The Mitford Sisters are six of the most colourful characters of the 20th century: beautiful, smart and more than a little eccentric, these glamorous sisters – Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah – were involved of every aspect of 20th century life. Their lives touched many of the 20th century’s biggest themes and events: fascism, communism, female independence, scientific developments, and the declining British aristocracy to name but a few.
1. Nancy Mitford
Nancy was the eldest of the Mitford sisters. Always a sharp wit, she is best known for her feats as a writer: her first book, Highland Fling, was published in 1931. A member of the Bright Young Things, Nancy had a famously difficult love life, a series of unsuitable attachments and rejections culminated in her relationship with Gaston Palewski, a French colonel and the love of her life. Their affair was short-lived but had a great impact on Nancy’s life and writing.
In December 1945, she published the semi-autobiographical novel, The Pursuit of Love, which was a hit, selling over 200,000 copies in the first year of publication. Her second novel, Love in a Cold Climate (1949), was equally as well received. In the 1950s, Nancy turned her hand to non-fiction, publishing biographies of Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire, and Louis XIV.
After a series of illnesses, and the blow that Palewski had married a rich French divorcee, Nancy died at home in Versailles in 1973.
2. Pamela Mitford
The least-known, and perhaps least remarkable of the Mitford sisters, Pamela lived a relatively quiet life. The poet John Betjeman was in love with her, proposing multiple times, but she eventually married millionaire atomic physicist Derek Jackson, living in Ireland until their divorce in 1951. Some have speculated this was a marriage of convenience: both were almost certainly bisexual.
Pamela spent the rest of her life with her long-term partner, Italian horsewoman Giuditta Tommasi in Gloucestershire, remaining firmly removed from the politics of her sisters.
3. Diana Mitford
Glamorous socialite Diana secretly became engaged to Bryan Guinness, heir to the barony of Moyne, aged 18. After convincing her parents that Guinness was a good match, the pair married in 1929. With a huge fortune and houses in London, Dublin and Wiltshire, the pair were at the heart of the fast-moving, wealthy set known as the Bright Young Things.
In 1933, Diana left Guinness for Sir Oswald Mosley, the new leader of the British Union of Fascists: her family, and several of her sisters, were deeply unhappy at her decision, believing she was ‘living in sin’.
Diana first visited Nazi Germany in 1934, and in the following years was hosted several more times by the regime. In 1936, she and Mosley finally married – in the dining room of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, with Hitler himself in attendance.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War, the Mosleys were interned and questioned in Holloway Prison as they were considered a threat to the regime. The pair were held without charge until 1943, when they were released and put under house arrest. The pair were denied passports until 1949. Supposedly, Jessica Mitford’s sister petitioned Churchill’s wife, their cousin Clementine, to have her reincarcerated as she believed she was truly dangerous.
Described as an ‘unrepentent Nazi and effortlessly charming’, Diana settled in Orly, Paris for most of the rest of her life, counting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor amongst her friends and permanently unwelcome at the British Embassy. She died in 2003, aged 93.
4. Unity Mitford
Born Unity Valkyrie Mitford, Unity is notorious for her devotion to Adolf Hitler. Accompanying Diana to Germany in 1933, Unity was a Nazi fanatic, recording with absolute precision every time she met Hitler in her diary – 140 times, to be exact. She was a guest of honour at the Nuremberg Rallies, and many speculate Hitler was somewhat enamoured with Unity in return.
Known to be something of a loose cannon, she never had any real chance at becoming part of Hitler’s inner circle. When England declared war on Germany in September 1939, Unity declared she could not live with her loyalties being so divided, and tried to commit suicide in the English Garden, Munich. The bullet lodged in her brain but did not kill her – she was brought back to England in early 1940, generating large amounts of publicity.
The bullet caused serious damage, reverting her almost to a child-like state. Despite her continued passion for Hitler and the Nazis, she was never viewed as a real threat. She eventually died from meningitis – linked to cerebral swelling around the bullet – in 1948.
5. Jessica Mitford
Nicknamed Decca for most of her life, Jessica Mitford had wildly different politics to the rest of her family. Denouncing her privileged background and turning to communism as a teenager, she eloped with Esmond Romilly, who was recuperating from dysentery caught during the Spanish Civil War, in 1937. The pair’s happiness was short-lived: they moved to New York in 1939, but Romilly was declared missing in action in November 1941 as his plane failed to return from a bombing raid over Hamburg.
Jessica formally joined the Communist Party in 1943 and became an active member: she met her second husband, civil rights lawyer Robert Truehaft through this and the pair married the same year.
Best known as a writer and investigative journalist, Jessica is most well known for her book The American Way of Death – an expose of the abuses in the funeral home industry. She also worked closely in the Civil Rights Congress. Both Mitford and Truehaft resigned from the Communist Party following Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ and the revelation of Stalin’s crimes against humanity. She died in 1996, aged 78.
6. Deborah Mitford
The youngest of the Mitford sisters, Deborah (Debo) was often belittled – her oldest sister Nancy used to cruelly nickname her ‘Nine’, saying that was her mental age. Unlike her sisters, Deborah followed the path most expected of her, marrying Andrew Cavendish, second son of the Duke of Devonshire, in 1941. Andrew’s older brother Billy was killed in action in 1944, and so in 1950, Andrew and Deborah became the new Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.
Deborah is best remembered for her efforts at Chatsworth, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire. The 10th Duke died at a time when inheritance tax was huge – 80% of the estate, which amounted to £7 million. The family were old money, asset rich but cash poor. After protracted negotiations with the government, the Duke sold vast swathes of land, gave Hardwick Hall (another family property) to the National Trust in lieu of tax, and sold various pieces of art from his family’s collection.
Deborah oversaw the modernisation and rationalisation of Chatsworth’s interior, making it manageable for the mid 20th century, helped transform the gardens, and develop various retail elements to the estate, including a Farm Shop and Chatsworth Design, which sells rights to images and designs from Chatsworth’s collections. It was not unknown to see the Duchess herself selling tickets to visitors in the ticket office.
She died in 2014, aged 94 – despite being a staunch Conservative and a fan of old-fashioned values and traditions, she had Elvis Presley played at her funeral service.