan of Elvis Presley and filled her stately country home with memorabilia of America’s king.
Brother Tom, growing up surrounded on all sides by female energy and intensity, seems to have been a decent chap, good looking and likely gay. Tom was the one person in the family “whom everybody both respected and liked” (p.71). His affection for Hitler and the Nazis rivaled that of Diana and Unity. He died in World War II, fighting Japan, after refusing to fight in Europe against Germany. Tom’s loss was felt deeply by all his sisters. They were “united in the fact that they all loved Tom: a man who had known Mosley and Romilly and had found the respect and liking of both” (p.283-84).
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Whether Thompson’s book contains any breakthrough revelations that might lead to a new and different understanding of the six sisters is a question for more seasoned Mitford readers and scholars. The book may not produce a lasting collective notion of the sisters and what made them so . . . Mitfordian. But readers who are new to the Mitfords will find Thompson’s work a thorough introduction to the sisters, while seasoned Mitford readers are likely to marvel anew at the sheer implausibility of the six sisters’ stories. You can’t make this stuff up!
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 16, 2018