Why Did I Get on this Mitford Kick?

Why the Mitfords?? They are about as far as one can get from the settler-Indian wars of American Colonization and expansion. When I tire of reading about the Native Americans and settlers hacking each other to death for the very land I live on today, I revert to my other great love—-England and its Empire days.

My reading this past spring and into the summer has been about the Mitford family–a family of six daughters and one son, children of Lord and Lady Redesdale, he an English baron. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitford_family The children were born between 1904–1920. The oldest daughter was Nancy, writer of delightful satirical novels and later of historical books. I read some of her books back in my college days which is where I developed a fondness for the Mitfords, disguised in her books as the Radletts. Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love are semi-autobiographical satirical novels, funny and frothy, which depict the siblings’ upbringing by their eccentric father, a land owning minor aristocrat, and their rather distant, and somewhat eccentric but very proper, mother. In the 1970’s I read and admired Jessica Mitford’s book, The American Way of Death, but did not connect her with this British family. A few years ago, I read The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell, which whetted my interest in reading the other biographical books and autobiographical books about the family. One could hardly get any father from savage American Indians and colonists than the Mitford family, minor aristocrats whose adventures in politics and romance drew headlines in their time.

Nancy married late and had no children. Her marriage was not a success and her happiest years were spent in France after the war, where she enjoyed Society and wrote her most successful novels. Later she wrote successful historical books about Voltaire, Madame Pompadour, and others. She loved chat, brilliant conversation, Dior gowns and couture clothing, anything French, and elegant social life. The second sister, Pamela, was married to the scientist, jockey, and war hero, Derek Jackson. She loved to raise dogs, farm, cook, and garden and was totally uninterested in politics. The only son was Tom Mitford, a lawyer and musician who was killed in the war in Burma in 1945; he joined his sisters Diana and Unity in loving Germany and German culture and requested to serve in the Far East rather than be part of the occupation army after the defeat of Hitler. The third sister was Diana, Lady Mosley, wife of the British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, both of whom were imprisoned by her cousin-in-law Winston Churchill during WWII for over three years. [Lord Reddesdale was a first cousin of Clementine Churchill, so Diana was Clementine’s second cousin and the age of his older children.] The fourth sister was the infamous Unity Mitford, who developed a fascination with Hitler and went to Germany at about age 20 where she became his friend and chatting companion. She was an emphatic and loud “Jew-hater” and a Fascist; the day the war broke out between Germany and England, she shot herself. Gravely wounded, she was taken home to England, where she lived impaired for some years and died when she was 34. The fifth sister, Jessica, was called “Decca”; however, in the US, where she emigrated, she was known as Jessica Mitford. She eloped with Esmond Rommily right before WWII began. He was the nephew of Lady Clementine Churchill, wife of Winston, and the rumored love child of Winston Churchill and his sister-in-law. He was a pilot and was killed returning from a bombing run over Germany. Jessica remained in the US and later married an attorney named Bob Trefhauf. Both were leaders of the US Communist Party. Eventually they left the party but continued to be active in labor and civil rights fights. She became an author, writing The American Way of Death, an expose of corrupt funeral practices, among other muck-raking books. The youngest sister, the only one living, is Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, famous for her magnificent restoration of the Cavendish family home Chatsworth and other family properties. She has written books about Chatsworth, its garden, and country life. The Duchess, pithy, pragmatic, fun-loving, a sportswoman, lover of horses, dogs, and chickens, a countrywoman at heart, held the far-flung sisters together through all the later tribulations and disasters.

The Mitfords, like many British aristocrats, were drawn to Fascists during the middle part of the 20th Century, their mother more than their father, as he, a thorough patriot, rejected Hitler and the Nazis when the war began. The parents lived separately after the war due to their political disagreements. Unity and Diana were the “Right” extremes, both confidants of Hitler and associates of the Nazi leadership. On the other end of the spectrum was Jessica, early drawn to communism. She and Unity shouted party slogans at each other as teenagers, from the poster-decorated bedrooms of their country home. Deborah, on the other hand, was uninterested in politics. She preferred riding, raising ponies, shooting, gardening, and restoring old homes. She often entertained her husband’s uncle, Prime Minister Harold McMillan, who at the end of his life lived with them at Chatsworth for months at a time. Married to a duke, who was also a member of the British foreign service, she and her husband moved in the top political and social circles. Her brother-in-law, Lord William Hartington, married Kathleen Kennedy, sister of President John Kennedy. Billy was killed four months after their marriage in 1945, leaving Andrew, Deborah’s husband, as heir to the dukedom. Deborah knew John Kennedy and his siblings in London when his father was the American ambassador before the war. Her friendship with John Kennedy, cemented by her love of and relationship to his favorite sister, continued until his assignation; she attended both his Inauguration and Funeral with the family. 

The Mitfords are an absolutely fascinating family with eccentric, aristocratic parents and brilliant, creative children, all going in different directions, but connected with their love of reading and writing. Their books and the biographies and analysis written about them create a detailed and informative view of upper class life in Britain in the mid-20th century. As they were growing up in the teens, 20’s, 30’s, the ideas about socialism and communism were sweeping across Europe and being discussed and argued by everyone from the working classes to the aristocrats. Communism took over Russia and socialism/fascism took over Germany, Italy, and France. These ideas were explored and discussed—and fought over. It was not illegal at that time to belong to any of those parties, though Sir Oswald was imprisoned in the war, along with many of his followers, mainly because it was thought Germany would invade and he would be Hitler’s stooge. Diana was a close friend and chatting companion of Hitler for some years before the war, which further incriminated the couple. To be disloyal was not Mosley’s intention, but Winston was forced by public opinion to imprison them, without charges, which later resulted in serious discussions in Parliament about war time powers and panic. [note to US citizens—-war is never the time to cast off hard-won freedoms]. Diana found Hitler a fascinating character and liked him as a friend, a point-of-view that repulsed most of Britain. She was not one to be deviated by the opinions of the masses.

So, I read all of this, which forms a framework for understanding the political issues of Western civilization for the past few centuries. In the Regency, the backdrop for my favorite novelist, Jane Austen, the British Empire is being developed and expanded. In Victorian times, Trollope’s time, the sun never sets on the Empire. In the two world wars Britain is threatened and during WWII bombed dreadfully, fighting for its very life. Its ally France is occupied. The British aristocracy sent its sons to fight in both wars and was decimated. Almost every aristocratic family lost sons—note that the Devonshires lost their oldest son and the Mitfords lost their only son. The Mitford’s claim on the baronetcy died with Tom and the title passed to a cousin. Thus, was the political landscape of Britain re-shaped. England is an ancient land and the cradle of American ideas about law and democracy. Americans, in contrast, are new to the world stage and very adolescent in behavior and thinking—brash, pushy, uninterested in history, prone to mass hysteria on issues flamed by an ignorant and callus news media, full of bombast, bluff, and hot air. The British Empire lasted some 300 years; the American Empire is crashing in flames as we speak, and power is shifting to Asia.

Articles about the Mitfords

Mitford books, by and about Mitfords, which I have enjoyed reading:

Books by Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire

Chatsworth: The House (1980; revised edition 2002)
The Garden at Chatsworth (1999)
Counting My Chickens and Other Home Thoughts (2002) — essays
The Chatsworth Cookery Book (2003
Round and About Chatsworth (2005)
Memories of Andrew Devonshire (2007)

Novels by Nancy Mitford

Highland Fling 1931
Christmas Pudding 1932
Wigs on the Green 1935
Pigeon Pie 1940
The Pursuit of Love 1945
Love in a Cold Climate 1949
The Blessing 1951
Don’t Tell Alfred 1960

Books by Jessica Mitford

Hons and Rebs
The American Way of Death

Books about the Mitford family

The House of Mitford, Jonathan Guinness (Hutchinson, London 1984)
Diana Mosley: Mitford Beauty, British Fascist, Hitler’s Angel, Anne DeCourcy, October, 2004
The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, Mary S. Lovell
The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters, Charlotte Mosley, editor, November 2007

One response to “Why Did I Get on this Mitford Kick?

  1. John Fisher (formerly Bedwell)

    Hi Jeanne…I came across you by accident looking for someone else in the UK.
    As you are a Bedwell with an interest in genealogy I thought you might like to know that while my father was a Bedwell (killed at the end of the war), a cousin on my mother’s side has now traced our origins right back to King Malcolm 11 of Scotland, through great, great, great grandfather, John Shipp (soldier and author). We also have connections with Mr Christian of The Bounty, and Queen Elizabeth 1st biographer.
    The Bedwells and Shipps seem to be prolific writers. I’ve been a journalist all my life and am currently writing a book and film. John Shipp was the inspiration for the Sharpe books and TV series (you may not get these in the US). We believe most of the Bedwells in the U.S. are descended from two or three who emigrated to America as part of the original settlers.
    Both our children live and work in the U.S. – Toledo, Ohio, and Yucca Valley, CA.
    PS: My wife has just been reading the latest book on the Mitfords. Quite a family!

    PS: We acquired the Fisher name when my mother remarried in the 50s.

    Kind regards and if you want to keep in touch, that’s ok.

    John Fisher (formerly Bedwell).

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