Why do modern women love the Mitford sisters? It is a question that intrigues me; it says so many interesting, contradictory things about feminism and femaleness. The six Mitford sisters – Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, Deborah—were born into the British aristocracy between 1904 and 1920. One can recite their destinies in the manner of Henry VIII’s wives: writer, countrywoman, fascist, Nazi, communist, duchess. Not much there, one would think, to appeal to the woman of today.
Three of the girls became intensely politicized, although not in a way that would win them any feminist plaudits. Unity Mitford became a close companion of Adolf Hitler, on whom she had conceived a peculiarly perverse schoolgirl crush (“Oh the blissful Fuhrer”). When Britain declared war on Germany, she attempted suicide. She had been very much influenced by her beautiful sister Diana, who in 1932 fell madly in love with Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. Then came Jessica: in 1936 she eloped with her cousin Esmond Romilly, a hardline Communist who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. The three sisters took on the causes of these men, and espoused them loyally.
Later, when Jessica moved to the U.S., she moderated her politics and became a celebrated campaign writer and activist. She is, therefore, the Mitford most in tune with modern mores—J.K. Rowling declared herself a passionate admirer.
What is interesting, and somewhat subversive, is that it is not really Jessica who casts the most powerful spell. Ask women today which of the sisters they prefer, and they usually say Nancy or Deborah. I myself am firmly in the Nancy camp. Her sisters didn’t like her much, but that’s another story.
Nancy was a highly successful writer, a supremely elegant presence, who after the breakdown of her marriage in the late 1940s lived a covetable existence in a Paris apartment with a closet full of Dior. Her glorious novels – which, like those of Jane Austen, tend now to be read as superior literary rom-coms – remain hugely popular. Yet beneath their smiling veneer they are repositories of sometimes shocking cynicism, or perhaps realism. Infidelity is the norm in Nancy’s books, as it was in her life, and women are expected to cope with that inconvenient truth, because the solitary alternative is so much worse.
Meanwhile, like a character in one of these books, Deborah made a fairytale match and inherited the magnificent stately home of Chatsworth House, but her marriage involved a great deal of blind-eye-turning to love affairs (on both sides). As for Pamela: she married a fascist sympathizer and bred chickens. End of story.
Nancy, despite her independent and high-achieving life, always loudly proclaimed her admiration for old-fashioned femininity, and mocked the female politicians in her adopted country of France (“how can they…”). Similarly Deborah—a supremely capable worker who helped to turn Chatsworth into a hugely successful business—proudly and flatly described herself (to me) as “a total female. Proper husband, proper children, that’s what women need.”
And yet these Mitford girls, these six sisters, continue to cast their spell, begetting bedazzled blogs and even a Guide to Life (which presumably does not dwell overmuch upon Unity’s problematic activities).
So what is going on? First of all we are, I think, fascinated by the lives of pre-feminist women, who were bound by convention (Nancy’s parents refused to speak to her when she wore trousers; Diana did not walk the streets unchaperoned until she was 17), yet had certain freedoms that are pretty much lost to us. They were not constantly assailed by social media; they did not ride a ceaseless merry-go-round of lifestyle advice. They did not, in fact, require Guides to Life.
Instead, the sisters had the courage of their own choices, even when these were quite controversial. They knew the joys of rebellion, against a social system that still signified so strongly, and that they never actually deserted. If the culture did not support them, nor did it undermine them. They were not encouraged to be introspective, to waste time on regrets, to fret over things that could not be changed (aging, miscarriages, deaths, abortions—the Mitfords weathered them all).
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Above all, they were sublimely unworried by what other people thought of them. This is perhaps their most enviable characteristic, one that struck me with extraordinary force when I met Diana and Deborah. I was compelled by their casual charm, and sensed that at the root of it lay unconcern, a blithe and airy confidence that nothing could assail. Yes, they were protected by class, but that doesn’t explain everything. “There is always something to laugh at,” as Nancy put it, when she was suffering the agonies of terminal cancer—an attitude which developed during their privileged, isolated, semi-feral childhood, and permeated almost every aspect of their lives. It allowed the sisters to endure torment and tragedy with an absolute courage, and to find in almost any situation a transformative lightness. This, too, is enviable.
The Mitford girls lived their own lives: They owned their lives. Today we are exhorted to do exactly that, but those very exhortations are part of the reason why we find it so hard. The six sisters were passionate, opinionated, strong women who firmly made their own paths. Even if we cannot admire all of the choices that they made (nor endorse the reasons they made them), we can certainly admire the conviction with which they made them, during a time not known for much freedom for women. Above all else, the sisters were women who determinedly charted their own destinies.
Of course, in no small degree we are fascinated because the Mitfords are gone, because the past, as they say, is another country, and what remains is a gorgeous, six-strong image. There is far more to them, and to our relationship with them, than iconography; but the power of the image keeps us on their side.
Laura Thompson is a writer and freelance journalist. Her latest book, The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, is out now from St. Martin’s Press.