Every history geek has some sort of fascination with the Mitfords. It’s like being an American politics nerd and obsessing over the Kennedys, it’s practically required. The six sisters, as wildly different as one can possibly imagine, captured the imaginations of many a historian, writer and cultural commentator over the decades thanks to their public lives and their private letter correspondences, now available in several compilations. The daughters of a privileged pairing who entered the debutante scene to much gossip and fascination have the kind of life stories that are so bizarre and varied that one would swear they were the stuff of fiction, so ranking them can prove tough (well, not so tough given that two of them were bona fide Hitler lovers, but you get the point). This list is ranked based on each sister’s life story, the quality of their writings, my personal biases and whether or not any of them were fascists. That doesn’t knacker the proceedings somewhat.
1. Jessica. Decca is my absolute favourite Mitford for a number of reasons. First of all, her memoir of her childhood, Hons and Rebels, is one of my all-time favourite books. If you haven’t read it, go out and get a copy because it’s so full of life and charm and I challenge you to finish it without completely falling in love with Decca. She’s also a fascinating woman because she’s the one Mitford sister who vehemently rejected the privilege she was born with, choosing to run off to Spain on the eve of World War 2 with Winston Churchill’s nephew before moving to America to become a Communist muckraker. On top of fighting for civil rights and refusing to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee, she wrote the defining text on the funeral industry. On top of that, she was a singer in a cowbell and kazoo orchestra. Truly, Decca is a queen to us all. If I were to ever work up the guts to get a tattoo, I’d have her quote “You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty” put on me somewhere.
2. Nancy. The best known writer of the family, Nancy’s novels are a timeless joy and source of many a laugh, partially because it’s so much fun to watch her repeatedly skewer her own family and friends, the usual inspirations for her most famous books, such as Love In a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love. In fact, one novel, Wigs on the Green, is a straight up lampooning of the absurdity of the rising fascist movement in the UK at the time. That would be brave enough on its own, given the British aristocracy’s less than comfortable embracing of the movement in the 1930s, but Nancy, one of the infamous Bright Young People, was also directly taking on her brother-in-law, the founder of the British League of Fascists. There are certainly less politically fraught things to start a family argument over. Nancy’s skills with writing also shone through in her non-fiction, where she wrote biographies of Louis XIV and Voltaire.
3. Deborah. The youngest, and only surviving, sister, Debo is in many ways the archetype for a certain kind of upper class English lady. After marrying the man who would later become the Duke of Devonshire, Debo helped to save the majestic Chatsworth (where they filmed Pride & Prejudice and The Duchess) from ruin and restore it to the stunning and highly profitable building it is today. She fortunately avoided the goose stepping politics of her elder sisters although she did have tea with Hitler during a visit to Munich in 1937 (she didn’t speak German). Debo, as a high class archduchess with a son named Peregrine, is as you would expect a proud Conservative who rallies against such silly causes as inheritance tax and the fox hunting ban. While her letter correspondence with travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor has garnered some praise, her writing just isn’t as witty or gripping as the above sisters, which made reading her long awaited autobiography quite a slog.
4. Pamela. Not much is known about the one nicknamed “the unobtrusive poultry lover”. She never wrote a memoir or a thinly veiled novel about her life, she shunned the spotlight for the biggest part of her life and seemed content to spend her days amidst the simple rural pleasures of farming and chickens. While she married scientist Derek Jackson, poet John Betjeman was known to have quite the thing for her (he called her the “rural Mitford), then spent the latter years of her life post-divorce with an Italian horsewoman known as Giuditta Tommasi for a “companion”. Yes, that probably means what you think it means, since Decca referred to her sister in a letter as being a “you-know-what-bian”. She may also have been an anti-Semite, which drags her down a spot.
5. Unity. With a name like Unity Valkyrie, it seems as if Mitford sister number 4 really only had a few career options in life, and her fascist interests seemed to manifest at an early age. Decca wrote about how, when they shared a bedroom, they divided the room into two with a line of chalk and decorated each side with their respective political leanings, creating a contrast of hammer and sickles with swastikas. After siding with Diana regarding her marriage to a fascist, she spent some time in Germany attending Nuremberg rallies and essentially stalking Hitler until he welcomed her into his inner circle. After war was declared between Germany and Britain, Unity didn’t take it very well and shot herself in the head, which she survived. She returned home to be taken care of by her family and died in 1948. Rumours even floated around that she’d given birth to Hitler’s love child, although further investigations proved this to be bollocks.
6. Diana. So why is the Mitford generally considered to be the most beautiful one ranked as the worst, even below an anti-Semite and a Hitler fangirl? Because Diana never recanted her fascism. After leaving her first husband and two kids to become the mistress of Sir Oswald Mosely, Diana became heavily involved in her husband’s work as the leader of the British League of Fascists. This wasn’t some group of pretenders: these were genuine black-shirt wearing, Hitler supporting, hanging around with Mussolini fascists, and Diana was right there enjoying it all. Hitler attended her wedding! She and Oswald were jailed for most of World War 2, and even after Nazism was thoroughly crushed, she continued to support fascism and claim “I didn’t love Hitler any more than I did Winston [Churchill]. I can’t regret it, it was so interesting.” Yeah. She also seemed unconvinced that six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazi regime, although she at least had the common sense to condemn these mass killings. Like Nancy and Decca, Diana wrote prolifically throughout her life, penning an autobiography, a memoir of the life of fellow “Hitler wasn’t all that bad” cohort Wallis Simpson, and reviewing literature for a number of publications, which caused as much controversy as you imagine it would. Her prose was pretty solid, often funny and with a keen eye for detail, but she was a screaming fascist who may or may not have owned a diamond swastika broach, so screw that.