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
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.