The six daughters of Lord and Lady Redesdale – Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah – were the most talked-about British family of the inter-war years.
Beautiful, aristocratic, soignee and headstrong, their lives intersected with 20th century history: Unity fell in love with Hitler, Nancy wrote wonderful novels, Diana married Oswald Mosley, Pamela broke John Betjeman’s heart, Jessica went to America and became a Communist and Deborah became chatelaine of Chatsworth. All of them behaved, singly and collectively, with studied eccentricity. A new book, The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life by Lyndsy Spence, inspects their lives to offer a valuable behavioural guide. There’s no awkward social conundrum that can’t be dealt with by asking: What would the Mitfords do?
How to keep children amused… Try jiggery-pokery. The Mitford sisters had a governess called Miss Bunting, who liked to amuse her charges by teaching them “jiggery-pokery” or shoplifting. She’d take them to the local shops, where they’d proceed to steal.
When your personal life is going wrong… Maintain a “shop front” of belligerent cheerfulness. When Nancy’s husband was dying, she invented funny stories about him; any mention of his name was accompanied by hilarity. She was staying with friends when she received news brother Tom had been killed. Rather than grieve, she put on a gown and full make-up and was determinedly “bright and amusing” all through supper.
When your husband is sent to prison… Join him. When Mosley was sent to Holloway, Diana wrote to the government asking for permission to live with him there. They said no. She wrote again and again, but was rejected. Finally the Home Office gave in. She and Mosley were allowed to reside in the Parcels Office in the prison grounds. Two convicted bigamists were allotted to them as personal servants. Diana lived mostly on port and Stilton from Harrods.
How to cut a dash on the dance floor… Make use of rodents and invertebrates. Unity was a “large and alarming debutante” who used to drape herself in costume jewellery and affect a tiara festooned with rubies. As an extra accessory, she wore her pet grass snake, Enid, coiled around her neck. And when the dance was in full swing, she liked to extract her pet rat, Ratular, from her evening bag and turn him loose…
What to discuss when meeting famous people… Eschew politics. The girls’ mother Lady Redesdale was introduced by Unity to Adolf Hitler. Deborah, the youngest sister, was also present. Employing Unity’s skill as a translator, Muv and the Fuhrer had a lively conversation about the merits of wholemeal bread. Several years later, Deborah was asked if she’d found it more interesting to meet Hitler or Elvis Presley. “Why, Elvis of course!” she said. “What an extraordinary question!”