Mystical Mitfords

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In 1919 Lord and Lady Redesdale and their children moved from Batsford Park to Asthall Manor, an early seventeenth-century property that was reputedly haunted by a poltergeist. As poltergeists are apt to do, it hurled cutlery around the dining room, crashed around the attic, and was said to have torn off a housemaid’s nightgown. Lord Redesdale, Pamela and Diana had witnessed the aforementioned, however the supernatural lodger did little to stir Lady Redesdale, Nancy, Unity, Decca and Debo. Perhaps Lady Redesdale merely ignored it – as a girl she had stayed at Wilbury, the home of Lord and Lady Malet, the latter a keen spiritualist who often asked spirits to guide her hand with a paintbrush and the results were two ugly paintings which she hung above the doorway of the drawing room. The family was no stranger to ‘the unseen’, as Lady Redesdale’s step-grandmother, Arethusa Gibson, dabbled in spiritualism and mesmerism, and held a séance for David Dunglas Hume, during which it was rumoured he levitated. There is a possibility that Nancy was too vindictive to acknowledge a darker presence than her own, and Decca, who was fixated with her Running Away Account, might have hinted at charging the poltergeist rent for its attic rooms. Admittedly Debo was too young to care, but she did write in her memoirs that it was ‘one of those nuisances that accompany teenage girls’. It was said that Lord Redesdale, Pamela and Diana suffered the most, its menacing reserved for when they were alone, and they each noted the sound of dripping water, footsteps on the floorboards, and an icy breeze when it was close.

Despite Lord Redesdale’s terror of the poltergeist the girls meddled with the spirit world. In 1925 Pamela wrote to Diana: ‘We want to do some table turning one night but we are so afraid that Farve might find us at it.’¹ The pastime of summoning spirits was the height of fashion, for in the years following the First World War the spiritualist movement had been revived. Society hostesses held seances and played the Ouija board, and Violet Tweedale, a popular socialite who claimed to have seen the spirit of Jack the Ripper, had in 1919 published the book, Ghosts I have Seen. The 12th Viscountess Massereene (nee Jean Barbara Ainsworth) was a self-confessed medium and expert on ghost lore, and she wrote of her spiritual encounters in a column for the Daily Express. As with any fad there were those who exploited the genre, namely individuals who claimed to be mediums and relied on showmanship to deceive their audience – Eva C, a French medium stripped naked and used props such as men dressed in costumes and paper tribal masks; Kathleen Goligher, an Irish medium, had seduced William Jackson Crawford, a psychical researcher, who validated her claims of levitation and table tapping; and there was also Helen Duncan, a Scots-born medium and nemesis of Harry Price, of the Psychical Research Society and Ghost Club, who exposed her so-called ectoplasm as muslin cloth illustrated with magazine clippings. One cannot help but wonder if Nancy parodied the aforementioned, wearing a turban and waving a creation which resembled ectoplasm, the perfect ingredient for a Mitford Tease.

In the early 1930s Pamela and Diana’s ghost sightings were to take place at Biddesden House, the Wiltshire home of Diana’s first husband, Bryan Guinness. A portrait of its original owner John Richmond Webb on his cavalry charger hangs in the hall and if removed the ghost of Webb gallops up and down the stairs. The ghost of Webb remained dormant, but Diana claimed to hear footsteps on the terrace outside her bedroom, which manifested when she was alone. Pamela, who was the farm manager at Biddesden and lived in the house whilst her cottage was being renovated was equally troubled when a ghostly presence stood over her and behind the headboard of her bed, and she often heard voices outside her bedroom door. ‘The ghost never left me,’ Pamela said. Guests had differing opinions of the ghost. John Betjeman stayed overnight at Biddesden and had a dream in which a card was shown to him, revealing the date of his death. However Lytton Strachey encouraged Diana to treat the haunting a joke and she followed his advice and soon laughed off the phantom footsteps. Perhaps she sensed she would be leaving soon, for in 1933 she divorced Bryan Guinness and bid farewell to Biddesden.

Although not all of the Mitfords were privy to the poltergeist they were superstitious and when vexed they often wrote the name of a foe and placed it in a drawer, believing the individual would be dead within a year. Whether or not this worked remains to be seen. In 1926 they left Asthall Manor, and although Lord Redesdale, Pamela and Diana were the lone recipients of paranormal activity, little else has been recorded about the poltergeist. Such supernatural encounters were to follow them, long after they were spirited away.

Notes

1. Mosley, Charlotte (ed), The Mitfords Letters Between Six Sisters (HarperCollins, London 2012) p. 13

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