Guest Post: The Most Exotic Mitford of them all: Algernon Bertram Mitford (1837-1916) by Robert Morton

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Bertie by Samuel Laurence, drawn in 1865, just before he went to China.

Of course, the Mitford sisters didn’t come from nowhere. Mitties know about ‘Farve’ – David, 2nd Lord Redesdale – and probably wonder how such an eccentric, but apparently untalented, man could have produced such exceptional daughters. Few, however, go one generation further back, to his remarkable father, Algernon Bertram Mitford, a man of considerable ability and personality, who played a significant role in a faraway revolution.

Bertie (being Mitfords, they pronounced it ‘Bartie’) had a difficult early life. His mother abandoned the family when he was four and he was sent away to board at Eton at the age of nine, where he struggled. He recovered, however, going on to Oxford, and then entering the most prestigious government department, the Foreign Office. As a young adult, he had everything going for him: he was tall and handsome, always immaculately dressed, with large blue eyes and an elegant pointed, slightly hooked nose, set off by a carefully-groomed moustache.

Bertie had seemed set to follow the same course as his father by taking a congenial overseas posting (in his father’s case, Florence), before settling to a calm aristocratic existence in Britain. But in 1865, Bertie did something strange. The top civil servant in the Foreign Office casually mentioned that he was having trouble finding someone for a junior attaché position in Beijing and Bertie amazed him by volunteering for it. Beijing was considered the ultimate hardship posting: remote, lonely, dangerous and uncomfortable. And the following year, Bertie went somewhere that was a lot more hazardous: Japan.

In spite of this, it was a country that suited Bertie much better than China. There, he found that his elegant manners, combined with his status as a diplomat, gave him access to the highest levels of government and society, just when they started tolerating the presence of outsiders. He met with the Emperor face-to-face when almost everybody else, including the Shogun, could only talk to him from behind a screen. He became friendly with the last Shogun and was in the first group of Westerners to witness a hara-kiri (ritual suicide). He played a part in one of the great turning points in world history: the chaotic1868 revolution that saw the demise of the 250-year feudal dynasty ruled over by the Shoguns and its replacement by a modern state.

Bertie showed remarkable courage in Japan: he almost drowned, could have burned to death or died of exposure, was shot at, and was nearly cut down by samurai swords, but he did not flinch. The country was the making of him and his classic Tales of Old Japan, which is still in print nearly 150 years after it was first published, turned him into a celebrity in Britain. This set him on a path of fame which would lead him to being made Lord Redesdale by Edward VII in 1902. This meant that on his death, David succeeded to the same title, making his daughters ‘Hons’ – the style that they used so memorably.

Bertie died in 1916 and so only knew his older grandchildren. Nevertheless, there were two things that he did towards the end of his life which had fateful consequences for them all, but especially for Unity. The first was to write a long introduction to a book by a British writer who lived in Germany, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, entitled The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. The work attracted Hitler’s attention, for obvious reasons: ‘Physically and mentally’, Chamberlain wrote, the Aryans are ‘pre-eminent among all peoples’, and ‘for that reason they are by right … the lords of the world’, while the Jews were ‘everlastingly alien’. Bertie was not anti-Semitic, but he went along with Chamberlain’s crackpot racial theories. Because of his association with the work, Hitler held Bertie in high regard, which made him look on Bertie’s descendants favourably; when he was showing Diana and Unity the grave of Wagner, Hitler told them it was an honour to be visiting it with the great Lord Redesdale’s granddaughters.

The other thing Bertie did was insist on Unity being given the middle name Valkyrie, a strange choice at any time, but especially for a baby born four days after Britain had declared war on Germany in 1914. Bertie pointed out that the Valkyrie were Scandinavian, not German, war maidens, but the choice was a reflection of his love of the operas of Richard Wagner. The name Valkyrie became important because Hitler thought that it made Unity a talisman of good fortune for him.

It is easy to see much in Bertie that carried down to the sisters: looks, aristocratic bearing, literary talent, bold imagination and an ambitious, enterprising spirit. What he did not share with them was their susceptibility to scandal. He was the son of divorced parents and knew how painful social disgrace could be, so his own family life was a model of respectability – on the outside. He appeared – and indeed was, in many ways – a devoted husband to his wife Clementine, and they had five sons and four daughters together. When Sydney first met them, she was impressed: he was ‘the best looking old man’ she had ever seen, ‘with pure white hair and glittering … blue eyes, together with a bony rather hooked nose and a good figure’. Clementine, on the other hand ‘had a fine presence and much personality. She was beautiful in her youth but … was too fat.’ She gave birth to their youngest children, twins, when Bertie was fifty-eight and she forty-one, which suggests that they kept some spark in their marriage over the years. Jonathan and Catherine Guinness (Diana’s son and granddaughter) in The House of Mitford portrayed her as a conventional woman, a ‘bit stuffy’, but fair-minded. It looks like she ruled the roost indoors, while Bertie was allowed to do what he wanted outside.

Which is certainly what he did. His most significant affair was with Blanche Hozier, the mother of Winston Churchill’s wife, another Clementine – there is a strong chance Bertie was her father (see Sonia Purnell’s post on Blanche for fuller details!). In carrying on with Blanche, he was having an affair with his wife’s sister, something which would have utterly outraged society, so Bertie was taking a big risk. However, he made sure that they were not found out.

How much easier, but how much less interesting, life would have been for his granddaughters had they been as careful as he was.

A.B. Mitford and the Birth of Japan as a Modern State: Letters Home by Robert Morton is published by Renaissance Books

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A.B. Mitford and the Birth of Japan as a Modern State: Letters Home, by Robert Morton is published by Renaissance Books

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Robert is a biographer and historian living in Japan. In the few free moments he has when he isn’t thinking about the Mitford family from far away, he is a professor at Chuo University in Tokyo.

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Patricia, Countess Mountbatten of Burma

Lord and Lady Louis Mountbatten with daughters Patricia and Pamela

The death of Patricia, Countess Mountbatten of Burma, strikes me as sad despite her great age (93). Born on Valentine’s Day 1924, into one of the great families of the twentieth-century; she was a last link to a generation that will soon be extinct, and a reminder of the lost world in which the Mitfords and their ilk lived. She was the eldest daughter of Louis ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma (born Prince Louis of Battenberg) and Edwina (nee) Ashley, an heiress to her grandfather’s fortune. The relationship between the infant Patricia and her mother was strained, and Edwina has often been accused of being neglectful  –  I have written about it in The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne. The aforementioned reference is due to the fact Edwina ‘stole’ Doris’s man and benefactor, Laddie Sanford, a millionaire polo player and man about town. But, of course, as with the Mitfords, it would be unfair to judge Patricia solely on her family.

As Countess Mountbatten’s obituary in the Telegraph states, she was a great-great granddaughter of Queen Victoria, a first cousin to the Duke of Edinburgh, and a third cousin to Queen Elizabeth II.  ‘A divine little daughter. Too thrilling,’ Edwina wrote of her daughter’s arrival. On the morning of Patricia’s birth, fifty letters arrived and flowers were delivered every fifteen minutes, and Edwina was given a bracelet, from her mother-in-law, that had once been Queen Victoria’s, and Dickie gifted her a ruby ring. Dickie himself was overseas with the Royal Navy, and upon hearing the news went ashore to Madeira to begin his long journey home. When the excitement was over, Patricia was sent to the nursery and placed in the care of Nanny Woodward, and Edwina concentrated on regaining her health and figure, and was determined to slim down for the latest Parisian fashions. The baby, however, became the centre of Dickie’s world: he photographed her, took her to see ponies, and gave her a hedgehog which he had found down the lane from their home. She was fourteen-months-old when Edwina finally referred to her as Patricia, rather than ‘the baby’, and two or three times a year (when nanny was on holiday) she lunched with her in the nursery. Edwina’s biographer, Janet Morgan, states that, while it was true Patricia lacked maternal love, she was safe in the nursery, away from kidnappers, journalists, and prying eyes. Five years later, a sister, Pamela was born.

It was a childhood of wealth and privilege, owing to her mother’s trust-fund and her father’s royal relatives. Patricia went to schools in England, Malta and New York, unusual for a girl from her background, for upper-class girls were usually taught by a governess. Perhaps Edwina enjoyed the freedom of her children being away from home. There were holidays abroad, although spent a safe distance from her mother, and always in the care of nanny. One holiday in particular was memorable, due to the frivolity of Edwina. The children and nanny went to the Hungarian mountains and, deposited in a small hotel, Edwina and her lover motored off on their own adventure. She lost the piece of paper which had the name of the hotel, and it was months before she returned for her children. Patricia was in her teens when the Second World War began, and Edwina decided Patricia and Pamela would be better off in America. Patricia and her sister were to travel as evacuees, and they would stay as the house guests of Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt III. ‘Too sad and all in tears,’ Edwina noted in her diary, after taking the children to have their hair cut and to buy winter clothes. But the tears soon turned to smiles, and Patricia had become something of a social butterfly among the gatherings at New York apartments and Gilded Age mansions in Newport. She was, after all, an English evacuee with royal connections, whose mother knew everyone on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘Nearly everyone we meet knows you,’ she wrote to Edwina. The only downside to American life was the absence of her French governess, ‘Zelle’, but she was soon shipped over and it put an end to the high life. Zelle taught the girls how to wash and mend their clothes, and they were no longer taken to luncheon parties to be gawked at by enquiring Americans with a thirst for British aristocrats. Patricia was enrolled in Miss Hewitt’s, a progressive establishment run by an Englishwoman and the former school of Margaret Whigham and Barbara Hutton. She turned eighteen while in New York, and missed out on a debutante ball like that of her English contemporaries, and she took off to Colorado by Greyhound bus to explore the country. The trip was varied; she picnicked with students from the School of Mining in Denver, and went to Washington to spend the night as the guest of President Roosevelt.

In 1942 Patricia left America and returned to England to join the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service). She served in Combined Operations in England, working in a tunnel one-hundred-feet below ground and was later commissioned as a third officer in the Supreme Allied Headquarters in South East Asia. It was during this latter post that she met her husband, John Knatchbull, who inherited the Barony of Brabourne after the death of his elder brother in 1943. They married after the war, at Romsey Abbey in 1946, and lived at Mersham, the Brabourne family seat in Kent. Despite an eccentric childhood and parents who, as they grew older, shared a partnership rather than a traditional marriage (both had lovers), Patricia was to devote her life to her family and to public service – something which her parents were also committed to. She served as Colonel-in-Chief of Princess Patricia’s (her distant cousin and namesake) Canadian Light Infantry for thirty-three years, until her retirement in 2004. ‘When I turned 80, I said for goodness sake, I can’t drive a tank any longer,’ she remarked. In 1973 she was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Kent, and she served as a magistrate, was a Dame of the Order of St John, and was patron of the Countess of Mountbatten’s Own Legion of Frontiersmen of the Commonwealth. Although her father had been appointed Viceroy of India in 1947 – he was to be the last one, with a mandate to oversee British withdrawal – Patricia had her own family to contend with. She would go on to have eight children, including a set of twins; and her husband, despite his title, juggled a successful career as a film director.

The summer of 1979 was to become a turning point for Patricia. She, along with members of her family, were on a boat which was blown up by an IRA bomb, off the shores of Sligo. It killed her 14-year-old son, Nicholas, her father, her mother-in-law, and a 15-year-old boat boy from Co. Fermanagh. Patricia, her husband and their son, Timothy (Nicholas’s twin), were injured but had survived the blast. She was pulled from the boat’s debris onto a rubber dinghy, and she remained unconscious for days; her face needed 120 stitches, and she would refer to it as ‘my IRA facelift’. Following the death of her son, she supported the Child Bereavement Charity and became patron and later president of The Compassionate Friends.

Patricia Knatchbull, the 2nd Countess Mountbatten of Burma and Lady Brabourne, died on 13 June 2017. ‘I would love to feel that when I die I shall be reunited with my husband and son. Sadly, I can’t say I do believe it. But I think it’s a lovely thought.’

The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington

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In recent years there has been a real sway towards biographies that are not ‘cradle to grave’ studies of a person’s life. Granted, a little chronology is often needed when a subject is larger than life. Joanna Moorhead’s study of British artist and writer Leonora Carrington fits into the former category and, despite the title, the narrative is formed from her experiences and  impressions of Carrington, her distant cousin known as ‘Prim’. Her famous relative’s name was often mentioned in hushed tones of disgrace while she was growing up, but Moorhead’s knowledge was scant and often wrong, thanks to family legends and second-hand tales. A chance meeting, at a party, put everything into perspective and she managed to track down an elderly Carrington, in Mexico, and what developed was an unusual friendship, sparking Moorhead’s quest to learn more about her.

This biography has the makings of everything I enjoy: an upper-crust family, a restless debutante, scandal. Leonora Carrington was never going to be conventional, despite her father’s self-made millions and a country manor – she was a freak among the girls from landed families, and always an outsider. After her deb season she ran away to Paris with an older lover, Max Ernst, and her father never spoke to her again. The lovers moved at the heart of the surrealist movement of 1930s Paris, but the Second World War divided their loyalties, and Carrington was briefly incarcerated in a Spanish asylum. Afterwards, she ran away to Lisbon and married a Mexican diplomat (to secure a Visa – some might call it self-sufficiency) and settled in Mexico, where she remained until her death.

Moorhead’s introduction to Carrington’s life has inspired me to seek out this anomaly, who threw caution to the wind to live by her own rules. This biography, although not at all in-depth in the sense that we know all of Carrington’s skeletons, keeps the reader at arm’s length, intensifying their longing to know more, but maintaining the mystery of her life.  It is how Carrington would have wanted it, I think.