If the 1930s were the Mitfords' heyday, the Noughties have been the equivalent for their devotees. Biographies, letters, anthologies: the past few years have brought masses of new material, coming to a head with last year's excellent collected letters between the six sisters. But if the war brought a decisive end to the gaiety of Nancy, Diana et al, there seems to be no end in sight to the Mitford-alia publishers can find, even if the material is beginning to run a bit thin.
This month brings two new volumes, both anthologies of articles and essays, one by Diana, the other by Deborah ("Debo") – or, in Mitford short-hand, by the Nazi and the Duchess. New is perhaps not quite the right word, as almost all of the material has been published somewhere before, in the case of The Pursuit of Laughter, only a few months ago in hardback. But the paperback is a vast improvement, thanks to the addition of two portraits, one of Lord Berners, the painter and composer, the other of Oswald Mosley (her husband); and the inclusion of a brilliant interview with Diana by Duncan Fallowell.
Fallowell visited Diana on several occasions in Paris, just before her death in 2003, and despite his being gay and her being a supporter of Hitler, the two hit it off famously. She was quite deaf by then, leading to some occasional confusion. "'Did you ever have a black shirt?', 'Did I ever have a black child?' 'Shirt!' Gales of laughter."
Actually, Diana had lots of gay friends before the war, including Lytton Strachey and Gerald Berners, about both of whom she writes in illuminating detail, but for some reason she could never equate Hitler with the concentration camps, as she reveals when probed by Fallowell: "I had a complete revulsion against the people who did it but I could never efface from my memory ' the man I had actually experienced before the war. A very complicated feeling. I can't really relate those things to each other."
In the end, her association with Hitler pretty much ruined her life, and even now the Mosleys are suffering. She spent much of the war in prison, where upper-class resolve came in useful: "[We] made a marvellous garden and grew fraises du bois which do very well in soot".
Gardening is one of Debo's themes, although, like Diana, she is best when writing about people. Even for those who don't fall for the clipped Mitford humour, nobody with an interest in the past century could fail to be interested in the gossip, which extends to just about everyone of interest. Debo even had a ringside seat at JF Kennedy's inauguration – she danced with him in London before the war when his father was US ambassador, although she'd been reluctant to go, as it meant missing the last shoot of the season. When the new president caught sight of her in the crowd he climbed over seven rows of seats to say goodbye, "to the utter astonishment of people sitting either side of us". Poignantly she would be back two years later for Kennedy's funeral, which generates one of the better anecdotes in the book. Flying back late at night with Alec Douglas-Home, the then-prime minister, their plane was diverted to Manchester, so she invited the party to stay the night at Chatsworth. "Sir Alec said if he crept into bed and lay very still we would not have to change the sheets for Princess Margaret who was coming the next day."
Debo is frequently underwhelmed by her grand acquaintances. When reminiscing about visits to Ditchley Park, a neighbouring house to her family home in Oxfordshire, she writes: "When Winston Churchill used the house for weekends away from the bombing in London, I was delighted by [the racehorse trainer] Jeremy Tree's yawns and sighs and evident longing to go to bed when the PM started – and went on – talking till the early hours. (My own children did just the same years later when Harold Macmillan came to Chatsworth and talked till the cows came home)."
For those unfamiliar with the Mitfords, neither of these books is necessarily the best place to start, but there is plenty of worthwhile material for those who already know the old jokes.