Having expressed my lack of excitement about the discovery of the Higgs Boson on Twitter on Wednesday – a semi-principled, partly caricatured indifference predicated upon my own dimwit’s grasp of physics, a year-round allergy to hype and a more specific aversion to the sneering nature of the nickname “the God Particle” – I was informed by a couple of defenders of science that if so, I was therefore unqualified to get excited about anything else that I get excited about, including films, music, TV and, specifically, the Mitford Sisters. (I was also called an “intellectual pygmy” by someone who I will never hear from again, which I’m pretty sure is sizeist.)
I was on that day particularly excited by the Mitford Sisters, the world’s most interesting aristocratic sibling sextet, as I had tickets to see two – that’s two – great lost TV documentaries about them at the BFI on London’s South Bank. As part of what looked like a generally if typically excellent season, The Aristocracy on TV, they’d forged a Mitfords double-bill out of Nancy Mitford 1904-1973: A Portrait By Her Sisters (1980) and Jessica Mitford: The Honorable Rebel (1977), both made for the BBC, the latter under the umbrella The Lively Arts.
Having been officially and continually besotted by Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Debo Mitford since 2008, when Letters Between Six Sisters came out in paperback, my thirst for new material to ingest waxes and wanes. I went on an early rampage after Letters and Martin Bright’s C4 documentary alleging that Unity had been pregnant with Hitler’s child when she shot herself in 1939, shown around the same time. And from this first flush of enthusiasm for six literate women who were not only the subject of many books, they wrote plenty too (as well as seemingly endless correspondence), I created my own small library of new and secondhand volumes. (I am particularly fond of the yellowing paperback copy of Unity Mitford: A Quest, which erroneously displays a picture of Diana on the cover.) I have added to this intermittently when new reprints come round, or when Debo, the surviving Mitford, publishes another, but by and large, it’s kind of done. Which is why I jumped at the chance of viewing these two documentaries, which are unlikely to be shown on TV now.
I was delighted that the screening sold out, early on. It was a thrill to be among fellow Mitford groupies in NFT2, with not a spare seat in the house. Mitford fans do tend to be female, and not generally young, but this is by no means a rule. After all, five out of six of the Mitfords are dead – indeed, long dead; only Diana and Debo saw the Millennium in – and as such, loving them is not about remembering them, necessarily. I wasn’t aware of them, growing up, and I’m sure I heard about Nancy, the novelist, first. I don’t yearn to live in the tumultuous and deadly 1920s and 1930s that were their heyday, although I do find that era endlessly fascinating, with the aristocracy experiencing their first taste of decline, and losing their men in both world wars. (A life lost in action is a life lost regardless of breeding or money.)
Produced by Michael Barnes in 1977, when Jessica, or Decca, was a sprightly 60, the Melvyn Bragg-narrated portrait An Honorable Rebel was a real insight into Communist Spice’s life in Oakland, California. (She eloped to fight with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War with her sweetheart Esmond Romilly – who was, sadly, killed in the Second World War, when he joined the Canadian Air Force – and ended up in the United States, where she married Civil Rights lawyer Bob Treuhaft.) By this time, she was in demand as a lecturer and speaker, and the documentary is topped and tailed by a talk given to students at a university. She had not developed an American accent, and retained the much-derided “Mitford accent”, which must have been impenetrable to outside influence. What a curiosity she must have seemed when she threw herself into protecting the rights of black people on the frontline of unrest in the 40s and 50s.
She and Bob – a lovely soul whose eyes almost disappear into slits when he smiles or laughs, which is often – are seen with compatriots from the Civil Rights years, when Decca was stamped a “subversive” by the authorities and the FBI started a long file that she reads from, having obtained it under the Freedom of Information Act. (It is, unsurprisingly, redacted; it also states that she and Bob were both earmarked for possible internment in camps that were always previously denied by the US government.) What a fiercely dedicated freedom fighter she appears. From a privileged upbringing, she confounded all by coming out and then going away, and none of it was a “gap year” pose. She and Romilly lived in an East End slum when they first returned from Spain, and the pair of them tended bar in Florida when they first arrived there. During the McCarthy years in America, she was not exactly blacklisted, but she refused to incriminate herself or fellow members of the Civil Rights Congress at the HUAC hearings – an episode she illuminates beautifully in the re-telling, with a comic twist about mishearing a question about her alleged membership of a “tenants’ association” which turned out to be a “tennis association.”
Here’s a thing: I have hardly ever seen the Mitford sisters moving about, or talking. There’s a marvellous late interview with Decca by Christopher Hitchens on iTunes, but very little footage exists of the sisters in their debutante days. Photos, yes, and portraits, and newspaper cuttings (such as when Decca eloped and her father, Lord Redesdale, sent out a search party), but moving pictures? Very scarce. Which is why both of these docs were such delights. Honorable Rebel – named after her first memoir, Hons and Rebels, one of my faves – is packed with Decca and her lovely, plummy voice, her sentences peppered with “you know”. But Nancy Mitford, made seven years after the eldest sister’s death by Julian Jebb, was arguably all the more valuable, as it featured brand new interviews with Pamela, Jessica, Debo and Diana, an icily elegant lady who was only 70 at the time, but could have been 90, with her white hair in a bun. Still beautiful, of course. Oh, and still defiantly claiming that the British Union of Fascists, led by her second hubby Oswald Mosley, were not anti-semitic. (Diana and Mosley were interned during the war, and did not live the life of luxury in there, other than being brought Stilton and Port by visitors, so it must have etched a few years into her, although she lived to the ripe old age of 93.)
There’s also some plum footage of Nancy from 1966, filmed for ABC. She is, if anything, the most Mitfordy of all the Mitfords, fluting, “I enjoyed the war very much … it was very lively in London.” Pamela, whose lack of strident political affiliations left her without a handy nickname, and who might have been a lesbian, is a smashing old stick, feeding her hens and letting her pony off for a run, cheerily reading from Nancy’s novels and chuckling away at her favourite bits, the very image of a Countryside Alliance stalwart. She is least known of the sisters, but comes alive in this film. Debo we are used to seeing in her active dotage, such a fixture has she become at Chatsworth and on the book-signing circuit, but it’s sweet to catch her, aged 60, when she was still the Duchess of Devonshire. I love the way she admits to her older siblings’ stereotype as a bit of a dunce (“I can hardly read – I hate it, books”), and it’s amazing to think that 32 years later, she’d still be going strong.
There’s a bit of Diana’s son Jonathan Guinness in the Nancy film (he co-authored 1984’s solid House Of Mitford with daughter Catherine), but it’s all about the sisters. These films have reignited my passion for them. I could literally recite their shared biography to you, with accompanying amazing facts and trivia, and part of me wishes I really had worked up a one-man show about them for Edinburgh, as I had once fantasised about doing. I’m happy enough spreading the word. Quite clearly, you don’t have to agree with hereditary peerage and the old class system like David Cameron and George Osborne do, in order to find these people fascinating. From a feminist perspective, the sisters weren’t schooled as their father feared they would develop “fat calves” from all the hockey and as such, effectively educated and motivated themselves. Only Pamela and Unity did not write books (and Unity may have, had she lived). Nancy wrote eight highly-regarded novels and, later, a clutch of tolerated historical biographies. Decca wrote a dozen books including memoirs and, more importantly, investigative journalism; she changed the way Americans saw their own funeral industry with The American Way Of Death. (She is seen testifying against the sharp practices of the funeral industry at a hearing in Honorable Rebel.) Diana wrote three memoirs and was a book reviewer for Books & Bookmen and the Standard.
That two of them turned out to be fascists, and one of them a card-carrying Communist is what makes them so unique. I love them. Anyway, my tried-and-tested guide to the best of Mitfords literature – Mit Lit – is here, although I may have to add Jessica’s memoir of her time in the Communist Party, A Fine Old Conflict, to this, having now seen An Honorable Rebel, which has re-piqued my interest.
I know it’s in London, but the BFI is such an amazing place to go to, even if it’s just for a pricey drink in the bar. Have a look what’s on there now and in the near future.
Altogether now, for Decca:
‘Tis the final conflict
Let each stand in his place
Shall be the human race