The Mitford sisters: the duchess, the novelist and the communist

This is one of two posts on the notorious Mitford sisters. I have written about the two fascists, Unity and Diana (Lady Mosley) here, and this post is about Jessica the communist, Nancy the novelist and Deborah the duchess.

Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, Deborah and their brother Tom were born between 1904 and 1920 to the politician David Freeman-Mitford, the future Lord Redesdale, and his wife Sydney Bowles. The children grew up in a cold and reserved family atmosphere. Nancy would later describe her mother as “abnormally detached”, and their father was a formidable man prone to raging at everyone. He once remarked that each child was sillier than the last, and one of his favourite pastimes was chasing his two youngest daughters with bloodhounds. Lord Redesdale was rude to all of Nancy’s friends who came to stay, and would shout “don’t these people have homes to go to?” at the dinner table.  According to Jessica, their father wouldn’t receive any “outsiders” as guests; that meant that “Huns”, “Frogs”, Americans and Asians were definitely out. Another point of contention was that whilst he sent their brother Tom to Eton and Oxford, he refused to let the girls attend school, maintaining that they would develop thick calves from playing hockey. There was also strife between the siblings. Nancy would torment Deborah; the latter mused in a recent interview, “I should think the social services would be called in now”.

The Mitford family in 1921
The Mitford family in 1921

In the politically charged inter-war years, it was political beliefs as well as scandalous affairs and elopements (see Diana Mosley) which would tear the Mitford family apart. Jessica, or Decca, was the red sheep of the family. Eschewing the fascist sympathies of most of her family, Decca was an ardent Communist even as an adolescent. When forced to share a room with Unity, Decca plastered her side of the room with pictures of Lenin and the hammer and sickle, whereas Unity proudly displayed swastikas and photographs of Hitler. Decca despised the notion of entering the marriage market as a debutante, felt alienated from her family’s upper class milieu and resented her mother for forbidding her to attend school and university.

It was in this state of mind that she met Esmond Romilly at a weekend house party when she was 19 years old. Esmond was Winston Churchill’s nephew by marriage, and despite his young age had already published several books and been to Spain where he had fought with the International Brigade against Franco. He and Decca fell in love and eloped, hoping to go to Spain to continue work against Franco’s fascist regime. Their families were deeply disapproving and begged the two to come back to England. However, Decca became pregnant, and their families were forced to allow the couple to marry in order to avoid an even greater scandal.

Decca and Esmond Romilly in 1939
Decca and Esmond Romilly in 1939

Decca and Romilly moved back to England and lived for a while in the East End, but in 1939 they both moved to America where they travelled around working odd jobs, even running a bar in Florida at one point. Romilly, who had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at the outset of World War II, went missing in action over the Atlantic on his way home from a bombing raid over Germany. Decca threw herself into war work and married Robert Treuhaft, a civil rights lawyer, in 1943. Both became active members of the Communist party and in 1953, at the height of McCarthyism and the ‘Red Scare’, they were hauled up in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, where they refused to testify about their participation in radical groups.

Decca spent the rest of her life working as an investigative journalist supporting the Civil Rights movement. She ended up quarrelling with most of her family on grounds of her elopement and opposing political views. Her father refused to see her ever again, even on his deathbed in 1958; he never got over the fact that her second husband was not only a Communist, but a Jew as well.

Several of the Mitford sisters were gifted with literary ability and were friends with authors such as Evelyn Waugh,  but it was Nancy who turned her talent for fiction into a career. The novels Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, based on her own upbringing, established her literary reputation in the late 1940s. Although Nancy enjoyed professional success, she was persistently unlucky in love. She had a long on/off engagement with the Scottish aristocrat Hamish St Clair-Erskine, a homosexual Oxford undergraduate four years her junior, which ended in 1933 when he announced his intention to marry the daughter of a London banker. Nancy was distraught, and wrote to him saying, “I thought in your soul you loved me & that in the end we should have children & look back on life together when we are old”.

Nancy in the inter-war years
Nancy in the inter-war years

Yet just a month after her final split with Erskine, Nancy went on to make a very respectable match with the Hon. Peter Rodd, the son of a diplomat. Nancy’s friend Harold Acton described Rodd as “a young man of boundless promise”, but the cracks in their marriage started to show within a short time. Biographers have since blamed the couple’s unhappiness on money worries, along with Rodd’s infidelity and fecklessness. They both joined a French relief organisation in 1939 which assisted Spanish refugees from Franco’s regime in the last years of the civil war. The experience hardened Nancy against fascism to such an extent that she wrote, “I would join hands with the Devil himself to stop any further extension of the disease”. Nancy herself adhered to a moderate socialism, but was not so dedicated that she could not laugh at herself; she observed that “left-wing people are always sad because they mind dreadfully about their causes, and the causes are always going so badly”.

Rodd joined the Welsh Guards in 1940 and departed to fight for king and country. Nancy also contributed to the war effort by helping Jewish families in the East End during the Blitz. In 1942, Nancy met Colonel Gaston Palewski, Charles de Gaulle’s Chief of Staff, and had a brief but passionate affair with him. In 1946 she moved to Paris in order to be near Palewski, and plunged into a hectic social life with other British expatriates. She told her mother how much she loved France: “I am so completely happy here…I feel a totally different person as if I had come out of a coal mine into daylight…oh my passion for the French!”

Nancy managed to get a divorce from Rodd in 1958, but never married Palewski. Although he was the love of her life, the affair was somewhat one-sided; he did not return her intense passion, and in an unfortunate repeat of the Hamish Erskine affair, left her in order to marry a wealthy divorcee. Nancy lived in Paris for the rest of her days, writing fiction and historical biographies. In 1972 the French government made her a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, and later that year she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. At the time she was suffering greatly from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, though she tried to keep her spirits up, writing “it’s very curious, dying, and would have many a drôle amusing & charming side were it not for the pain”. She died in 1973.

Nancy Mitford in 1956
Nancy Mitford in 1956

It certainly says something about this family that the second least famous daughter became the Duchess of Devonshire upon her marriage, an illustrious title dating back to the 17th century which had been held by Georgiana Cavendish, one of the celebrated personalities of the 18th century. Deborah, or ‘Debo’, ran Chatsworth House for decades, masterminding extensive restorations and developing various social and business activities based around the estate, such as the Chatsworth Farm Shop. She led an impeccably well-behaved aristocratic life and kept out of the fascist activities which made Diana and Unity so notorious. She did have tea with Hitler when visiting Munich with her mother and Unity in 1937; in an interview in 2007 she was asked who she would now like to have tea with, Elvis Presley or Hitler. Looking at the interviewer with astonishment, she answered, “Well, Elvis of course! What an extraordinary question”. Debo is the last surviving Mitford sister; aged 94, she spends her time involved in charitable endeavours and writing books on topics ranging from chickens to Chatsworth, including The Duchess of Devonshire’s Chatsworth Cookery Book which is the ultimate guide to aristocratic country house fare.

A young Debo in hunting gear
A young Debo in hunting gear
The Duchess of Devonshire in front of Chatsworth House
The Duchess of Devonshire in front of Chatsworth House

 

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