Class dynamics; family dynamics
Jessica Mitford’s 1960 published autobiography of a certain time in her life, which covers mainly her teens to early twenties, has been a thought provoking read.
The Mitford Sisters continue to fascinate many, for a variety of reasons.
As is probably known to most, the family, who were both influential and close to other influential people, was markedly eccentric. And the books written by the book writing sisters, primarily novelist Nancy and journalist and political activist Jessica (Decca) in different ways lift the lid on their bizarre eccentric upbringing and on the unpleasant attitudes of privileged class politics.
What particularly fascinates is the fact that 4 of the 6 daughters had beliefs or behaviours or lifestyles (or all 3) which were deeply shocking not only within their own circles, but within the wider world, and 3 of the 6 (Diana, Unity, Jessica) sought active involvement either in the politics of the times (1930s and beyond) or were close to those who were so involved. The fascination becomes most interesting because Unity developed an obsession with Hitler, and thoroughly absorbed Nazi ideology, Diana also became a fascist and married Oswald Mosley (and was thoroughly shocking to her class and parents not for that eventual marriage, but because she and her first husband, Bryan Guinness, divorced, and Diana became Mosley’s mistress – he was married to someone else). Diana was one of the 1920s hedonistic Bright Young Things. Decca by contrast, became a socialist and then a communist and deeply shocked her class by both her politics AND her personal life. She remained active in left politics all her life, not just in belief, but in action.
Meanwhile, of the remainder of the family, Mother supported her fascist daughters (but of course some of the support would have been supporting daughters, as much as supporting politics), Father was a fascist sympathiser but once war was declared supported his country. Son was a fascist but joined the war effort against Japan, rather than Germany. Anti-Semitism seems quite marked within many of the family – though anti-Semitism also seems to have been a surprising bedrock of wider society before the Second World War gave a very brutal, stark, and dreadful example of what the politics of racial hatred leads to. Novelist Nancy was ‘pink’ and left-leaning. The often forgotten, quieter sister, Pamela, the second born of the older grouping, was not actively involved in politics, and rather shunned the glare of notoriety. The youngest daughter Deborah became the Duchess of Devonshire, was actively involved in opening the family stately home, Chatsworth House, and led an apparently more serene life than any of the rest, in terms of an enduring marriage and unshocking works and causes.
What really fascinated me on this read has really been the family aspects. I knew the political splits, I knew the extreme politically split sister stories Jessica, Diana, Unity, but on this read, thinking about families, their tangled influences, not to mention the wider personal (rather than political) effects of conflict and loyalty within the family were what I have been left musing about.
The two sisters Decca was closest to when she was growing up were firstly the glamorous, arty, shockingly fast-set playgirl Diana, the youngest of the older group, and the weirdest, her older sister of her own, young group, Unity.
Alas for Unity, that first name seems much less prophetic than her second baptismal name of Valkyrie (honestly!) Perhaps this illustrates the importance of not saddling a child with a weighted name……………….Of course, it also occurs to me that Diana (said to be the most beautiful of the sisters) is in classical parlance also a Huntress….indeed the goddess of the chase
Both Unity and Diana were clearly farthest away from Decca in politics, yet her love for Unity is/was clear in her book, an unwavering love despite an even stronger unwavering hate for her politics. Perhaps (I can only surmise) it was the fact of Unity’s far more obviously dysfunctional ‘not fitting in’ personality which excited Decca’s empathy? Unity, as is well known, fiercely loyal to Germany and Hitler, tried to commit suicide by shooting herself in the head when the announcement that Britain is now at war with Germany was made. This was something, as the prospect of war edged closer, which Unity had been planning, the prospect of the conflict between the nations themselves perhaps echoes of divided loyalties within this Englishwoman.
It was however between Diana and Decca that a permanent rift took place. Diana of course was actively promoting fascism. She and her second husband were imprisoned during the war for their fascist activities. Unity’s failed attempt at suicide left her weakened and brain damaged, so perhaps her ‘wrong’ politics were less consciously and rationally chosen, and partly reflective of a kind of odd violence and irrationality of psychology – she had by all accounts been ‘difficult’ from childhood. Diana, by contrast, never wavered in her political allegiances, which must have seemed a far more conscious and unforgiveable choice. As clearly Decca’s choice was, as far as Diana was concerned.
Something which interested and frustrated me very much sprang out of the class and national character of the time – a kind of stiff upper lip-ism, a reserve about the expression of personal emotion.
Tragedies undoubtedly happened in Jessica’s life and a veil is drawn over the emotions of bereavement. Nancy, whose novels clearly used Mitford life, her own, and her sisters’ as their springboard, covers some of this territory, and there is a similar ‘soldiering on, this is not for sharing’ .
Decca eloped romantically in her teens with Esmond Romilly, her second cousin and Churchill’s nephew. Her husband had joined the International Brigade to fight the fascists in Spain. He had been invalided out, but later went back as a reporter. Decca had become actively interested, (and then involved) in left politics from when she was 13. Esmond was similarly involved, so the two, who did not meet till they were 18, were almost pre-destined for each other. They went to America (this was before the outbreak of war) because they were full of despair at the direction Britain appeared to be taken during Appeasement. Once Britain declared war, Esmond always intended to join up, as he did
During the period between their arriving in America (without much in the way of funds) and Esmond’s join-up the two led quite a hand to mouth existence, taking casual jobs as they could, borrowing from friends (and paying them back when funds were available) but also not slow to pass themselves off as experienced this that and the other with invented cvs. Esmond did a short weekend course in bartending, and then passed himself off as an experience bartender who had worked in one of the ancient, prestigious, glamorous London hotels
The link is for Jessica’s Desert Island Discs, from 1977 She drawlingly says music doesn’t mean much to her, and the reserve over feeling, and her strong personality saying ‘don’t go there’ can clearly be heard in a kind of steeliness where Diana is mentioned.
As for the book : fascinating, well written, incisive and funny. But also reserved. You will get quite close to Mitford’s thinking; less so to her feeling
Americans have the best option – a version with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens. I didn’t seem to have that as an option this side of the pond. In reverse, I’m not sure whether the BBC archived radio programme will be available outside the UK, or whether it will be one of those ‘not available in your country’ links