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The Mitford Sisters: Talents, snobbery and controversy

Updated Wednesday, 24th September 2014

Following the death of the last Mitford sister, Deborah Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, we look at the aristocratic family's dynasty.  

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A book showing the Mitford sisters' letters and a mug with the title of Nancy Mitford's book. Creative commons image Icon Katy Stoddard under CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license The Mitford sisters were six women, born into the English aristocracy, who seem to be symbols of something, although quite what is difficult to decide. They were the celebrities of their day, pursued by the press and regularly featured in photographs and columns of newspapers. Diana in particular, was thought of as one of the great beauties of the age. They were absurdly well-connected to the important figures of their day: cousins of Winston Churchill, one of them (Diana) had Hitler as guest of honour her wedding, and another (Deborah) was a close friend of the Kennedys. They were absurdly talented: four of them (Nancy, Diana, Jessica, and Deborah) produced wonderful books. They were also great letter writers; the correspondence between themselves, between Nancy and Evelyn Waugh, and between Deborah and Patrick Leigh Fermor, are particularly worth reading. They were at the centre of political action: Diana married Oswald Mosely, and was a pillar of British Fascism (something for which she remained unapologetic until her death in 2003). Unity – also a fervent admirer of Hitler – was in Berlin when war broke out, and shot herself on hearing the news. Jessica, by contrast, was an ardent communist who ran off to Spain during the Civil War and spent much of her life organizing labour in the USA.

The death of the last of the sisters, Deborah, provokes some reflection on the significance of this extraordinary family. Deborah herself claimed never to read books (Waugh gave her a copy of a book which had the cover of one of his novels, but in which the pages where blank), yet she produced several books including a delightful autobiography. She married the Duke of Devonshire, and turned Chatsworth House from a failing stately home into one of the most successful in England. The sisters’ talents explain some of the fascination we have with them, but is there more to the story? Is it admiration for those who were poorly educated, who nonetheless made the best of themselves? Or is it a prevailing snobbery; an interest in posh girls in tweed, riding horses between great country houses? Or is it nostalgia? If so, for what? No sensible person hankers for a return to a rigid class structure, where people have great opportunities simply because of an accident of birth. Nonetheless, even with the doubts we might have about the Mitfords’ politics, we might sneakily admire their talents, the élan with which they lived their lives, and wonder what has (perhaps necessarily) been lost.

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