Before the Kardashians, There Were the Mitford Sisters

In the winter of 1949, Nancy Mitford wrote a letter to her friend, the novelist Evelyn Waugh, declaring: “I am having a lovely life—only sad that heavenly 1948 is over—except for Bobo’s death which I MINDED—one of the happiest years I ever had.” (Bobo was her nickname for her notorious Nazi-friendly sister Unity, who referred to Adolf Hitler as the “Blissful Fuhrer” and her SS pals as her “Darling Storms.”) Coming shortly after the end of a global cataclysm that left much of the modern world in smoldering ruins, surely this statement was in the running for the most solipsistic and morally obtuse sentences written that year, or any year. Waugh wasted no time in shooting back:

And of course I am appalled at the blasphemy of writing ‘Heavenly 1948’. I assume you wrote it with the intent to be odious. It would be more tolerable if you had always set up as a porcelain marquise advising the starving to eat more cake. But you were always lecturing us about how much you loved human kind and now with human misery & degradation everywhere at its blackest you talk like a debutante at her first party. It is not that I think your soul in danger but that I doubt you have a soul at all.

This fall, a new biography of the British-born Mitford Sisters has appeared, joining a large body of writing on the lives of these still-fascinating people, who came of age between the wars and belonged to a social set known as the “Bright Young Things.” Rich and aristocratic, they spent considerable time at champagne-soaked balls and coming-out parties. “Oh Nina, what a lot of parties,” Waugh writes in Vile Bodies, his wickedly funny novel that helped define the generation. “Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties…”

The Mitford sisters were at the heart of it. Beautiful, intelligent, and in full possession of what Waugh called the English curse—charm—they were the celebrities of the era, capturing public attention like an early twentieth century version of the Kardashians. Nancy, the eldest, was a sharp-tongued novelist, who helped create the Mitford mythos in her novels Love In A Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love. In these novels, the characters of Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie, barely concealed portraits of her parents, Baron and Baroness Redesdale—”Farve” and “Muv” in Mitford parlance—preside over a brood of beautiful, eccentric daughters in a country house idyll, part of an upper-crust England in its death throes, full of horses, pet goats, hand-me-down ball gowns, governesses, and secret languages. Diana was the great beauty of the clan, Pam a horsey country girl. Jessica, the animal-lover, ached to go to school (Farve and Muv saw no point in getting the girls formally educated) and kept a “running away account” to draw on if she decided to escape. Unity was the odd duck, with a middle-name—“Valkyrie”—that gave new meaning to the old saw about names determining destiny. The youngest sister, Deborah, would go on to become the Duchess of Devonshire; by the time of her death at ninety-four in 2014, she was firmly enshrined as an English national treasure.

Laura Thompson’s The Six offers a compelling account of the Mitfords, bringing them to life on the page—including their class jargon: “too utterly sickmaking!” “how shamemaking!” “Do Admit!”—and capturing the drama of their historical moment, their seething inter-personal rivalries, and the ugly political passions that forever tainted the family. If you think our current political divisions are extreme, these gals took partisan battles to a whole new level. Growing up, Unity—a fascist—and Jessica—an enthusiastic communist—shared a room. Unity’s side was festooned with swastikas and a portrait of her “Blissful Fuhrer;” Jessica’s side featured a red hammer-and-sickle bunting and a poster of Uncle Joe Stalin.

Beautiful Diana loved Nazis, too, becoming part of Hitler’s inner-circle, attending the Nuremberg rallies as a VIP and sitting down for tea with Muv and Hitler. She threw away a seemingly perfect marriage to the wealthy and decent Bryan Guinness and effectively abandoned her infant children to consort with, and later marry, Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British fascists. Their wedding was held in secret at the Goebbels’ residence, with Hitler in attendance. Goebbels gave the happy couple a set of the collected works of Goethe, bound in pink kid leather. Diana kept the books until the end of her life.

Diana wound up spending most of the war years in Holloway prison for her political affinities; sister Nancy, a good Churchillian patriot, was instrumental in putting her there. Unity shot herself in the head when Britain declared war with Germany, leaving herself a brain-damaged invalid. Jessica high-tailed it to America with second cousin, fellow socialist, and soon-to-be husband Esmond Romilly (in part funded by her running away money). Stateside, Jessica became a civil-rights activist, successful journalist, and eventually the wife of hard-leftist labor lawyer Robert Treuhaft. (Fun fact: a young Hillary Rodham got her start in Treuhaft’s radical Oakland law firm.)

So what should one make of these upper-class fan girls of the most extreme and virulent political movements of the twentieth century? Did they just work out their self-absorption through politics, in the same way Kim Kardashian felt compelled to display her wealth in her countless selfies—to such an extent that it nearly got her killed in a Paris robbery? How about Madonna’s heroic offer of blowjobs for Hillary Clinton votes?

However crass it might be to take obsessive look-how-rich-I-am selfies or offer sex acts for Democratic votes, it’s something else again to throw one’s wealth and support behind violent political movements dedicated to the destruction of a free society as some of the Mitford girls did. That, Evelyn Waugh would surely agree, is too, too shamemaking. Do admit.

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