Pamela Mitford: The Country Girl

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Pam and Debo, Lismore 1979. Source: Nick Harvill Libraries 

Unlike her sisters who, with the exception of Debo, left the English countryside and their ancestral home nestled among the sprawling green fields of the Cotswolds, Pamela Mitford never craved the bright lights of London, or any city for that matter. Nancy, a self-confessed, Francophile, ached for Paris and in her forties left the grey landscape of war-torn London and a failed marriage for the City of Light. Diana, too, fled Swinbrook at the age of nineteen, never to return (how could she after she disgraced her family and broke her father’s heart by shacking up with Sir Oswald Mosley?), and eventually settled in Paris and then Orsay. For Unity, the baroque grandeur of Munich caught her fancy and she only returned after a botched suicide attempt left her unable to care for herself. Decca, perhaps the most urban of them all, settled for the suburbs of Oakland, California. But Pam, she never really left the countryside.

From the practicality of her country clothes – quilted jackets, oil skins, Aran knit cardigans, tweed skirts, and woolly tights – to her knowledge of the landscape to the care of livestock, Pam was a country girl to her core. She was hardy and oblivious to the elements, preferring to add another layer rather than turn on the central heating. Diana recalled a visit with Pamela at Riverview Cottage, Swinbrook, and how she was forbidden to turn on the electric blanket while Pam was there. This idiosyncrasy for preserving energy and resources remained all her life, and she could not abide the daily worker squandering water, instead she made her use a bucket to catch the cold water as it heated up. ‘ . . . Then you can take the buckets of tepid water downstairs and out into the vegetable garden, where it is always welcome.’ She did not like throwing furniture away, and if she could not use something (a rare occurrence) she practically talked others into taking it off her hands. ‘It would be quite impossible to get such wonderful armchairs,’ Pamela told Diana, by way of forcing her into re-homing a set of tweed armchairs, which, she boasted: ‘And they’ve got flat arms to put a drink on.’ Perhaps owing to the fact she was not frivolous with her money, she expected others to appreciate the presents she bought for them, especially children: ‘I sent presents [. . .] in time for Christmas Eve, and here it is the third of January and none of those children has written.’

As with her custom of giving away what she no longer needed, Pamela liked to pass on her knowledge to those willing to learn. Of course, being practical and self-sufficient in a family filled with servants, her skills were often exploited, most especially by Nancy. When they were children, Nancy shirked her chores and gave them to Pamela, whom she promised to pay, if she rose early and opened the bedroom curtains. In true Nancy fashion it had been a tease and the payment never materialised, however their mother intervened and forced Nancy to part with her pocket money in exchange for Pamela’s services. Then, a few years later, the children had pet mice and Pamela asked the carpenter to make her a wooden palace for her mouse. Nancy was envious and asked if her mouse could move in, and Pamela suggested she share the feeding and cleaning of the mice, to which Nancy agreed. The mice went hungry and Pamela’s mouse had eaten Nancy’s. Then, as adults, Nancy found herself short of clean clothes and with no means to have them laundered (they were at Inch Kenneth, their mother’s remote Scottish island). She asked Pamela to teach her how to wash them: ‘She did the washing while I stood and looked. Now I’m going to get her to teach me to iron them,’ Nancy wrote to Decca.

Unlike her sisters she did not ride or hunt, owing to a lame leg which had been the result of childhood polio, but she stood behind the guns and prepared the game. Decca wrote in her memoirs, Hons and Rebels, that as a child Pamela had wanted to be a horse and spent hours galloping across the lawn, and when she grew up ‘she married a jockey’. This was typical Decca, for Pamela’s husband, Derek Jackson, was an amateur steeple-chaser and excellent horseman, but his main profession was that of a physicist. The solitude of a country house, its stone walls and unspoiled views, suited her character. Although good fun, a witty raconteur (not as quick as Nancy, but still funny in a gentle way), she was essentially a loner. She did not look for attention, although it often found her, and she took male admiration in her stride, never really aware of how pretty she was (golden hair, clear complexion, no need for make-up), and always downplaying her housekeeping skills. Having learned the art of running a big house from Muv, and despite being, what we would diagnose today as, dyslexic, she had a head for household accounts and was a natural cook, using her instincts and common sense when preparing and measuring ingredients. Debo gave her full credit for inspiring the kitchen garden at Chatsworth House. She could, to quote her nephew Jonathan Guinness, ‘make soup out of her head’, that is, she had a photographic memory serving as a cookbook, and she understood the compatibility of herbs and spices. Indeed, she often spoke of writing a cookbook but to our everlasting disappointment the idea was rejected by ‘Jamie’ Hamilton, the publisher Hamish Hamilton, who gave Nancy her platform. I speak for a large majority when I say Pam’s would-be cookbook is a real loss to the literary canon.

Like those who have spent their lives amongst the ebb and flow of the landscape and its seasons, Pamela understood the cycle of animals and the unsentimental purposes they served. As a young woman she managed her brother-in-law Bryan Guinness’s farm at Biddesden, and she learned about agriculture and husbandry. It was not a seamless transition from debutante to farmer, and during those novice years she accidentally won an expensive cow at auction, only to discover ‘the brute was bagless’ and therefore useless for milking. Later, during her marriage to Derek Jackson, she bred Aberdeen Angus but was forced to give them up during WWII when land was needed to grow potatoes; she especially missed her bull, a Black Hussar, who had ‘been sent to the butcher’. She could be tough, too, and was forced to make difficult decisions during the war – when Diana was imprisoned at Holloway a beloved mare was living at Pamela’s farm and was slaughtered, and she also had Diana’s dog euthanised. Although, at the time and facing an uncertain future in prison, Diana failed to understand Pamela’s decision.

When she lived in Ireland, towards the end of her marriage to Derek, Pamela was responsible for the clearing out and selling of their marital home, Tullmaine Castle, in County Tipperary. There was an estate sale of its contents, supervised by Pamela, and eggs preserved in brine exploded, prompting her to say: ‘Nothing is to leave this house until it is paid for.’ Despite the eggs exploding, Pamela was cheered when glasses from Woolworth fetched four times the amount she paid for them and were still obtainable from the shop. She remained in the house, after its sale, as a tenant and when the workmen came to rewire the house she asked the new landlord for a dairy cow, as the workmen had no milk for their tea. They used a pint a day, and so Pamela bought four piglets which she reared on the extra milk, and sold the rest to a creamery. A typical Pamela thing to do: she was frugal all her life, and not only did her pets bring her great joy, she also kept animals for commercial purposes.

An animal lover who had many dogs and ponies throughout her life, Pamela could easily abandon a trip to Paris when her pet dachshund looked at her sadly, as dachshunds are apt to do. During her middle-age she spent several years in the 1960s living in Switzerland with her companion (Decca referred to her as Pamela’s ‘German wife’), Swiss-Italian horsewoman Giuditta Tomassi. The reason for her settling in Switzerland, as she told German Elle, was because her dogs (after the article’s publication they became known as the Elles) were very old and she thought they would prefer to spend their last days on the Continent. Thoughtful to her four-legged friends and treating them with the utmost care (often she panicked when they were carsick, thinking it was rabies), she did indeed stay until her dogs died. A poultry expert (self-taught, of course), she used her time in Switzerland learning about Swiss chickens and hens, and she is credited with introducing the Appenzeller Spitzhauben breed of chicken to Britain, having smuggled its eggs through British customs inside a chocolate box. Who would dare to question a well-bred Englishwoman carrying a box of Swiss chocolates through an airport? When she returned to England during the Christmas holidays she used her car to transport cheap Swiss household goods, and begged of her sisters not to buy her a present, as she was far more preoccupied with dishwasher salt, bought in bulk, and other cleaning paraphernalia. When the inevitable happened and her dogs died, Pamela left Switzerland where, according to Diana, ‘She was Queen there for ages.’ Debo agreed: ‘In Zurich she is Empress. All her friends are multis and wherever one goes one hears the cry “Pamela! How wonderful to see you!”’

There was a practicality to Pamela, that was otherwise lacking in her sisters. Rarely was her head turned by a celebrity and she refrained from obsessive romantic crushes the other girls developed. Seated next to Lord Mountbatten at a smart function, she was far from dazzled when he referred to her nickname ‘Woman’, and said: ‘I know you are Woman.’ Yes, she responded, and demanded to know who he was. When she had a private audience with Hitler, along with her mother, she exchanged recipes for wholemeal bread with him and complimented the new potatoes served at luncheon. Food occupied much of her thoughts, and she could recall an event merely by its menu – ‘in our brief twenty-five minutes she managed to tell us every menu between Zurich and here’. During a dinner party she sat next to a Frenchman and shared with him a long menu for cooking pork, related in French (she was fluent in both French and German), and said: ‘Il faut le couper LÀ‘ and pointed to the place on her leg to demonstrate where the meat should be cut. On another occasion and in a similar setting, she told two guests to ‘smash the potatoes in the best olive oil’. Such stories were referred to by the family as ‘Woman’s Sagas’. New friendships were formed over her food, and she was renowned during her time in Tipperary for her hunting teas. There was also a period when she had blue Aga, its hue chosen to match her eyes.

Although all her life Pamela had been the victim of her sisters’ teasing, and, as Diana said, ‘Pam was often right but seldom listened to’, she was the sister they relied on most. When Diana was imprisoned, two of her four children went to live with Pamela at Rignell House, her farm in Berkshire, but Pamela did not care much for babies and although the children were well looked after, she didn’t have the maternal instinct Diana had. She boasted of making Alexander, then twenty-months, walk through a field of bristles, and she spoke of a close encounter with a fighter plane on a walk with the children. The letters sent to Diana in prison were far from comforting and she worried about Alexander’s ‘poor little legs’. Described by Decca as ‘half mad, half vague’, she wondered why Pamela never had children of her own as ‘she’d have made a super mum’ – it seemed Decca, who lacked her sister’s domesticity, thought Pamela’s chief talents of housekeeping, cooking, and driving were the makings of a good parent. She was also the sister Nancy looked to most, when she was dying of cancer, which remained undiagnosed and largely untreated. ‘The only real answer is Woman,’ Diana said. She stayed at Nancy’s Versailles house, a place she disliked as she found it claustrophobic, and gave up much of her motoring around the Continent and time with Giuditta, to be at Nancy’s disposal. A stream of sisters and relatives came to visit, and Decca flew in from California and asked what she could do to help. ‘Well, I always make my own bed on the day Mme. Guinon (Nancy’s daily help) doesn’t come,’ Pamela said. She did her duty of tending to Nancy, comforting her during painful attacks, weathering her insults, helping around the house, and weeding the garden. When it was over, and Nancy died, Pamela said to Diana: ‘Let’s face it, she’s ruined four years of our lives.’

After years of living in Switzerland with Giuditta and her dogs, Pamela returned to the English countryside. Years before, she had bought Woodfield House, in Gloucestershire, with money from Tullamaine’s estate sale. She spent a contented old age, with her black Labrador for company, and continued to breed poultry – such an expert, in 1984 she had been invited on a television show to discuss chickens (‘Woman ought to have her own chicken chat show,’ Debo said). And, until her leg afflicted by childhood polio grew weaker, she spent winters with Diana in South Africa. Largely referred to as the ‘quiet Mitford’ and the ‘forgotten sister’, Pamela’s star turn came in 1980 when she appeared on-screen in Nancy Mitford: A Portrait By Her Sisters. Filmed in her natural habitat; she sat on a tree stump on the banks of the River Windrush, let her pony off for a run, and stoked her Aga stove. Before her death in 1994, Pamela had been staying with an old friend in London, when she fell down steep stairs and broke two bones in her weak leg. She was operated on, but did not recover, and died in hospital. In true Pamela fashion, her last (known) words were, ‘What won the Grand National?’

Quotes taken from The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters and Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford

Published in The Mitford Society: Vol V 

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The Mitford Society Vol V

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The Mitford Society is pleased to present its fifth annual, with contributions from Meems Ellenberg, Kathy Hillwig, Robert Morton, Gail Louw, Chiara Martinelli, William Cross, May Tatel-Scott, Ella Kay, Terence Towles Canote, Kim Place-Gateau, Meredith Whitford, and Lyndsy Spence. It has been released early this year to mark Decca’s 100th birthday! The table of contents includes:

A Mitford Mimicry: A Mitford Tease

Six Sonnets for Six Sisters

The Most Dangerous Moment of All: Decca Mitford and the Plot to Escape

The Loves of Jessica Mitford: Chapter Two

Decca Mitford: The Entrepreneurial Communist

A Sheepish Short Story

Bertie Mitford and the Birth of Modern Japan

Almost a Bohemian: Diana Mitford and the Bloomsbury Set

The Disappearing Act of Miss Muriel Perry

The Mitford Sisters: A One Woman Play

Pamela Mitford: The Country Girl

Nancy in Venice

Love Him, Loathe Him: Tom Mitford Revisited

Revisiting Chatsworth and House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth

Debo and The Whopper: The Devonshire Diadem

A Dangerous Devotion: Venetia Montagu and Henry Asquith

A Tale of Two Susans: Nancy and Decca

What Would Decca Do: A Muckraker’s Legacy

Murder in the Hons’ Cupboard: The Original Mitford Murder, and Then Some…

Available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com