The death of Deborah Vivien Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire yesterday marked the last of the Mitford sisters to pass away. While their descendants are to be found throughout the popular culture and high society landscapes, the six sisters were famous for their engagement in politics - both left and right wing - writing both as novelists and journalists and their famous and influential friends, and Deborah's death marks a sad end of an era of powerful and engaging women.
Born to a family of landed gentry in the early 20th century, their parents were Baron Redesdale, David Freeman-Mitford and Sydney Bowles, daughter of the founder of the magazines Vanity Fair and The Lady, but they knew them as "muv" and "farv". The sisters lived at Asthall Hall, Oxfordshire for the majority of their childhoods and where many of them are now buried.
The Mitfords can be found behind a great deal of literature and culture from the last century. While Nancy Mitford, author of Love In A Cold Climate and The Persuit of Love and a noted wit, may be the best-remembered today, the sisters' involvement with figures from Oscar de la Renta to Winston Churchill makes them one of the most important families of the 20th century.
The sisters also had a brother, Tom, who died during World War Two, so they are best remembered mostly as an all female unit, popping up in the history and pop culture of the last century until the present day. But who were they?
Nancy (1904 – 1973)
Nancy was the eldest of the Mitford children. She felt separated from the rest of the siblings but when she became a society debutant and made close friends with the writer Evelyn Waugh, she found a new lease of life in the London social scene and started writing society columns and novels, loosely based on her friends and family’s lives.
She married unhappily to Peter Rodd and suffered a series of miscarriages before separating. Feeling the Second World War disrupted her family, she left England and moved to Paris where she enjoyed success with her novels The Persuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate and witty journalism. She later began to write successful biographies of important French figures and remained in Paris until her death in 1973.
Pamela (1907 – 1994)
Pamela was perhaps the most private of the Mitford sisters. While she remained close to the family, she had a quiet life by their standards, marrying a jockey, Derek Jackson, after a dalliance with the poet John Betjamin. She spent most of her time managing her estate, growing and cooking her own food, leading her to be known as "the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur" in a profile of the sisters. She appeared in a TV biography of her sister Nancy Nancy Mitford: A Portrait By Her Sisters, in 1980 to great praise, and died peacefully in 1994 at the age of 87.
Diana (1910 – 2003)
Diana began the political divisions of the Mitford family. She married Bryan Walter Guinness in 1929, heir of the Guinness fortune, against her parents wishes. The two were part of the social group of Bright Young Things in the 1920s, Nancy's friend Evelyn Waugh dedicated his novel Vile Bodies to them. They had two children - Diana is the great grandmother of the model Jasmine Guinness, and the step grandmother to Bryan's granddaughter Daphne Guinness.
But in 1932 she left Bryan Guinness for then Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. This strained family relations, and Diana and Jessica, who had left-leaning politics never spoke again. Diana and Mosley married at Joseph Goebbels house with Adolf Hitler as guest of honour. During World War Two the couple were imprisoned for their fascist political beliefs. After the war, Diana fought to regain public popularity, and later became a columnist for Tatler and reviewed novels for various newspapers. She lived in Paris during the later years of her life and died there in 2003.
Jessica (1917 – 1996)
Known as the ‘red sheep of the family’, Jessica’s politics were entirely opposite to her elder sister Diana's. She denounced her family’s privileged background, and eloped to Spain with her second cousin Esmond Romilly, who just so happened to be a nephew (by marriage) of Winston Churchill, during the Spanish Civil War to fight fascism.
The couple moved to the United States, but sadly Romilly went missing in action during the Second World War, after which she married a civil rights lawyer, Robert Treuhaft and become very involved in the Civil Rights movement in America during the 1950s and later the Communist Party. She also became a successful writer, teacher and singer, forming a band called Decca and the Dectones, and opening a show for her friend Cyndi Lauper.
Unity (1914 - 1948)
Unity is perhaps best known for her close friendship with Adolf Hitler. She shared a bedroom with Jessica as a young adult, and the two divided the room down the middle with chalk, as Jessica decorated her side with hammers and sickles – the symbols of the Communist party – and Unity decorated her side with swastikas.
Influenced by her older sister Diana’s relationship with the Fascist leader Oswald Mosley, the two travelled to Germany, where Unity formed a close relationship with Hitler, who played her off against his girlfriend Eva Braun. She gave several controversial pro-Nazi speeches, and attempted suicide when World War Two began, shooting herself in the head. Although she survived, she never recovered from the trauma and died in 1948.
Deborah (1920 - 2014)
The youngest Mitford married the Lord Andrew Cavendish, a nephew by marriage to Harold Macmillan in 1941. In 1950, Cavendish’s father, the Duke of Devonshire died, giving the couple the famous Chatsworth estate to live in. Deborah famously set about restoring the house and enhancing the garden, becoming the public face of the house.
Chatsworth became a popular destination for its collections of paintings, furniture and artifacts and is often voted the UK’s favourite stately home. Deborah’s granddaughter is the model Stella Tennant and she became friends with influential fashion designers including Hubert de Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta and Valentino, hosting stylish gatherings at Chatsworth.
The Mitfords in popular culture
Many of the sisters were influential novelists and journalists - and their lives inspired a host of films and TV series
The Persuit of Love - Nancy Mitford (1945) Nancy's first big success as a novelist tells the story of an upper-class English family and their tangled affairs
Love In A Cold Climate (1949) The sequel to The Pursuit of Love is widely regarded as her most famous novel, and has been adapted for TV often, with Judi Dench and Rosamund Pike starring in versions in 1980 and 2010 respectively
Noblesse Oblige - edited by Nancy Mitford (1956) This witty compliation of essays from Nancy, Evelyn Waugh, John Betjamin and other writers from the 1950s is a lighthearted look at the breakdown of the upper classes into the middle classes
Don't Tell Alfred - Nancy Mitford (1960) Although Love In A Cold Climate is the most famous of the trilogy, it concludes with this novel, set twenty years after Love In A Cold Climate
The American Way of Death - Jessica Mitford (1963) Jessica became fascinated with funeral homes and wrote this famous expose of how funeral directors manipulate grieving families
Moseley (1997) This mini series depicts Oswald Moseley's life, featuring Diana and Unity and their falling out with the family over right-wing politics
Pride and Prejudice (2005) Chatsworth, Deborah Mitford's home, 'played' Mr Darcy's home Pemberley in this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley, and in the BBC adaptation of Death Comes To Pemberley in 2013
Decca - edited by Peter Y. Sussman (2006) A collection of Jessica's letters that works as a chronicle of her life. JK Rowling reviewed the collection favourably, saying Jessica was a huge inspiration for her
Mitfords: Letters between six sisters - Charlotte Mosley (2008) As the Mitfords resided in different countries for much of their adult lives, they mainly corresponded by letter. This compilation is a fabulous record of their conflicts and confabs as they snipe, gossip and tease one another
Ha’penny - Jo Walton (2007) This alternative history novel explores what would have happened if the UK had made peace with Adolf Hitler's fascist Germany, featuring a main character inspired by Unity Mitford
Bellamy’s People (2010) The comedy series staring Rhys Thomas and Paul Whitehouse featured an upper class family of sisters who were famous during the 1930s and '40s
Words: Victoria Gray, Images: Rex Features (first image is from 'The Mitford Girls', a musical theatre adaptation of the Mitford sisters' lives from the 1980s)