What have I been doing the last couple of days – reading the Mitford’s letters of course. There are a lot of letters from the 1960s as the sisters had realised by then that their correspondence was something which was unique and would be of interest to people. In fact one of them said that they would be gold for their heirs, so they were more careful to preserve them.
I’m the youngest of a large family too and I’ve always joked that my parents kept having kids until they reached perfection, in reality though I was a huge aftershock for them. Well Deborah, the youngest Mitford was an aftershock too as everybody had been desperate for her to be a boy, not a sixth sister. She was (is) definitely the best of the family though and as she avoided politics which had caused so much trouble in the past, she managed to keep in touch with all of her sisters over the years and did her best to smooth over the many grievances which they had against each other.
The older sisters didn’t seem to be able to put their childhood behind them and even into their 60s they were holding grudges, mainly against their mother. I do think this is quite a female thing though as women are much more critical of their mothers, I think, well that’s my experience anyway.
It doesn’t seem to have dawned on any of them that their mother suffered from bouts of depression – and who wouldn’t with six daughters (think of all those hormones flying around) and one son, and then add on a husband who was just about barking mad at times. Of course, Muv had a lot of help staff-wise but that brought its own problems. Nancy, the eldest Mitford had been unable to have children and due to a doctor having asked her if she had ever had any contact with syphilis, she asked her mother if it was possible and Muv Mitford admitted that Nancy’s nursemaid had had syphilis!! As she used the word ‘nursemaid’ and not nanny I think she must have meant that this woman was breast-feeding Nancy, which would definitely not have been healthy for her. It was 1904 and long before antibiotics so syphilis was incurable and in fact it was exactly like a mother today handing her new born baby over to a mother who has AIDS to breast-feed it. As you can imagine, Nancy blamed her mother for that. It’s amazing that any mother could be so stupid and uncaring, which is what leads me to think she was suffering from depression, and probably did so on and off for her whole life.
Muv Mitford always came up trumps though when she was really needed, like when she took care of Unity for years, which can have been no fun at all. Going back to 1935, there’s a letter from Jessica to Unity which mentions Muv looking after Diana who had just had her second abortion in two years, all very matter of fact. It says a lot about the family attitudes as the father of the aborted babies was the then married man Oswald Mosley and I couldn’t help thinking of what MY mother’s reaction would have been under the same circumstances. I think my mother would probably have cut my throat!
Anyway, the Mitfords obviously thought that the usual laws of decent behaviour didn’t apply to them ( like most of the so called upper classes I suppose) – Diana does mention in a 1970s letter that it was such a shame that her sons had been expelled from various schools and colleges, blaming the schools for not being willing to put up with rule breakers.
Although there isn’t so much in the way of politics in this section of the book it’s still interesting. Inevitably the whole thing is a bit of a name dropping-fest but it’s only because they were related to so many people like Winston Churchill, Harold MacMillan and the Kennedys.
What strikes me is that despite the fact the Mitford sisters were lucky enough to be born into a life of privilege and money, it didn’t stop them from allowing their choices of men to affect their lives for the worse.
Unity was besotted with Hitler and the Reich and followed him around like a puppy until she was noticed by him- which led to her trying to kill herself, which she managed to botch.
Diana was besotted with Oswald Mosley who treated her abominably and even when his wife did die suddenly, instead of that making things easier for Diana, it actually made them worse as Mosley immediately started an affair with his dead wife’s sister. It is thought that Diana was too stubborn to admit that she had been wrong in her choice of man and so she just stuck it out, even although he made her ill with the stress of her life with him.
Nancy was even worse as she moved to France after the war so that she would be on hand for her French lover who was obviously not in love with her. She had to be available for him whenever he could spare some time for her. She ended up being afraid to go out of her flat because she didn’t want to bump into any of his many other lovers who lived in the area. In the end he married one of her rivals, after leaving her hanging on for about 30 years.
Pamela was more sensible and seemed just to live for farming, although she had been married, it didn’t last.
Deborah, the youngest was obviously her parent’s favourite, but then she was the one who gave them no grief and worries as she married young, to the second son of the Devonshires (the spare). The heir was killed during the war, meaning that Deborah eventually became the Duchess of Devonshire, which she was very successfull at but it wasn’t all wine and roses.
DO ADMIT – as Debo would say – her sisters must have been fairly sick when their wee sister reached such dizzy heights.
Anyway, I read on, as I’m now at page 671 and it’s 1980. Just one more instalment I think!