The Mitford sisters were the six daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and his wife Sydney (1880-1963), who was herself the daughter of the publisher Thomas Gibson Bowles, best known as the founder of both Vanity Fair and The Lady, being Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah. They have been described as the "20th century's most fascinating sisters" and have generated their own biographical mini-industry as at least five of them succeeded in achieving at least some kind of temporary public fame and four out of the six merit entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is not bad going, especially since one of them isn't dead yet and so doesn't qualify.
The six Mitford sisters were all raised at the family home of Swinbrook in the Cotswolds, and indeed part from the eldest Nancy, who spent a few months at the Francis Holland School at the age of five, none of the Mitford sisters received any kind of formal education whatsoever, but were rather intermittently educated by a series of governesses. Neither were they generally permitted to have friends of their own age and were thus obliged to rely on themselves for entertainment and their early lives were plagued by acute adolescent boredom and dreams of escape from the family embrace. It is also worth noting that although their father was indeed a member of the British nobility, his income appears to have been insufficient to support the family in the manner to they would like to have been accustomed, partly because of the interwar agricultural depression, and partly because the Lord Redesdale was a sucker for get-rich-quick schemes, and thus their mother felt obliged to run a chicken farm, whose proceeds where devoted to her children's welfare.
The eldest of the sisters was Nancy Mitford (1904-1973) who, subsequent to being one of the Bright Young Things, wrote a series of comic novels beginning with a Highland Fling (1931) and culminating with The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949) in which she variously caricatured and ridiculed her own family, friends and acquaintances. She also achieved certain fame as a result of an article published in Encounter magazine entitled 'The English Aristocracy', which was later expanded into a whole book entitled Noblesse Oblige, and in which she expounded the notion that there was such a thing as 'U' or upper-class language and 'non-U' language. Nancy was unsuccessfully married to a Peter Rodd, but enjoyed a more successful relationship with Colonel Gaston Palewski, who was a member of De Gaulle's Free French Army, which was why she moved to France at the conclusion of the war and where she died on the 30th June 1973.
Pamela Mitford (1907-1994) was the least well known of the sisters, mainly because she was the only one that managed to avoid causing any kind of scandal. John Betjeman was briefly an admirer and wrote 'The Mitford Girls' in which he praised "Miss Pamela, most rural of them all". Indeed Pamela was the most countrified of all the sisters, and having apparently expressed the desire to be a horse in her youth, she later married an amateur jockey and scientist named Derek Ainslie Jackson in 1936. They were subsequently divorced in 1951, after which Pamela devoted the rest of her life to farming, horses, and an Italian horsewoman named Giuditta Tommasi.
Diana Mitford (1910-2003) was reputedly the prettiest of the six, which might have explained why she married Bryan Guinness, the future 2nd Baron Moyne, and heir to the Guinness brewing fortune in 1929. Three years later however she met, and became infatuated with, the politician Oswald Mosley and became a founder member of his British Union of Fascists later that year. Once she had divorced her husband, and Mosley's first wife had died, the pair were married in 1936 at a ceremony conducted at Joseph Goebbels's drawing room in Berlin. Naturally such political sympathies led to the pair being interned in 1940 under Defence Regulation 18B, and although the Mosleys were released in 1943 as a result of Oswald's ill health, they remained under house arrest for the duration.
At the conclusion of the war the Mosleys felt obliged to leave Britain, and after a brief period in Ireland, moved to France where they remained. Diana wrote an account of her life under the title A Life of Contrasts (1977) in which she remained unapologetic over her involvement with fascism and died in Paris on the 11th August 2003. She had two sons; Oswald Alexander Mosley and Max Mosley, the latter being the former president of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, who recently won an action for invasion of privacy against the News of the World after it had revealed that he had participated in a "sick Nazi orgy with hookers".
Unity Mitford (1911-1948) or Bobo, also joined the British Union of Fascists in 1933 and was an even more enthusiastic Nazi than her elder sister Diana. She went to Germany in 1934 and contrived to make the acquaintance of Adolf Hitler by means of reserving a table each night at the Osteria Bavaria restaurant where the Nazi leaders frequently dined and staring at them until they sent someone to see what the problem was. Hitler was suitably impressed and later described her as the "perfect specimen of Aryan womanhood". When war finally broke out, Unity shot herself in the head at the English Garden at Munich on the 3rd September 1939, and although she survived this suicide attempt, the bullet remained lodged in her brain, and she spent the rest of her life a semi-invalid with the mental age of a child.
She was returned to Britain via Switzerland to the care of her mother, contracted meningitis and died on the 28th May 1948. Although it has been suggested that Unity was pregnant with 'Hitler's love child' at the time of her suicide and actually gave birth on her return to the Cotswolds, there is not generally believed to be any truth behind this claim.
Jessica Mitford (1917-1996), or Decca, was as devoted to the cause of socialism as sister Unity was to that of fascism. A member of the Bermondsey Labour Party she ran away to Spain with her second cousin Esmond Romilly whom she married along the way. They both ended up in America at the outbreak of World War II, and it wasn't until the Soviet Union joined the war in 1941 that Esmond signed up for the Royal Canadian Air Force, and was shot down over Hamburg later that same year.
Jessica went to work for the Office of Price Administration where she met a lawyer named Robert Treuhaft, whom she later married in 1943. Both she and her husband were members of the American Communist Party until 1958 and active in the early Civil Rights movement, although she became better known as the Queen of the Muckrackers having written the bestselling The American Way of Death (1963) which exposed some of the more questionable practices of the US funeral industry. She was oddly enough, the only one of the six that the Lord Redesdale cut out of his will, presumably on the basis that becoming a communist was the one truly unforgiveable sin.
Deborah Mitford or Debo, born 1920 was the youngest of the six. During her youth she stated that it was her intention to marry a duke, and in 1941 she duly fulfilled her ambition when she married Andrew Cavendish, who later became the Duke of Devonshire. Deborah therefore became a respectable and respected member of the British aristocracy and remains so to this day.
- Anne de Courcy, ‘Mosley , Diana, Lady Mosley (1910–2003)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, OUP, Jan 2007; online edn, Jan 2009
- Richard Davenport-Hines, ‘Mitford, Unity Valkyrie Freeman- (1914–1948)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OUP, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2009
- Anne Chisholm, ‘Mitford, Jessica Lucy Freeman- (1917–1996)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OUP, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2007
- Selina Hastings, ‘Mitford, Nancy Freeman- (1904–1973)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OUP, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2007
- Fran Yeoman, Did Unity Mitford have Adolf Hitler’s love child?, The Times December 13, 2007
- Diane Shipley, The 20th century's most fascinating sisters, The Guardian book blog, 24 October 2007
- Helen Gent, Life Story: The Mitford Sisters, from Marie Claire Australia, April 23, 2008
- Max Mosley at the The Guardian
- The Jessica Mitford and Robert Treuhaft Memorial Site