Taking advantage of the rain and an all-too-overdue need for R&R this weekend, I decided to boil up a big pot of peppermint tea, get into my hideous tracksuit bottoms and curl up with ‘The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life‘. Penned by Lyndsy Spence, founder of The Mitford Society and a Salvatore Ferragamo and coat-obsessive babe, the book is a modern day guide to living and loving dangerously.
The daughters of Lord and Lady Redesdale: Nancy, Pamela, Jessica, Unity, Diana and Deborah Mitford were household names from the 1920s onwards; famed as beguiling society beauties, political activists and writers. Even Pamela, who took to a quieter life in the country, was famed for her cornflower blue eyes and kind nature. A daring, opinionated and raucous bunch, the sisters were admired and vilified by the press in equal measure; from Nancy the celebrated novelist to Diana and Unity the Fascists and Jessica the Communist.
Drawing on a lifetime’s-worth of correspondence and personal recollections, ‘The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life’ offers advice for coping with all manner of modern trials and tribulations, through the ‘been there, done that’ formula. Need advice on how to get through jail? Send for fur, port and stilton like Diana. Struggling to decide what clothes to buy this season? Follow Deborah’s advice and opt for Marks and Spencer, the farmer’s market or the couture houses of Paris (absolutely nothing in-between).
Left to right: Unity, Diana and Nancy
Nancy, the oldest of the sisters, born in 1904, was a regular feature on the 20s London party circuit, a far cry from the family seat, Swinbrook. Gregarious and incredibly witty, but desperately unlucky in love, Nancy funded her love of Parisian couture through her writing; most famously her novels ‘The Pursuit of Love’ and ‘Love in a Cold Climate’.
Her younger sister Diana, described as ‘A beauty with a capital B’, was the quintessential ’30′s babe who, after a brief marriage to Bryan Guinness at the age of 18, married the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley. In 1940, Diana -as famous by this point for her scandalous taste in a husband as well as her beauty- was imprisoned without charge with Mosley in Holloway Prison and stayed there for three years. Her later years were spent living in Paris with her husband, far away from the furore that surrounded their infamous wartime alliances, drawing admiring glances from the Vogue girls in her 1950s ensembles from Dior and Givenchy.
Arguably, Jessica and Unity are most well-known for their political associations; Jessica, a staunch communist, plundered her ‘running away fund’ to support the Spanish civil war effort, whilst Unity, equally as passionate about Fascism, nigh-on stalked Hitler and accessorised her tweed ensembles with a swastika pin. So ardent a supporter of the Nazi cause, Unity shot herself in the head when war was declared.
In stark contrast to both, Pamela, or ‘Woman’ as she was fondly nicknamed by Nancy, removed herself almost entirely from the public gaze; choosing instead to devote her life to her love of cars, animals and country life. A good-natured and kind soul, Pamela and her husband are reported as ditching their romantic weekend plans in Paris at the very last minute when they realised that their dachshund had jumped into the backseat. All three proceeded to go to Claridges instead.
Tweed-wearing afficionado and life idol, Debo
And then, lastly but not least, Deborah. The youngest of all the sisters and now 94 years old, she is sadly the only one of the sisters still with us; living in a cottage on her Chatsworth estate in her capacity as Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. Droll, no-nonsense and incredibly business-savvy, she is heralded as both the saviour of Chatsworth estate (via The National Trust) as the most famous documenter of the six sisters’ lives through her series of books and memoirs.
Often marred as the literary equivilant of wading through treacle, biographies can be tedious, never-ending tomes, destined to remain unloved on the bookshelf. In stark contrast, TMGGTL rolls along at a rollicking pace; combining quotes with relevant snippets of biography to create a thoroughly well-rounded view of each of these fascinating women. The final result, like the girls themselves, is modern, sharp and witty; the product of being written by a true Mitford girl. Wondair.
[Images: Black Cigarette, The Spectator, The Guardian]