Meet The Mitford Sisters

With their radical, clashing personalities, the aristocratic Mitford sisters seemed to embody the turbulent 20th Century.

Mitford

DIANA

Diana Mitford beguiled men with her charisma and ravishing looks. Novelist Evelyn Waugh said her beauty "ran through the room like a peal of bells", and it was only natural that she snagged one of the most eligible bachelors in the land: Bryan Walter Guinness, heir to the brewing fortune. But that wasn't enough for Diana. Her life changed at a garden party, when she met Sir Oswald Mosley - dashing, handsome, dominant... and a Fascist.

The two would eventually marry, and in fact tied the knot in the home of Nazi propaganda maestro Joseph Goebbels, with Adolf Hitler as guest of honour. But the outbreak of war brought their life came crashing down, when Oswald's role as leader of the British Union of Fascists meant that both he and Diana were imprisoned. Yet, despite the social disgrace that came after the fall of Nazism, Diana managed to make a career for herself as a critic and social commentator, while acknowledging her own status as "that famous awful person".

UNITY

Diana wasn't the only Fascist in the family. Her younger sister Unity Mitford was even more extreme. In fact, she seemed fated to fall under Hitler's spell, being born in a Canadian town called Swastika, and having the middle name Valkyrie. First beguiled by Oswald Mosley's British blackshirts, Unity soon sought the real thing: Adolf Hitler himself. After attending a Nazi rally, she said "the first time I saw him, I knew there was no one I would rather meet."

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Her passion was apparently reciprocated. After meeting in a German restaurant, Hitler was enchanted by the young star-struck woman, bringing her to prestigious parties and state events, and describing her as a "perfect specimen of Aryan womanhood." Unity, meanwhile, seemed determined to out-do even the most fervent Nazis, proudly proclaiming herself a "Jew hater" and allegedly having sordid parties with handsome SS officers. War ended Unity's excesses - she attempted suicide by shooting herself in the head, with the lingering health repercussions ending her life in 1948.

JESSICA

From the Fascist-fancying Diana and Unity, we come to their polar opposite sister: Jessica Mitford. She was the radical left-winger, the "red sheep" of the family, who renounced all her money and privileges to become a Communist activist. It's hard to believe she shared the same DNA as her right-wing sisters, and Jessica presumably felt the same, fleeing her family to have adventures in London, Spain and eventuallu the United States, where she carved out a crusading career as a civil rights activist.

While her sisters loved nothing more than hob-nobbing with racists and anti-Semites, Jessica worked tirelessly with her lawyer husband to further the cause of black Americans. She was also unforgiving of Diana in particular, believing she and Oswald Mosley should have been kept in prison for longer. Jessica was eventually famous for her anti-establishment journalism, but the real literary limelight was to fall on yet another sister...

NANCY

Nancy is the Mitford sister most well-known to people today. She may not have been as radical as Diana, Unity or Jessica, but her talent for the written word would assure her immortality. She had a difficult childhood - bored and restless, she expended her energy by teasing and bullying her siblings. As one relative later put it, Nancy's combative personality was "a highly-honed weapon to keep a lot of highly competitive, bright, energetic sisters in order".

Episode 3 of 'A Tale of Two Sisters' explores the lives of  Jackie Kennedy & Princess Lee Ridziwill.

Episode 3 of 'A Tale of Two Sisters' explores the lives of Jackie Kennedy & Princess Lee Ridziwill.

She channelled her acerbic charisma into her writing, publishing social satires of every aspect of society, including Oswald Mosley's blackshirts. A staunch anti-Fascist, she wrote "I would join hands with the devil himself to stop any further extension of the disease". Ultimately, away from politics and war, books like Love in a Cold Climate would seal her reputation as a first-rate author, and an "expert" on social etiquette.

DEBORAH

Deborah Mitford was rather more low key than her famous sisters. The youngest of the group, she was by all accounts a peculiar child, fond of spending hours among the chickens of the estate to mimic the expressions on the hens' faces. Later, she married the younger son of the Duke of Devonshire, expecting to lead a quiet life as a minor aristocrat. But things changed when the older brother, and heir to the dukedom, was killed in World War Two.

Thus, Deborah's husband eventually became the new Duke of Devonshire, and Deborah herself became the lady of Chatsworth House, which she played a huge role in transforming into the luxurious, picture-postcard stately home it is today. Yet she was always a woman of more modest tastes - despite being surrounded by Rembrandts and Poussins, she always said her favourite artist was Beatrix Potter.

PAMELA

Finally, there was Pamela. She is the "other" Mitford sister, the one who was conspicuous by her relative anonymity. Compared to the brazen, scandalous, and famous siblings, she has faded from history. As writer Nancy Banks-Smith puts it, "Her name has been blotted from the family bible. This is invariably the sign of a black sheep. Not, however, in Pamela's case. In a flock of black sheep, Pam was the baa lamb."

Pamela lived a quiet life in the country, spending some time as the manager of a farm, and eventually marrying an eminent academic (after also attracting the attention of future poet laureate John Betjeman). One of her passions was raising chickens - quite a contrast to the vices of some of her sisters.