PAMELA JACKSON was, to the world at large, the least known of the Mitford sisters. She never wrote a book, took up a cause or made headlines. Instead she lived quietly in the country, surrounded by the friends and animals she loved so much. They loved her in turn, and many people of all ages will find her calm, wise and deeply humorous presence irreplaceable in their lives.
Pamela was Lord and Lady Redesdale's second daughter. Her elder sister Nancy used to say that the first three years of her life were perfect. 'Then a terrible thing happened. My sister Pam was born.' Pam, ever tolerant and good- natured, was the butt of many of Nancy's jokes and teases. There was, for instance, the time during the General Strike when the two sisters ran a canteen for strike-breaking lorry-drivers. It was in a remote barn. Pam was alone there at five o'clock one morning when a filthy tramp came in. He lurched up, dressed in ragged clothes, thrust his scarred and grim face close to hers, and asked for a cup of tea. Then he put his arm round her waist. Pam had a fright before she realised that the tramp was Nancy in disguise. But the sisters were deeply fond of each other, and during Nancy's long and cruel illness before her death in 1973, Pam's down-to-earth kindness and common sense made her a highly valued companion.
Nancy Mitford's novels have immortalised the Redesdales' family life. While her sisters suffered agonies of adolescent boredom and doubt, Pam was content with the simple pleasures of life at Swinbrook, the Redesdales' house in Oxfordshire. Looking back in old age, she said that the picture of the sunlit stable-yard with its companionable horses and dogs remained her idea of heaven. Her sister Jessica wrote in Hons and Rebels (1960) that the child Pam actually wanted to be a horse, and grew up to marry a jockey called Derek Jackson. Her husband was indeed an expert horseman who won many steeplechases and rode in the Grand National. He was also an airman of legendary courage, pioneer of radar defence systems, a distinguished physicist and Professor of Spectroscopy at Oxford University, where I have no doubt that Pam was an excellent don's wife. But after a few years the Jacksons left academia for a life devoted to horses in Ireland. There Pam was in her element but, alas, the marriage eventually broke up. Having been an adventurous traveller before the war, she had many friends on the Continent, spoke French and German fluently, and was as much at home at Gruningen, in Switzerland, where she lived for the next decade, as she was in the Cotswolds. There was a family joke that she knew all the gnomes of Zurich.
Nicknamed 'Woman' by Nancy, and known to the next generation as 'Tante Femme', Pam was mistress of every domestic and rural skill. Her walled kitchen garden at Caudle Green, in Gloucestershire, was always a joy to the eye. She kept a famously good table and had an extraordinary memory for feasts enjoyed in the past. 'And the menu was the following . . .'; so began many a tale. She had a great way with animals and introduced the Appenzeller Spitzhauben breed of chicken to Britain from Switzerland. She knew all about the mysteries of home-made yoghurt, compost heaps, 'curing own hams', 'making soup out of one's head', and growing rare varieties of vegetables long before such things became fashionable.
John Betjeman was her devoted admirer in the days before her marriage when Pam was managing her brother-in-law Bryan Guinness's farm at Biddesden, in Hampshire, and he was a penniless young journalist. They often bicycled to church together. On one occasion he took her to a service held by a well-known evangelist minister in London. 'At the end of Matins we went into a little cubbyhole to be saved,' Pam told me. 'But I thought being saved was rather an anticlimax. In fact I can't remember much about it.' None the less she remained a regular churchgoer, completely at home with the beliefs and ceremonies of the Church of England. Betjeman's unpublished poem written at that time about the sisters - 'The Mitford Girls] The Mitford Girls]' - ends with a line about his favourite, 'Miss Pamela, most rural of them all'.
Although she led a very private life and eschewed publicity, Pam had her moment of fame. Nobody who saw Julian Jebb's 1980 film Nancy Mitford, a portrait by her sisters will ever forget her description of 'chub-fuddling' and the gales of laughter which accompanied it. She was a born television performer, natural and relaxed as always.
In old age, Tante Femme radiated serenity and goodness. Her huge blue eyes were as innocent as a child's. Indeed, innocence along with courage, honesty and cheerfulness was one of her remarkable qualities. But it was the innocence of a woman who had lived and suffered, loved and lost, and overcome adversity to enjoy an unusually contented old age.
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