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Jo'Burg Days: The Mitford Family

Barbara Durlacher introduces us to members of the eccentric, literary (some of them) English family, the Mitfords. One of the six Mitford girls, Nancy, wrote some of the finest and funniest English novels of the Twentieth Century. Nancy, and other members of the family, were far too extraordianry to be characters in a novel.

English society has thrown up many eccentrics. Some of the famous have been rich and powerful, others less so, remaining on the fringe of society. One or two have boasted illustrious titles, but many come from obscure origins.

Perhaps it is because a person carries a famous name or is descended from an ancient family that they feel encouraged to behave unconventionally. Or, to put it another way, maybe a great name and vast wealth gives them the confidence to behave outside normal conventions. On the other hand, it could be the juxtaposition of other interesting and talented people that creates a personality that stands out from the crowd. One of the most fascinating facets of British society is that there seem to be more eccentrics in England than anywhere else. Of course, one does not know whether similar eccentrics exist in other European societies - maybe they do, but we are at a disadvantage in not know knowing their languages and culture, so cannot judge.

Here the hope is to show a few examples of unusual personalities and their eccentric behaviour, and to kindle an interest to spur others to enter the world of books, searching out their own discoveries of persons who behave amusingly and unconventionally. There must be many times when you, too, have met fascinating people between the pages of an enjoyable book.

Diaries, letters and biographies sketch out the lives of many interesting figures. Occasionally one learns more about the person's character and personality from a biography, but usually letters tell more. Letters give a delightfully idiosyncratic insight into a person's life and character, especially if they are written with style and wit.

Sometimes after finishing a biography one is left feeling unfulfilled, still longing to know what the subject was really like, especially if the person being studied belongs in the category of the bizarre or macabre; is just plain daft, or creatively eccentric.

Reading "The Letters of Nancy Mitford - With Love from Nancy" edited by Charlotte Mosley, (Pub. Hodder and Stoughton, 1993) one finds the following delightful characters, many of whom are depicted in her other books. The reader must find his own answer to the foregoing questions; everyone has a different interpretation.

Nancy Mitford (1898 - 1973)

Eldest of the family and possibly the best remembered by her public, Nancy Mitford was the author of the delicately crafted comic masterpieces, Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love. Later she became interested in European history and wrote several quasi-historical books, which enjoyed an unexpected literary and financial success. These well researched historical works, appearing shortly after the Second World War when European society, still reeling from the effects of rationing and wholesale destruction, was prepared to welcome a new viewpoint on times of earlier luxury and splendour, they immediately appealed to a wide readership. Like her earlier books, they became wildly popular, and the sales figures for Mme de Pompadour, The Sun King (Louis XIV), Voltaire, and Frederick the Great of Prussia, made Nancy a wealthy woman.

Her output included several other novels based on her family, as well as The Little Hut, a very successful musical. A quantity of good journalism, a large collection of articles, essays, radio talks and thousands of letters to friends and family make up individual and charming collection, uniquely illustrating the mind of writer with a different and original point of view.

A number of books have been written about her, as she had a wide collection of friends, many of them socially prominent French, Italian and British intellectuals. Most she had known from childhood, or through her aristocratic family connections. To read her books and letters is to experience a light, yet charmingly acute intellect, with an exceptional ability to glean the essence of a personality or situation. She could also see comic possibilities many others overlooked. One of her greatest and oldest friends was Evelyn Waugh, to whom she frequently appealed for advice on her writing, which he was always happy to provide, and from whom she learned much.

One of Nancy's most famous creations was the concept of "U" and "Non-U" a theory she created as a tease in Noblesse Oblige and various newspaper articles. In this concept she attempted to convey the idea of proper English usage; with "U" standing for 'correct' usage, and "Non-U" for 'incorrect'. "Napkin" was "U" whereas "serviette" was Non-U. "Lavatory" was "U" but "toilet" or "loo" most definitely was not. "Umbrella" was out, "Sunshade" in.

Despite much advice to the contrary, Nancy married Peter Rodd, who in her heart of hearts she knew was temperamentally unsuited to her. The marriage was not a happy one and they had no children. From 1945 she went to live in France, and never returned permanently to England. She claimed that high taxation, a deep dislike of the English weather, social customs, and the awful food kept her away.

Fabrice, the hero of Pursuit of Love was a glamorised version of Nancy's life-long love, Gaston Palewski, descended from an aristocratic Polish family long-resident in France, a prominent member of the French political scene, and close associate of De Gaulle. Despite Nancy's fervent hopes, they never married. Gaston later married a French heiress but the union produced no children.

Nancy died a painful death on 30th June 1973 suffering from a rare form of Hodgkins Disease, a cancer of the lymph cells. This was rooted in the spine, and despite the doctor's prognosis that she had only a few months to live she lingered on in great pain for nearly four years after the disease was finally correctly diagnosed.

David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Lord Redesdale (1878-1958) - father of the six famous Mitford sisters, he is an endearing literary figure as depicted in Nancy's two best known books "Love in a Cold Climate" and "The Pursuit of Love". Here he appears as a conspicuously eccentric British aristocrat, vociferously waging war against his supposed enemies and country foes.

Inheriting the title on the death of his eldest brother in the First World War, his elevation to the peerage marked a huge change in his lifestyle and fortunes. At first he seemed to show little enthusiasm for his new responsibilities, possibly because he had not grown up with any expectation of inheriting. As his family grew, he settled into the busy life of a hardworking, although possibly misunderstood, landowner.

His early career was as the office manager for "The Lady" a successful English magazine where he was employed for a number of years. His wife, Sydney Bowles, was the granddaughter of Thomas Bowles who established the two well-known magazines, "Vanity Fair" and "The Lady" in the late 1890's. He enjoyed his work at The Lady and was sorry when his elevation to the peerage and increased family responsibilities prevented him taking any further part in its management.

In an early article, his daughter Nancy writes the following delightfully idiosyncratic sketch of her early upbringing. "My father was the 2nd son of an English peer; my mother a beauty. Second sons in England, are given no money and I was born in a poor London slum. As my father insisted on keeping seven bloodhounds and a pony for me to ride, it was all rather a squash. However, during the first war against the Germans, my father's eldest brother was killed and my father became Lord Redesdale. After this we lived in a large house in the Cotswolds. I had five sisters and one brother. My father and mother, illiterate themselves, were against modern education and we girls had none, though we were taught to ride and to speak French. My brother went to Eton."

An enthusiastic builder, Lord Redesdale moved the family several times from one large residence to another in the Gloucestershire countryside, finally settling permanently at Swinbrook, near Chipping Norton.

The family hated the house, and renamed it "Swinebrook", claiming that it was cold, draughty, and didn't have a single warm room. In Nancy Mitford's delicious books based on her childhood experiences, "Love in a Cold Climate" and "The Pursuit of Love" she introduces the "Hons Cupboard" where the children go to keep warm. In reality this was the linen-cupboard heated by the hot-water pipes, which they claimed was the only warm place in the house. It was here they held the meetings of the "Hons" and "Rebels", and Nancy planned her "escape" from the domestic environment, which she always averred she hated.

She intended escaping by using her saved pocket money, and it was only under the most extreme duress that she could be persuaded to lend small sums to her siblings, to enable them to further their own schemes. At their mother's suggestion, she and several of her sisters kept poultry, selling the eggs and birds to the household to earn pocket money. Nancy's pocket money was religiously kept for her "escape fund" as she desperately wanted to go to boarding school, and hoped to save sufficient to pay the fees.

A delightful vignette in the book tells of how one of the children bursts into the morning room where Lady Redesdale is writing letters. “Mummy, Mummy, Diana says she’ll going to jump off the roof… She’s about to commit suicide!”

“Oh, poor duck,” said Lady Redesdale, quite unconcerned, “Tell her it’s her favourite pudding for luncheon, that’s sure to get her down.”

Oh the serenity of a well-staffed household, and the experience that comes from having a large family – can you imagine any mother today taking an announcement of this kind so calmly?

Their earlier home, Batsford Park, lying between Chipping Campdon and Moreton-in-the-Marsh, was the setting for the exhilarating chase through the bracken, which opens the story of "Love in a Cold Climate". Here the children are being chased by bloodhounds and pursued by a fearsome rider on a large horse. In reality this was an enjoyable and innocent game instituted by Lord Redesdale to entertain his daughters. Known as "Farve" by his children, and as Uncle Matthew in the books, it is he, mounted on a large hunter who is riding after the children, who are the "hares" in their favourite game of "The Hares and Hunter."

One of the highlights of the girls’ young lives was the arrival of the “Chubb Fuddler” and the description of this is so hilarious that I will leave readers to find the relevant passage for themselves, rather than blunt their enjoyment by a second-hand retelling of the tale.

In the books, Uncle Matthew is portrayed as an irascible aristocrat whose pet hates are ‘smartly dressed women, socialists, and foreigners’. His favourite "entrenching tool", which hung over the fireplace in the place of honour in the drawing room, is a fond memory of his service in the First World War, a reminder of his far-off days of glory, which he hopes to repeat in the 1940's. When exhorting his workforce digging the fortifications around his large mansion in Gloucestershire at the outbreak of hostilities, he expects the same unquestioning obedience to orders he got from his troops. Becoming ever more irritated when realisation dawns that he no longer commands the degree of obedience and respect he received as Colonel of his regiment, the light gradually breaks that his authority is being eroded and that to some he has become a figure of fun.

Nancy’s mockery of ‘Farve’ is a little cruel, as he seems to have been a kindly, hard working and loving father to a boisterous and, at times, difficult family. Certainly the continuing success of the well-known magazine “The Lady”, still enjoying a large readership nearly one hundred and twenty years after is inception, bears out that he cannot have been quite as incapable of running and managing a profitable enterprise as Nancy would have us believe, and perhaps it is to her detriment that she was never able to appreciate the sterling qualities of her parents and the extent of their individuality.

Later, in their 'real' married life Lord and Lady Redesdale separated, blaming "irreconcilable political differences" for the break. Lady Redesdale took up residence on the Isle of Inchkenneth in the far north of Scotland, purchased earlier by Lord Redesdale. She lived here until her death.

During her period of residence on the island, Lady Redesdale made a practice of railing her domestic linen, packed in large wicker baskets, to Harrods in London for laundering. At the time I read this, it struck me as the height of aristocratic indulgence. But afterall, what else could the poor woman have done? Isolated on that barren island, probably with little, if any domestic help, roaring gales half the year round, it makes far more sense to send the heavy linen sheets down to London to a reputable laundry, rather than battle to get them washed in the days long before the convenience of washing-machines and tumble dryers. Thinking it over today, I say “what a sensible solution to a difficult problem, and how like the arisos, to opt for the most expensive, but ultimately the most efficient way of solving a problem, and one which would have made other lesser mortal’s lives a perfect misery!”

The sisters were not fond of the island, finding it, in Nancy's words, intensely uncomfortable with ….. "a perpetual howling wind, shrieking gulls, driving rain, water, water wherever you look, streaming mountains with waterfalls every few yards … No heather, black rocks shiny like coal with wet, and a little colourless grass clinging to them." (NM to Diana Mosley, 28/9/46).

After her death, the island was left to the remaining sisters as part of their inheritance. As none of the others liked the place, Jessica Truehaft (resident in America) bought out her older siblings to keep it in private hands. The island was sold some years later, as it proved too expensive and difficult to maintain.

Lady Diana Mosley formerly Guinness, nee Mitford (1910 - 2003)

Nancy's younger sister Diana, married as her first husband, Bryan Guinness of the great brewing family. This marriage produced two children, but she left him to marry Sir Oswald Mosley, founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists. Admirers of Hitler, she and Mosley were jailed in Pentonville Prison from 1940-43 under Regulation 18B that suspended habeas corpus. After their release the Mosleys remained unrepentant, never acknowledging their lack of political judgement, and in 1951 settled in France. They had two sons, Alexander and Maximilian

Diana was also a writer, and her output included A Life of Contrasts (1977) The Duchess of Windsor (1980) and Loved Ones (1985). She also enjoyed the love and friendship of a great number of eminent British and French writers and authors, and died in August 2003 at the great age of 93.

To embroider the theme of originality running in the genes, Diana’s grand-daughter, Charlotte Mosley, edited the book referred to earlier in this article “The Letters of Nancy Mitford – Love From Nancy” and another member of the family, Sir Max Mosley, is the head of FIFA, the organisation which runs and manages the famous Formula One motor racing teams.

Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire (1926 - )

Deborah, the youngest Mitford sister, married Lord Andrew Cavendish (1920 - ) in 1941. He became 11th Duke of Devonshire on the death of his father in 1950. On his death, Deborah found herself chatelaine of Chatsworth in Derbyshire, one of England's greatest country houses. The most thoroughly 'English' of the sisters she is the author of several books, dealing with the treasures of Chatsworth, or country matters.

Jessica Truehaft (formerly Romilly, nee Mitford)

At the start of the Spanish Civil War, younger sister Jessica eloped to Spain with Edmond Romilly, Churchill's nephew. They married in 1937 and spent the early years of the Civil War assisting refugees and fighters to escape from the Fascist regime. They moved to America, where Jessica remained after Esmond's death in 1941. She married Robert Treuhaft in 1943, and joined the Communist Party. She has devoted herself for many years to campaigning for civil rights and leftwing causes. Publications include two volumes of autobiography, Hons and Rebels (1960), A Fine Old Conflict (1977) The American Way of Death (1963) and The American Way of Birth (1992).

Unity Mitford

Of the six girls and one boy in the Redesdale family, Unity achieved the most notoriety, becoming known as Hitler's girlfriend. This came about through her naïve hero worship of Der Fuehrer and his policies. She visited Germany several times during the 1930's, staying in Munich, ostensibly to learn to speak German. By patronising the same cafes and restaurants the object of her admiration, it was not long before she came to his notice, as the "beautiful blonde Englishwoman". She was accepted as a member of his inner circle, but despite many rumours, she was never his lover. To her disappointment, she never became more intimate in his circle than a pretty English girl on the fringe, but she revelled in her hero-worship for several years.

When England declared war against Germany in 1939, Unity was so ashamed of what she regarded as her country's great betrayal, that she attempted suicide by shooting herself in the head. Sadly, she was not killed, and remained a childlike invalid, with the bullet lodged in her brain, dying in 1948. During her illness she had been patiently nursed by her mother, Lady Redesdale, until she contracted a fatal case of meningitis when the path of the bullet became infected.

Pamela Jackson nee Mitford

Pamela, the least well known of the Mitford sisters, seldom appeared in public, enjoying a quiet married life in the country as Mrs Derek Jackson. Unlike her famous sisters, she avoided becoming an author.

Tom Mitford (died 1945)

Only son of Lord and Lady Redesdale, Tom Mitford was educated at Eton and at the outbreak of the Second World War joined the Army. Serving with distinction throughout the hostilities, he was shot by bandits in Burma nine weeks before the war ended. He never married.

Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners (1883-1950).

A family friend who established an immediate rapport with the precocious Nancy, he was a popular society host, musician, painter and writer. Portrayed, at his own request, as the delightful Lord Merlin in her charming period comedies of manners and social mockery "The Pursuit of Love" and "Love in a Cold Climate" he comes across as an intelligent and witty man.

He is said to have dyed his white doves and pouter pigeons in pastel shades to enhance their beauty. Watching them as they swooped and tumbled over the lawns of his country house, Faringdon in Oxford, with its lovely garden, he delighted in the varied shades of their feathers and wings flashing in the sun. What an elegant conceit!

He was also fond of wearing 18th century Court dress. Clad in an antique brocaded coat, embroidered waistcoat, knee britches, white stockings and buckled shoes, he enhanced the effect with a beautiful brocaded turban, and frequently wore this ensemble while playing croquet with friends. A talented composer, he spent a lot of time in his spacious conservatory, where colourful exotic birds flew in unfettered splendour, their shrieks and squawks filling the air with sound, while he worked on his various musical compositions, occasionally incorporating bird sounds into his music.

As Nancy's sister Diana Mosley said of him in her book "The Loved Ones", 'Clever, talented, witty, original and private-spirited, Gerald Berners was the best companion as well as the most loyal friend anyone could be lucky enough to have'.


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