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The Mitford Sisters

Hands up if you’re intrigued by the Mitford Sisters! We posted about another set of sisters, The Miller Sisters, a few weeks ago. This set of sisters, while not royal, is more controversial and somehow more intriguing – they were amungst the original “It Girls” after all. While many of you will be familiar with the Mitfords, here’s a quick summary for those who may not be…

The Mitfords are an aristocratic English family. Lord and Lady Redesdale had six daughters (and a son) born between 1904 and 1920. The six sisters became famous and others notorious for their politics, beauty, or marriages (or all three).

The letters between the girls over decades have turned into The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters (2007). We really loved this book for its fascinating insights into the lives of aristocratic women throughout the 1900s while also showing their remarkable wit and intelligence.

Here’s a quick run down of the six Mitford Sisters, from oldest to youngest.

The Hon. Nancy Mitford (28 November 1904 – 30 June 1973)

The eldest Mitford, Nancy was known for her acid wit. She wrote a number of novels, including The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. (They both are great, fun reads.) She spent her final years living in Paris wearing Dior and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and an Officer in the French Legion of Honour for her writing accomplishments.
The Hon. Pamela Mitford (25 November 1907 – 12 April 1994)

Given the nickname ‘Woman’ by her family, Pamela was arguably the tamest of the six sisters and had the least newspaper headlines. She enjoyed domesticity and animals and married a jockey. Endearing tid bit: the Aga stove in her kitchen was a brilliant blue chosen to match her eyes.

The Hon. Diana Mitford (17 June 1910 – 11 August 2003)

Diana became one of the most notorious and controversial of the six sisters. A stunning beauty, she married Bryan Guinness of the brewing family and heir to the barony of Moyne at the age of 18. Upon her marriage she became a leader of the London social scene, and lady of homes in London and Dublin as well a country estate. However, she soon shocked London society to the core when she left Bryan to embark on an affair with Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. This was Simply Not Done. Seriously. Diana and Mosley married secretly in Germany on 6 October 1936, shockingly in the Berlin home of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, with Adolf Hitler as a guest (he gifted the couple with a framed photograph of himself). As you can imagine, the Mitfords were horrified, and understandably Diana was considered by the British government to be even more dangerous than Mosley. The pair were imprisoned for much of WWII for their views (in part due to testimony from older sister Nancy). Diana spent much of her later years living in France and live cldose to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who became close friends. Imagine being a fly on the wall at those dinner parties!
The Hon. Unity Valkyrie Mitford (8 August 1914 – 28 May 1948)

Unity, who happened to have a German middle name, became fascinated with Germany and moved there. She had an disturbing, obsessive fasciation with Hitler, and frequented the cafe that he was known to visit. After going every day for months, she was eventually invited to join him at his table and they became close enough him to play her against his girlfriend to make the girlfriend jealous. The day war was declared between her native England and Germany, Unity devastated her family and shot herself in the head. She survived, but was brain damaged and suffered poor health for the rest of her life. She passed away in 1948 in the home of her mother.

The Hon. Jessica Mitford (11 September 1917 – 22 July 1996)

Jessica (‘Jecca’ to her family), a staunch communist, ran off at age 19 with her second cousin, Esmond Romilly, to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. This was also Simply Not Done and made the cover and many newspapers at the time. They eloped, and eventually moved to the United States. Sadly, Esmond died fighting in WWII. Jessica remarried, and became an investigative journalist and writer. She wrote the book Hons and Rebels, based on her early years, and The American Way of Death, among others.

The Hon. Deborah Mitford (born 31 March 1920)

And now, onto our favourite and final Mitford, the very likable Deborah(‘Debo’). The youngest (and only surviving) sister, Deborah grew up loving animals and taking care of her chickens. She married  Lord Andrew Cavendish who became heir to the Duke of Devonshire when his elder brother was killed in WWII (he was married to Katherine, “Kick” Kennedy, JFK’s sister, but that’s a whole other story). Together, they virtually saved the family seat of Chatsworth from ruin (Chatsworth has it’s very own post in the works – stay tuned), and also maintained Lismore Castle in County Waterford,  Ireland.

Chatsworth

Lismore Castle

In her lifetime, she has held the following titles:

  • The Honourable Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford (1920 – 1941)
  • Lady Andrew Cavendish (1941 – 1944)
  • Marchioness of Hartington (1944 – 1950)
  • Her Grace The Duchess of Devonshire (1950 – 2004)
  • Her Grace The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (2004 – present)
Despite her titles, her teasing sister Nancy used to call her ‘Nine’, which she claimed was Debo’s mental age.
Luckily for us, for someone who claims she’s never read a book, The Dowager Duchess has written many, including her memoir ‘Wait for Me!’ which was published last year in honour of her 90th birthday.  We loved it – it’s funny, honest, and offers a wonderful insight into her life as the youngest of the infamous Mitfords, the ups and downs of her life, and funny anecdotes of life on the Chatsworth Estate. For example, during the years that she and her husband the Duke restored Chatsworth, they would often go for walks on the grounds. Once Chatsworth came into view should would remark, “What a lovely house! I wonder who lives here?” To which he would answer, “Oh, do shut up.”
What are you thoughts on the Mitfords?
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5 replies

  1. Fascinating group of sisters, thanks for an excellent post!

  2. I am reading WAIT FOR ME right now, and I am fascinated. What an amazing life!

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