In ‘What I Believe’, an incendiary essay on the Humanist ideas that informed the majority of his work, E M Forster writes ‘if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’ Perhaps no-one has put this idea into practice with greater commitment than Diana Mitford, who scandalised British society with her marriage to Oswald Mosley and allegiance to Adolf Hitler, even as the true extent of fascism’s horrors came to light through the course of the twentieth century. ‘Probably one will not be asked to make such an agonizing choice,’ continues Forster in 1938. But in times of war, for a well-connected member of the upper classes, there was always likely to be a conflict of the personal and the national. (ONLY CONNECT)
There’s a good chance you are more aware of the Mitford Girls today than you might have been a month ago, with recent news of the sad passing of Deborah Cavendish at the age of 94. Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, prima Elvis fangirl, voracious non-reader, and friend to hens everywhere, Debo was the youngest and last surviving of the Mitfords — the first of whom was born in 1904 — and her death marked the conclusion of the fascinating story of seven siblings whose wildly differing lives, careers, relationships, and politics singularly describe the larger story of the twentieth century.
Perhaps the most famous is eldest sister Nancy: incisive wit and born-again slave to high fashion, whose fabulously brittle novels lifted the lid on both the secret life of the Mitfords, and her clandestine affair with French politician Gaston Palewski. Undoubtedly the most infamous is Unity Valkyrie: “Hitler’s British Girl”, who shot herself in the head when war was declared between her two beloved nations. Dubbed “Woman” by her sisters — and “The Quiet One” by history — staunch pragmatist Pamela was a passionate foodie who lived a low-key rural life, in the company of her Boston wife and beloved dachshunds. And while Debo married up into top tier aristocracy, confidante Decca eloped to fight fascism in Spain with distant cousin and noted socialist Esmond Romilly, settling in the US where she became involved with the American Communist Party, penning seminal 1963 exposé of the funeral industry The American Way of Death. Sole brother Tom had a succession of captivating affairs from beautiful star of the stage Tilly Losch, to eminent diarist James Lees-Milne, to the irresistibly-named Countess Francesca “Baby” Erdödy, and died at 36 during service in Burma. But for me the most intriguing life was Diana’s, and her writing style by far my favourite. Born already beautiful and endlessly charming, she was a central personality of the Bright Young People, enjoying meaningful relationships with a number of cultural and artistic luminaries of her day, before marrying into far-right-wing politics, becoming an almost pantomimeish villain in the post-war period, and eventually settling in Paris. Reading the collected correspondence earlier this year, the tenderness of Diana’s letters — most particularly to Debo in her later years — was a revelation, with their focus on the joys of literature, ‘laughter and the love of friends’, underscored in 1977 autobiography A Life of Contrasts. Indeed, between these and her other noted publications — Loved Ones, a heartfelt book of pen portraits, and The Duchess of Windsor, an intimate biography of the Mosleys’ scandalous royal neighbour — the woman most famous for her acquaintance with Adolf became something of an all-round doyen of friendship. Setting politics aside, at a time in my life when I’m really starting to evaluate my relationships, Diana’s (controversial) level of dedication to loyalty and authentic connection struck a chord.
The above excerpt is from a piece I’ve written for this year’s Mitford Society Annual, ‘Only Connect’, on Diana and her relationships, with some discussion of the cultural shift from Victorian to Edwardian eras, and of that other great twentieth century bastion of friendship, the Bloomsberries. Other essays in this volume range from a look behind the scenes at one of the UK’s largest editorial images archives, to two brilliant perspectives on Pam and Debo’s very different approaches to food and homekeeping, to profiles of some of interwar England’s most charismatic forgotten characters — with a little bit of fiction thrown in. With brief biographical information on the sisters and a wealth of fresh anecdotal titbits, it’s just as interesting and readable if you’re a Mitford novice, or if you’ve already devoured everything that’s out there and just can’t get enough (like me). I’m delighted to be featured, and honoured to be in the company of such an amazing array of contributors. The book is available to buy on Amazon from today, in Kindle edition or paperback.
In case you missed it, last year’s Mitford Annual is also available here. Sadly I’m not in that one but we’ll all struggle on somehow. Mitfordite-in-Chief Lyndsy Spence’s next publication will be Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford, focussing on her life pre-Mosley. I’ve been lucky enough to have a wee sneak peek and it’s most wondair, including unpublished pics and some very unexpected findings. It’s due for release in March of next year.