Is there any greater example of the Problematic Fave than the Mitford sisters? They were posh, gossipy, fabulous, stylish and politically extreme. Were a couple of them – let’s just say it – outrageously right-wing? Yes. But are we still – myself included – completely fascinated by them? Very much yes. I don’t know how I’d have got through the darkest moments of winter lockdown without devouring a doorstop 500-page biography of them.
Next week, a gorgeous-looking adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s best and most-loved novel, The Pursuit of Love, will finally air on BBC One – and it’s only bound to renew interest in the sisters. Nothing seems less important right now than the private lives of the landed gentry. And yet, to use their parlance, do admit: the allure prevails.
For those not in the know, here’s your crib sheet: there were six Mitford sisters, born between 1904 and 1920. They lived through some of the most extraordinary moments in 20th century history, they knew everyone from Hitler to JFK, and each carved out a distinct and undeniable identity. In age order, there was Nancy, famed wit and celebrated novelist; quiet, homely Pamela – who wanted to marry a horse as a child, became a poultry-rearer (close); renowned beauty and fascist Diana, who married first Bryan Guinness then Oswald Mosley and went to prison for a bit; Hitler fangirl Unity, who shot herself in the head when the Second World War started; Communist rebel Jessica, who eloped with her cousin and later became a campaigning journalist in America; and down-to-earth (relatively speaking) Deborah, who became a Duchess, hobnobbed with royals and rejuvenated Chatsworth House.
Their father was Lord Redesdale, later immortalised as mad, child-hunting Uncle Matthew in Nancy’s novels; their mother Sydney was the daughter of the founder of Vanity Fair magazine. They also had a brother, Tom, who was killed in Burma during the war. The sisters were prolific letter writers, documenting extraordinary lives tainted by tragedy with unique arch humour. Countless books have been written about them; in the Eighties, they were even the subject of a short-running musical (albeit described as ‘not an evening in the theatre to bring Kenneth Tynan springing out of retirement’).
Today, many see them – affectionately or not – as shorthand for both high camp kitsch or a bygone era of upper-class snobbery. The narrator of Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times looks at a hoity-toity acquaintance and wonders if she “was a real person or three Mitford sisters in a coat”. In Dolly Alderton’s Ghosts, the father of the main character Nina is slipping into dementia. In a cafe, he whispers, “Don’t look now, but three of the Mitford sisters have just arrived”.
But their meaning is always morphing, and also stands for something more profound. In an episode of podcast Sentimental Garbage, journalists Catherine O’Donoghue and Ella Risbridger got drunk and talked about what the sisters mean to them, and ended up in a weeping mess. “I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that’s so completely captivating except that, without sounding too pretentious, in these mad, politically insane aristocrats, there is something of what it means to be human and what it is to be alive,” sobs Risbridger.
I fell in love with them as a teenager when I found a copy of The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters (aka the bible for Mitford fangirls) in an Oxfam bookshop. This meticulously edited selection of a lifetime of their letters, spanning 800 pages, charts life, love and loss in a language that is completely idiosyncratic (seriously – the beginning of the book has a guide to the hundreds of nicknames they used for each other). Charlotte Mosley, daughter-in-law of Diana and editor of the letters, among many other Mitford publications, says the letters strike such a chord because “they’re written on the spot, as it were – they’re not writing with a view to posterity. The letters are incredibly spontaneous. And I think that’s what it brings: spontaneity, a lot of humour and jokes, and a lot of affection that comes through between the sisters.”
The letters are full of gossip and teasing, and also offer an insight into the sisters’ incredible connections. “No, I didn’t fumble with Röhm [head of the Nazi SA]... he preferred men you know,” writes Unity. “I saw your friend Bobby K [Robert Kennedy] and wife on TV. They looked as if they were chewing bits of white paper – ‘twas their teeth,” writes Nancy to Deborah. Deborah’s frequent dinner parties introduced her to Prince Charles, whom she nicknamed Friend – “I don’t know why I love him but I do” and Princess Diana – “The trouble is she’s mad”.
She describes her irritation when Margaret Thatcher failed to recognise her three times at a livestock show she was hosting, how she woke up in a cold sweat after dreaming that she’d had to go on holiday with Fergie, and how a friend had gone to Norway to avoid a visit from Princess Margaret – “he really is too old to be subjected to that.”
Diana writes of her panic at hearing Nancy has been given a CBE – ‘thinking “twas a new illness” – and her fear that the editor of this very paper had “banned her” from her role as a reviewer (it was Max Hastings, and he had). In the final letters, Diana and Deborah, by then the only sisters left, reminiscence about their childhoods. “Goodness how it all comes back,” wrote Deborah, poignantly, at the age of 79.
There are many commonly agreed factors as to why the Mitfords, despite being, in many ways, absolutely awful, remain irresistible. They had a unique tone of voice, didn’t care what anyone else thought and continue to feed our National Trust-loving nation’s appetite for upper-class nostalgia. Laura Thompson, author of Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters and the recently reissued Nancy Mitford: Life in a Cold Climate, describes them as “revolutionaries who went to the hairdressers”.
“Their lives were a succession of tragedies and bad choices, and very dubious affiliations. And yet, they come out of it smiling. There’s this resilience and confidence, and quality of enchantment about them that there probably shouldn’t be, when you think of – my god, Diana – Diana married Oswald Mosley. And yet, en masse, they continue to fascinate,” she says. And, of course, “that philosophy of Nancy’s that there’s always something to laugh at. If she was on the way to the guillotine, there’d be a joke.”
The sisters continue to have their detractors – understandably. Diana remained unrepentant about her admiration for the Führer and her fascism. But they have also become a sexist stand-in for any female siblings that people find unpalatable, from the Kardashians to the teenage Grant sisters, who are Nigel Farage fangirls from Ireland. “They’re the modern-day Mitford sisters,” people tweet with disdain, in a way that ignores how different each of the Mitfords were. And there are those who simply find their privilege amusingly absurd. One comment under a YouTube video of Deborah reads “she cant remember how many houses she inherited lol”.
Of course, the fact that they were a bit ludicrous is part of the appeal. One article called ‘How to Tell if You Are a Mitford Sister’ contains the sentence: ‘After an emergency appendectomy, you sell your sister your appendix in a bottle, for one pound. It soon smells so much that Nanny must wash it down the loo.’ Among her likes, Deborah listed Shetland ponies, ice-skating and Elvis Presley; her dislikes included the bits of paper that fall out of magazines, female weather forecasters and Tony Blair. And Nancy’s infamous 1955 essay about ‘U and non-U’ language, deeming ‘loo’ posh and ‘toilet’ plebby, sums up her tongue-in-cheek, slightly camp attitude to class politics.
But their legacy has a newer, more contemporary resonance. In our unforgiving, grudge-holding climate, they are a reminder that families fall out (even royals) and that people don’t always agree with each other, but that differences can still be put aside. Post-Brexit and post-Trump, public discourse has never felt more polarised – but for the Mitfords, the stakes were much higher. They found themselves on the opposite ends of the political spectrum during a war that claimed two of their number – Tom and Unity – and at one point Nancy even shopped Diana to the police for her fascist views. But even if they sometimes stopped being friends, they never lost their sisterly bond.
They were complex and contradictory women. As Mosley herself tells me of Diana, “What she defended is indefensible. But that didn’t stop her from being an absolutely wonderful mother-in-law: generous, hospitable, empathetic, kind-hearted. It was that paradox that was difficult – or impossible, really – to reconcile. Most of the time, we didn’t discuss politics. In fact, it was a subject that we avoided, with my husband and her and myself – because there was no way we were going to see eye to eye.” Essentially: liking someone doesn’t mean you endorse everything they say or do. But they were eyewitnesses to history, and they narrated the whole thing with charm and panache. It should go without saying that you don’t agree with all of them: not one of them was the same as the other.
There’s a long-standing idea that the Mitford sisters were all about frothy silliness, and in a lot of ways that’s why we like them. But if The Pursuit of Love, with its shockingly un-chicklit ending, reminds us of anything, it’s that these six women weathered moments of extraordinary darkness in their lives. Nancy had miscarriages, a miserable marriage and suffered a cruelly painful cancer; Jessica’s first husband was killed in the war and she lost two children; Debo lost four children shortly after giving birth to them. In a life where having each other meant so much, she also had to bear the pain of losing each of her sisters.
“Sisters are a shield against life’s cruel adversity,” Nancy said once. “Sisters ARE life’s cruel adversity,” jousted back Jessica. I wish they were still around today; I’d love to know what they’d make of Boris, Megxit and living through the pandemic (though whether they’d last five minutes on Twitter before being summarily cancelled is an interesting question). The Mitford sisters are gold and always will be – it’s madness that there’s not a Netflix series in the making about them or a big-screen movie. It would be fascinating – do admit.
The Pursuit of Love is on BBC One from May 9