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September 24, 2014

Marvelling at The Mitfords


I am sad that today we live in a world without a Mitford sister, not a single one, as The Duchess of Devonshire has died at the age of 94. Debo was close to my heart as it was to her Chatsworth House that I visited in 2004 whilst experiencing a throat infection, and fell down in a faint among the sheep droppings, and it was still worth the trip. This was at the height of my Mitford-mania, after I read Mary S. Lovell’s The Mitford Girls and became utterly fascinated. They were connected to everything! Debo’s husband’s late brother’s wife’s was John F. Kennedy’s sister, Kathleen. The commonplace variety of banana is called Cavendish was named in the 15th century for her family line. Plus she was a Duchess. Sister Nancy was the comic novelist; Diana divorced a Guinness to marry Oswald Mosley, which led to a falling out with Decca, who became a communist and ran away to fight in the Spanish Civil War (before immigrating to America to become a journalist); Pamela was a lesbian, and otherwise (comparatively) dull, except she had an Aga that matched her eyes; and yes, Unity, Hitlers girlfriend, who shot herself in the head at the advent of World War Two. Has non-fiction ever been so fascinating? They were like the Spice Girls, but smarter, longer lived, and with fascism. Such amazing, compelling lives. (I love that they were fictionalized in Jo Walton’s excellent Small Change trilogy).

I have a whole shelf packed with Mitford books—the Lovell biography, theirs and Decca’s collected letters, Decca’s non-fiction and autobiographies, Nancy’s novels, and even Debo’s collection of columns, Counting My Chickens. I cherish every one of these and always will, even more so now that the sisters are all gone. Stranger than fiction—they’re proof of that. The best and worst of Englishness—they’re a reminder of the spectrum of human experience.

I even wrote a poem about them, back in the time in which I did such things as write poems.

Extremism was so fashionable that first season

“Why must all my daughters fall for dictators?”
~ Lady Redesdale (Sydney Mitford)

Extremism was so fashionable
that first season.

At the races my daughter won herself a diplomat
and my husband and I my husband and I
concerned with crashing stocks had our veritable sigh
and we folded our hands and nodded then,
as he stood on a box and took up his pen
because she looked on so loving
I couldn’t help but be pleased,
in spite of his wife, in spite of their life
and his radical politics leaning far right.

There was the matter of war in Spain
which (she said) was just a prelude.

This was the littlest daughter, always contrary,
“I will run away, you’ll all be sorry.”
When she finally fled, it was to throes of war
and she didn’t bring a stitch to wear,
to fight for the reds or marry for love
just to be where the action was happening.
She had to deny her former life
to prove her worth as working-class wife,
they came back to fight for the cause from their home
on the slummier side of South London.

The man of the year was a small man
seeking room to grow.

My middle daughter found him on her travels
my sullen, silly girl, by his words became so serious
when she sang them in her own voice
we consented, it was her choice
but he was such a charming gentleman
when he had us all to tea.
(But this is when the trouble starts, as you will see)

Solidarity was demanded on the homefront
but for us, this was impossible.

My golden older daughter and her lover- now her husband-
the coincidence of their ideological proximity
translated to sympathy for the enemy
and this daughter of mine, fond of long days and wine,
spent war years charming the Holloway Prison for Women.

The littlest one fled to America, still wedded to her cause,
kept her affiliations testifiable, and sincerity undeniable-
she had rallies and babies and books to write and
for seventeen years she refused to cross the line,
she fought the fascist front known as The Family

My husband and I- my husband and,
as his opinion of the Germans was established years before
when he’d lost a lung fighting in the First World War
and he could not abide by the company
of the leader with whom I’d had the pleasure of tea.

Especially not while the world was coming apart
at its bursting Versaillesian seams.

And my silly daughter could not abide by bursting seams
to choose between England and the man of her dreams
on September first, nineteen thirty-nine
she put a gun to her temple in an attempt to stop time.

My outspoken daughters had been drawn to men
who could outspeak them.

They dared to defy us with dictators- an original act of rebellion-
typical; no middle men, they loved instead
their moustaches and regalia their marching men with unbending knees
Prussian fortitude, Yugoslavian ingenuity
and all those ideals that had the trains run on time.
I could not raise a shallow woman; my daughters
my twentieth-century casualties, there was a time
behind every powerful man was a good woman
and I had birthed nearly all of them.


3 thoughts on “Marvelling at The Mitfords”

  1. theresa says:

    Did you read her correspondence with Patrick Leigh Fermor? He’s one of my heroes and the book sounded so lovely but I haven’t yet wrangled a copy.

  2. If you could recommend one book about the Mitfords what would it be? I’m considering reading their letters, but would also like a book to put it all in greater context.

    1. Kerry says:

      Definitely the Mary Lovell bio!

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