I remember first coming across the Mitford sisters in a question on the BBC TV quiz programme Only Connect a few years ago. A question presented a sequence of women’s first names, I think it was Nancy, Jessica, Diana and Deborah, and the contestants had to find the link. The connection is that these are all the first names of some of the Mitford sisters; the Novelist Nancy, the Fascist Diana, the Communist Jessica, the Duchess Deborah and also Unity, the Hitler-lover (Pamela lacks a snappy epithet, Thomas cursed to obscurity by being male). This is typical of how the sisters are treated like a trading card set, an anecdotal edition to the nature vs nurture phenomenon with the added intrigue of the mid-20th English gentry. But it is instinctively fascinating to see how a group of people all raised in the same circumstances can lead so very different lives. It would be called implausible if it was fiction, but is entirely true.
Jessica Mitford’s memoirs of her childhood and early twenties, Hons and Rebels is the main ways that the family is still known quite widely. For a family of eccentrics, Jessica’s life is probably the most unconventional. In a family with a distinct slant to the right (from her parents’ supported the Conservatives to Diana and Unity’s involvement with Mosley and Hitler), Jessica had an inclination to the left from a young age. The socialism of the memoir runs deep and colours all of Jessica’s perceptions, gladly lacking the sanctimony and eulogising accounts by socialists from upper class backgrounds can be (cough, Orwell). If I were auditioning for a column with the Daily Telegraph I might say that Jessica Mitford is a socialist writer who never felt the need to bow and scrap to ‘check her privilege’, like the kids do today. But in truth she does acknowledge her own privilege and diffuses the tension it causes all through humour. She is not a teenage champagne socialist but one better, a ballroom communist who keeps her library of socialist material in a disused ballroom. Jessica political stance is developed from an awakening to injustice in the world, but the reader sense that it was at least partially born out of childish conflict with her (at times) favourite sister Unity (Bobo to the family but Boud to Jessica). This is hinted from the first image in the book describing her childhood home of Swinbrook, where “In the windows, still to be seen, are swastikas carved with a diamond ring, and for every swastika a carefully delineated hammer and sickle”, the work of the childish hands of Unity and Jessica, respectively. In one image are all the elements of the story of the Mitford sisters, the major ideological forces of the 20th century butt heads in the figures of two small Hons each wielding a diamond ring to imprint their chosen icons into the ancestral home. A waggish anecdote, maybe, but as the book moves on the scene darkens in retrospect.
The first half of the memoir is on her childhood, a rural life surrounded by eccentric grown-up relatives mercilessly eased by the siblings. Despite what would be her 100th birthday occurring in September later this year, her upbringing now presents as criminally negligent. Ignoring protests, all but one of the sisters were ever sent to school. Instead, a governess furnished them with a light sprinkling of education and robbed Jessica of the chance to get to university. Her mother (or “Muv”) also had strange ideas about health, prescribing to the doctrine of the pious “Good Body” which would resolve illness by itself, hindered by the meddling of doctors. None of the children were vaccinated, then illegal, and which likely lead to the death by measles of Jessica’s first child. But what would now turn their children over to social services is here only a thread in a tapestry of eccentricity, alongside the nursery menu de facto keeping kosher out of a conviction that “Jews don’t get cancer”.
Jessica famously ran off to the Spanish Civil War when she was nineteen. She went with the seasoned fighter, her second cousin turned fiance Esmond Romilly. She was driven by her political convictions, but also by a desire to desire to flee her stultifying family and seek adventure, anywhere. The pair spend some time as hapless journalists in Bilboa, but her family soon discovered that she was not on a delightful holiday in France and rapidly made a ward of the court. She was compelled to leave on a destroyer for France with Nancy, whose first remark to her includes informing her of “Nanny crying about what must be the state of your underclothes by now with no one to wash them for you!”
After spending some months in France and London, the newly married couple try to find what jobs the unskilled and cheerfully inept young gentry can land. Jessica begins market research and they have a baby but who then dies of measles when Jessica is only 20. By now it is 1938 and the political situation is inching towards war, though it is unclear on whose side Britain will turn out on. Because of this added to their inability to realise that though electricity comes from the sky supplying it to the household will incur a fee they flee the unpaid bill by leaving for America.
Much of the last quarter of the memoir is about Jessica’s first tastes of America, the country to become her naturalised home. These parts are the familiar Brit in the Big Apple/ DC shtick told with a lovely and lightly self-depricating humour. Most memorably, when Jessica tried to explain to her fellow shopgirls what her “old man” does, explanation of his slow perusal of the Radio Times and unsuccessful investments in empty goldmines draws pitied and the affirmation that “in America who a person’s folks are doesn’t matter a bit, here I would be judged strictly on my own merits without regard for unfortunate heredity”, lovely obliteration of the British class by American optimism.
But in Europe darkness brews, personal and political. After the outbreak of war between Germany and Britain, Unity attempts suicide in Berlin and becomes significantly disabled. Any illusion of an idyllic life are broken, and soon after Esmond leaves to Canada to join the Air Force, and is killed in action in 1941. Though not mentioned in the book Unity died in 1948 of meningitis caused by the bullet left in her brain for eight years. The two tragedies signalling the book’s end are not dwelt on excessively, but a sense of Jessica’s loss is conveyed deftly. She broadens to the We of Generation Talk when she mourns Esmond. He was a remarkable character himself, nephew of Churchill and teenaged firebrand after running away from Wellington College to found an anti-fascist newspaper. She looks back with affection at the foolhardy heroism of the communists of her generation who “not only egged each other along to even greater baiting and acts of outrage against the class we had left, but delighted in matching wits with the world generally; in fact, it was our way of life.”
As for Unity, her life is mourned as much as much as her death. When Unity was the same age as Jessica when she ran off to Spain, she went with Diana to meet Hitler, and joined his inner circle. The childish sparring darkens to a disturbing incomprehension. Having a full set of ideologies within a family may seem comic from the outside, but having such a deep affection for someone whose thoughts processes are so alien to ones own is unnerving in the extreme. As Jessica writes; “How could Boud, a person of enormous natural taste, an artist and a poet from childhood, have embraced their crude philistinism? […] She was always a terrific hater […] but I had always thought she hated intelligently […]. But when she wrote gaily off to Der Stürmer, ‘I want everybody to know that I am a Jew-hater’, I felt she had forgotten the whole point of hating and had once and for all put herself on the side of the hateful”. Jessica saw that the contradictions within Unity at the outbreak of war between her beloved country and her beloved ideology proved too much and caused her self-destruction.
Ultimately, the story of the Mitford sisters show how for the class privileged then and now, class can free and constrain and individual in important, but not deterministic, ways, and the ideological commitments that we take up over our lives can have more influence over the details of how our fate is set.