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

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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Only The Sister: Angela du Maurier

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Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. IV

When one thinks of groups of sisters throughout history, it is often their social lives that come under scrutiny, and then their literary output. It is as though they were half expected to write a novel or a volume of memoirs to compensate for their celebrity status, whether they were talented or not. Fortunately it was the former with the du Mauriers, and both Angela and Daphne (though to a larger extent) would write books. As with Nancy Mitford’s novels, predominantly The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, the du Mauriers books were largely inspired by not only their childhood and events in their lives, but of the landscape in which they lived and had visited.

Like the Mitfords, Angela (1904), Daphne (1907), and Jeanne (1911) had an unusual childhood not in the depths of the countryside but largely spent at Cannon Hall, in Hampstead, where fascinating guests filled the home, and their father Gerald dominated the girls, for better or worse. Except for a few terms at Miss Tulloch’s school, their education was confined to a governess as Gerald did not wish for his daughters to be exposed to the wicked world. The Mitfords would also be kept at home, but for different reasons: their father did not want them to develop thick calves from playing hockey. However, unlike the Mitfords, the du Maurier girls were exposed to the arts on the domestic front and there was nothing unseemly about a trip to the theatre, or harbouring an ambition to go on the stage. Whereas Farve went up to London once a year to see a play, taking his daughters with him, and often critiquing it on the journey home – ‘That foolish boy, Romeo…. and that damned nurse, bloody bitch. She was probably an RC!’ Gerald du Maurier was an actor-theatre manager, and he also had a brand of cigarettes named after himself. Their aunt Sylvia Llewelyn Davies was the mother of the five boys who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and this fed the girls’ imagination. They identified themselves as a tribe, in the vein of Barrie’s Lost Boys, and Daphne and Jeanne thought of themselves as boys, whereas Angela was happy to be a girl, even if she did think herself unattractive. And, as with the Mitfords, theirs was a feral upbringing of secret societies, schoolroom antics and silly nicknames. Angela, the eldest, was Piffy; Daphne, the middle girl, was Bing; and Jeanne, the youngest was Bird. Their mother, Muriel, was a vague presence in their lives; a former actress, she was beautiful and aloof, and did not pander to her children except when critiquing them. The same was true for the Mitfords, as their mother, as well as their beloved nanny, often told the six beauties that nobody was looking at them (especially Diana, the most beautiful). Muriel was often exasperated by her daughters’ appearance, especially Angela’s heavy build and lack of fashion sense – she was once mistaken for the nanny when she accompanied her sisters to a birthday party.

Angela’s innocence lasted all of her life, and she believed in the mythical figure of Father Christmas long into adolescence. Unlike the Mitfords who were quite cynical as children and when they were taken to see Peter Pan they would yell ‘No!’ when the cast called out, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’ Angela herself did believe in fairies and, after a well-meaning servant placed ‘fairy circles’ in the garden to enchant the children, it was her younger sister Daphne who discredited the stunt and said there was no such thing. Angela however dissolved into tears and accused her of speaking ill of the fairies. She was the only one out of her sisters who believed in the afterlife and often spoke of being reunited with spirits on a supernatural realm. Daphne, as imaginative as she was, scoffed at her ideas. Despite her inability to keep up with the quick wit of her family, her childhood home represented security and a barrier against growing up. Something the Mitfords could not relate to, for each girl, with the exception of Pamela and Debo, was aching to break free. ‘The finish of security. Doubt lies ahead. Adieu les jours heureux,’ Angela wrote in her diary. In a way, she would always retain a childlike enthusiasm, and throughout her life, as in the nursery, she was seldom without an idol to worship.

The ‘business of growing older’, as she referred to it, represented more than double figures to Angela, and she was apprehensive about swapping her childhood clothes for a grown-up trousseau; ‘one was a fish out of water, too young to listen to sophisticated conversation, at the same time not wishing to play cricket on the lawn with younger sisters and their friends’. She was sent to finishing school in Paris but she was stifled by homesickness and it was to be a miserable experience. Like Pamela Mitford, Angela was the scapegoat for her sisters teasing and the other girls’ antics, and she had no ambition to be a bright star on the horizon. Her spirits were momentarily lifted when her parents and sisters arrived to take her on holiday to the south of France and then on to Algiers. Daphne thought it a great adventure and was spellbound by the architecture, Jeanne was too young to appreciate it, and Angela, having read The Garden of Allah, was determined to fall in love. The object of her affection was Roland Pertwee, a married man whose wife had left him, and he took up with Angela and Daphne, acting as a tour guide and chaperone. But Angela’s idea of a chaste romance fizzled out when Pertwee decided she was an unsophisticated schoolgirl and, after accompanying her to Paris, he dropped her at her finishing school and vanished.

When Angela returned home she became interested in politics, having met Peter Macdonald, an MP for the Isle of Wight, and she became a Young Conservative. Throwing herself into the political campaign, she travelled to darkest Southwark but was appalled at the poverty she was subjected to, and she began to question her Tory ideals. Many doors were slammed in her face. A man shouted that he ‘voted for Labour and always would’, Angela’s only response was to sigh and say, ‘Yes, so should I.’ Thereupon, she became a converted socialist and argued with Macdonald, with whom she thought she was in love despite the fact he was married. She proposed a deal to him: if the Tories won all would be well with them, and if Labour won they would go their separate ways. This was reminiscent of Unity and Decca Mitford, albeit through a sisterly bond, they agreed to disagree when it came to politics, but each one agreed to shoot the other if they had to for the sake of their ideological cause. To Angela’s dismay Labour won the 1929 General Election and Macdonald was no longer the focus of her thoughts, but it marked a watershed in her romantic life. Around this period she began to branch out from her family, as painful as it was, and to visit friends at their country houses. On such a visit to Lady Cynthia Asquith’s home, where a group of young people were staying, Angela, who was aged nineteen, was kissed by Lord Dunglass. It had taken place in her bedroom, and she was convinced she would become pregnant. Harbouring this secret, she wrote to her aunt who reassured her that she could not.

Although she held a romantic ideal of love and dreamt of having children, she was appalled by sex – this was prompted by an acquaintance telling her about reproduction and she felt sickened by the biological facts at play. ‘My father would never do such a thing,’ she said. Then, when she absorbed the information told to her, she felt ‘betrayed’ by her parents ‘because the truth was so HORRIBLE that they couldn’t bear to tell it to me’. When her mother found out she ‘harangued’ her for having learned the truth and said she could never trust her daughter again. Adding to this wretchedness, when she was twelve-years-old and walking in the woods, a German soldier whom she saw was wounded and went to help him had exposed himself to her. After this, she felt confused and distressed, and ashamed of what had happened but she knew she must keep it a secret. By her own admission it had stunted her social development.

Furthermore, Gerald had always confided his infidelities to Angela and Daphne, telling them of the young actresses whom he was stringing along, and he invited them to mock the women’s naivety, thus dividing their loyalties to their mother who knew nothing of these chats. This added to Angela’s mistrust of men, and the view that all men, once they had caught a young woman, would move on to someone else. Yet, despite their talk of his affairs, and the girls’ referring to the young women as ‘the stable’ (as in fillies vying to win a race), Gerald was pathologically jealous of his daughters’ coming into contact with young men, especially Angela who was not as loyal to him as Daphne. She recalled him watching from an upstairs window as she returned from a party, and cross examining her whenever she walked through the door. He wanted to know if anyone had kissed her, or had made a pass, or indeed if she found a young man attractive. And he warned that she would ‘lose her bloom’ if she had done so, for a man’s attention would somehow tarnish her looks and everyone would know she had been corrupted. Soon after her coming out in society, he began to call her a whore, and when she complained of pains in her stomach he accused her of being pregnant – it turned out to be appendicitis. The Mitfords father, too, could be frightening when his daughters sought love matches with men he disapproved of, and during their youth he was forever calling their male friends ‘sewers’ and threatening to horsewhip them but he did not cross the threshold of causing psychological harm.

As a debutante she attended dances in London and found a friend in a young Cecil Beaton who, despite his waspish nature, was charmed by her wholesomeness. It was the Jazz Age, and the young ladies of her generation were dressed in the height of 1920s fashion, but Angela was to suffer in the stays from her childhood corsets and flouncy dresses. She failed to become engaged, or to even find a suitor, but she developed a crush on Gwen Farrar, an actress on the West End stage who was notorious for her lesbian pursuits. Her parents, regardless of their theatrical backgrounds, did not approve of the friendship with Gwen, and they put a stop to it. Angela was heartbroken, and in many ways she shared a childish vision of romance with Nancy Mitford, her contemporary. Nancy herself pined for an unsuitable man who was not only gay but treated her badly, and yet she loved him and thought they would marry. This innocence has been attributed to the sheltered upbringing of girls of their generation. Daphne, although younger, believed life as well as love was ‘no fun unless there’s a spark of danger in it’. I think Diana and Decca Mitford certainly agreed with her sentiment.

In an attempt to distract Angela from the business of politics and her ‘unsuitable’ friendship with Gwen Farrar, Gerald suggested she play Wendy Darling in the annual Christmas and New Year performance of Peter Pan at the Adelphi theatre. Nancy would also experience a helping hand on the career ladder when she was given a job at her grandfather’s magazine, The Lady. Angela was undaunted by the task ahead, and although she was an untrained actress the play was so familiar to her that she was word perfect. Gladys Cooper was cast as Peter, and the social world of the theatre appeared to be the tonic she needed. There were rehearsals every day, and parties every night, and Angela was once again in love, this time with Ian Hunter who had been cast as Mr Darling. But the director’s vision of the play did not match Angela’s childhood memories of the story and she clashed with him. After weeks of preparation, she felt nervous and uncertain of herself in the part, and her lisp was intensified and she spoke quickly and forgot her lines. The nepotism on Gerald’s behalf in casting his daughter ahead of classical actresses proved disastrous when, on opening night, she struggled with her wire and flew into the orchestra pit. She was battered and bruised, and embarrassed by the spectacle but, regardless of her personal feelings, she carried on with the show. Although she would never make it as an actress, Angela had somewhat fallen prey to theatrical types and she was conned by a photographer in to posing nude. She was ashamed and upset by the results of her modelling.

As was her wont, Angela retreated back to the family home and into her childhood world. At the age of almost thirty she appeared content to stay at home and write in her diary, and she lived off her yearly allowance of £150. It was the era of the celebrity debutante and her fellow debs, who were now young wives and prominent London hostesses, were serving as muses for painters and photographers alike. Nancy Mitford, too, had succumbed to the alter and married an entirely unsuitable man, but at least she had finally married. Angela had no such luck, or interest. But she played the part of a jolly upper-class girl and Cecil Beaton asked Angela and Daphne to sit for him, and he photographed their blonde heads peering out from behind wineglasses. The surreal composition, though artificial to the untrained and perhaps modern eye, was thought of by Angela as the most flattering portrait ever taken of her.

It would be wrong to portray Angela as a loner, for she had a collection of close female friends whose company she sought. There was a ‘romantic adventure’ with her best friend, Angela Shaw, and her Pekinese, Wendy. They motored in Angela’s MG Midget on their way to the west coast of Scotland and the Isles of Mull and Skye, but this was cut short by a collision in Yorkshire. The car, hurled into a ditch, was so badly damaged it was possible the women and dog survived because of its open top and they were thrown clear. Angela suffered a head injury and was badly concussed, and the rescuers at first thought she was dead. Her first words, when she came to, was to ask about Wendy. Shaw, though conscious, and in agony from a smashed collarbone, resented Angela’s concern for the dog. They were taken to Ripon Cottage Hospital, where they convalesced in a children’s ward, and Wendy was placed in a cot by Angela’s bed. Shaw, high on morphine, cried out that she was at the ‘end of her tether’.

Perhaps a bitter blow to Angela’s confidence was the progression of Daphne. Like Nancy Mitford, her younger sister Diana had triumphed in many areas where she herself had not. Angela was not a natural writer, but she showed a creative flare, and she wrote her first novel A Little Less, which was rejected by publishers. Around this time, Daphne’s debut novel, The Loving Spirit, was published and her great literary career began. With the publication of Daphne’s fourth novel, Jamaica Inn, Angela’s second attempt at fiction, The Perplexed Heart, was accepted by publishers hoping to cash in on the du Maurier name. Eventually her first attempt was published a decade after it was written and it provoked parental outrage when they discovered its theme of a young woman’s love for another. How could sheltered Angela have known of such things? her parents wondered. The publishers’ rejection letters matched the sentiments of the du Mauriers: the lesbian theme was ‘too unpleasant’. And on the romance front Daphne had excelled where Angela did not. She married Sir Frederick Arthur Montague Browning, known as Tommy, and would have three children. Likewise Jeanne became a talented painter, and as with Angela, she did not marry but lived for the rest of her life with a woman. Pamela Mitford would do the same, leading to speculation as to the nature of the relationship with such companions. As with Pamela and her volatile marriage to Derek Jackson, an alpha male, Angela and Jeanne’s difficult dynamic with their father had disillusioned them towards the male sex. Angela’s case was far more complex, she was neither of her parents’ favourite – Daphne was her father’s golden child, and Jeanne, the easy-going baby of the family, was her mother’s pet – and so she was constantly searching for affection and a place to belong.

As she grew older, Angela’s debilitating homesickness left her and she travelled around continental Europe, staying in luxurious hotels. It has also been said that Gerald’s death in 1934, although a great loss for Daphne, had liberated Angela from his put-downs and teasing. She would live with her mother until Muriel’s death in 1957, and be a constant presence in Daphne’s life. The sisters, including Jeanne, might not have been as candid with one another, as say the Mitfords, but they were prolific letter writers. In her later years her common sense and strength of character made Angela the sister they could all rely on. She would outlive both Daphne and Jeanne, dying at the age of ninety-eight in 2002. The landscape of the places she visited, most especially western Ireland, had become embedded in her imagination and in her work. She continued to write, whether her novels were well received or not, and in her lifetime she published eleven works of fiction and two autobiographies. Friends warned her to censor her life, thinking she was (surprisingly) too advanced for the modern reader. She heeded their warning, and censor it she did though it was far from dull. Having plucked up the courage to live the life she dreamed of in the nursery, Angela would never entirely shed the insecurities of her youth, but she bravely took the reigns of her destiny. Her best-known book, an autobiography, was inspired by those who diminished her work in favour of Daphne’s. Its title, Only the Sister, verifies just that. But she was so much more…

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The Mitford Society: Vol IV

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Hello Mitties! It’s that time of year again, the launch of a new Mitford annual. As always, it features the infamous Mitford Tease (Friends and Frenemies) as well as a host of features on the Mitfords and their set. I have included the table of contents below. Next year I will be making a start on Vol. V a lot sooner as it will be a celebration to mark Decca’s 100th birthday! So, there is no time like the present. If you would like to be included in Vol. 5, or have an idea, please don’t hesitate to get in touch! You can purchase the annual on both Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Table of Contents

 Friends and Frenemies: A Mitford Tease

The Muse: Diana Mitford and Helleu

A Very Mitford Reading

Lucia Joyce: The Pioneering Modern Dancer That Almost Was

Pam and Betje: An Enduring Friendship

Beaten by Beaton: Doris Delevingne and her Love Affair with Cecil Beaton

The Company She Kept: Unity Mitford and her Friends

Too Naked for the Nazis: How Betty Knox Went From Chorus Line to Front Line

Lady Bridget Parsons: The Pursuit of Love by

Literary Ladies: The Fictional Worlds of Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Lucia Berlin

The Big Tease: How Olivia de Havilland Fell for Nancy Mitford

In The Footsteps of the Mitfords

Debo and Cake:  A Royal Friendship

Lady Irene Curzon: A Dim View of Diana

Private Enemy Number One

Camelot in the Derbyshire Dales

The President and The Duchess

Only the Sister: Angela du Maurier

Nancy Mitford and Harold Acton: A Life-long Friendship

Out of Bounds: The Education of Giles Romilly and Esmond Romilly

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Much has been written about Esmond Romilly, husband of Decca Mitford, in books about the Mitford girls. A lot of it is hearsay, or formed from the unfavourable opinions of his sisters-in-law, and disapproving parents-in-law (Farve referred to him as ‘the BOY Romilly’). So, it is a treat that, for the first time in decades since it was released in 1934 and subsequently went out of print, Esmond’s voice can be heard. Co-authored with his older, equally brilliant, brother, Giles Romilly, the book was written following Esmond’s spell in a remand home. Rebellious and opinionated, the left-wing brothers shocked their Tory family (they were nephews-by-marriage of Winston Churchill) with their Communist views. Published when Esmond was sixteen and Giles eighteen, it is a memoir of their education, peppered with anecdotes about their eccentric home-life. Although it is a quick read, it is fascinating insight to young aristocrats who kicked against the establishment. This re-issued version of Out of Bounds by Umbria Press includes an introduction by Giles’s son, Edmund Romilly.

For more information on Esmond Romilly visit Meredith Whitford’s guest blog by clicking here.

Nancy Mitford – Hijacked By Familial Notoriety: Guest Blog by Helen Halton

Times journalist Ben MacIntyre once described the Mitford sisters as “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover, Nancy the Novelist, Deborah the Duchess, and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry-connoisseur” [1]. Of these, Unity “the Hitler-lover”, Jessica “the Communist”, and Diana “the Fascist” have garnered most of the world’s attention (Pamela, the “unobtrusive poultry-connoisseur” lived a calm, serene, and happy rural life – so ordinary in comparison to the lives of her sisters that her obituary writer struggled to find much to say about her – even noting at the start that she was “the least known of the Mitford sisters” [2]). Nancy “the Novelist” has been primarily of interest for what her works have revealed about the lives of her politically split sisters. However, Nancy is well worth some study in her own right.

Bright Young Person

Nancy, in her day, was a Bright Young Thing. These were a group of aristocratic socialites and intellectuals which tore a swathe through 1920s London. The Wall Street Journal has described them as “The British milieu of society scions flinging themselves into the nonstop pursuit of fun”. They did so in a flamboyantly bohemian fashion – so much so that their influence lives on today. Not only did they inspire aspect of bohemian, ‘hipster’, and ‘glitterati’ culture, they were also arguably the first to glamorize the use of illegal drugs. Addiction to opiates in particular only began to be considered a serious problem in the medical community in the 1920s, and tenuous efforts to control them more tightly only really began to be effective in the thirties. This newly illicit status of drugs once considered the preserve of those ill, weak of character, or ‘delicate’ rendered opiates and other drugs highly appealing to the Bright Young People, who had a distinct rebellious streak. It is arguably their prolific and much-flaunted use of drugs which rendered such substances popular amongst those who wanted to seem ‘cool’ (for, although the term did not exist at the time, the Bright Young People were undoubtedly as ‘cool’ as they came). Not knowing what they did, the Bright Young People helped to turn drugs into the appealingly rebellious and ‘cool’ choice which they are today – for which many people working in drug rehabilitation centres would undoubtedly curse Nancy and her compatriots almost as heartily as many curse Unity for her adoration of Hitler.

[NB: The Mitford Society would like to stress that Nancy Mitford did not take drugs. The above statement is the opinion of Helen Halton.]

Unlucky In Love

Nancy, however, knew none of this. While her sisters flung themselves into politics and poultry, she flung herself into partying. According to the biographer of her contemporary, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy declared that during those years “we hardly saw the light of day, except at dawn”. Her father aggressively disapproved of her male friends – largely, it seems, because they tended towards the aesthetic type, whom her father viewed as effeminate. In a move which seemed almost calculated to enrage her father, Nancy fell in love with the most outrageously effeminate member of the group – Hamish St Clair Erskine. Described as “a bright apparition who once upon a time swept past them like a kingfisher”, Hamish was undoubtedly tremendously charismatic, but there was not a great deal more to him than that – “his only enduring gift was his charm” [3] Unfortunately for Nancy, he was also homosexual. They enjoyed a scandalous affair but, given that it was felt 100% more on her part than on his, it was sporadic, and ended badly. Nancy’s love life would, sadly for her, follow a similar pattern throughout her life. To the horror of her friends, she ultimately married Peter Rodd – a somewhat irresponsible and amoral man whom Evelyn Waugh would later satirize as the unscrupulous bore Basil Seal in Black Mischief. The marriage was appalling. When pregnant with her one and only child, she prayed for a girl, for she could not bear to bring another Peter Rodd into the world. She miscarried the child, and the marriage failed utterly.

A Mixed Legacy

Nancy is best known today as a writer, and as an exemplar of manners and etiquette. The latter she came upon quite by accident, after making a chance remark about the ease with which one can distinguish the upper classes from all others by minor vocal tics. As for the former – while her novels acquired moderate success, they never quite achieved the popularity which they may well deserve. Nancy was undoubtedly a very clever woman, a formidable force, and a good writer on her own account, but her status as a Mitford sister both enhanced and hijacked her literary career. While people eagerly bought her anti-fascist offerings, they did so largely in order to lap up salacious details about the fictionalized lives of Unity and Diana, meaning that Nancy’s novels never got the critical reading they deserved. Perhaps, now that the Mitford notoriety is dying down a little, it is time to take Nancy’s books down from the shelves and cast a critical eye over them once more…

[1] Lydia Smith, “Deborah Mitford Dies: How Hitler and Stalin Tore England’s Grandest Family Apart”, International Business Times, September 2014

[2] Emma Tennant, “Obituary: Pamela Jackson”, The Independent, April 1994

[3] Hugo Vickers, “The fine art of doing nothing”, The Independent, March 1994

The Asthall Poltergeist & High Society’s Fascination With The Unseen

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Happy Halloween from The Mitford Society…

An Extract from The Mitford Society Vol. II

The supernatural was a fashionable topic of conversation in postwar society, with sophisticated hostesses sampling tarot cards, Ouija boards and table-tipping to provide an unforgettable party-trick. But, among those who dabbled in the unseen for paltry motives, there were serious followers of the occult. Violet Tweedale, the upper-class author, poet and spiritualist, chronicled her psychic experiences in her memoir Ghosts I Have Seen. She also belonged to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organisation devoted to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics and paranormal activities during the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Violet Tweedale

Violet Tweedale

One of the most enthusiastic followers of Tweedale’s work was Jean Skeffington (née Ainsworth), the 12th Viscountess Massereene. Residing in her husband’s family seat, Antrim Castle in Northern Ireland, Lady Massereene thrived on the castle’s ghostly reputation and reported sightings of a servant girl – known by locals as “The White Lady” – and a phantom carriage which was said to recreate its calamitous drive down the estate’s lime tree avenue where it met a watery fate at the bottom of a long canal. A harmless fascination, but in the god-fearing market town of Antrim, her Ladyship’s interests were brushed off as eccentric. However, it was in London that Lady Massereene fully embraced her belief in the supernatural, prompting gossip columnists to refer to her as “one of Mayfair’s most renowned ghost experts”. Statements such as “This summer I vow to go to forty seances” were viewed as beyond the pale to those in possession of a level head. Her husband, the Viscount Massereene, expressed little tolerance to his wife’s eccentricities, and she challenged his patience – not to mention her reputation – when she summoned the police to Antrim Castle to report a missing tiara. The tiara in question, she told them, was lying on the bed of the Six Mile river. How did she know, her husband and the police, questioned. The response was a simple one: she had dreamt it.

Viscountess Massereene

Viscountess Massereene

As much as Violet Tweedale and Lady Massereene spoke of their beliefs in the supernatural with genuine sincerity, there were false mediums springing up all over London as a response to the bereft individuals grieving their loved-ones lost to WWI. They say there is a market for everything, and this certainly rings true in the form of the medium William Hope and his invention of spirit photography. Taking a photograph of a client, he used glass plates and double exposure to make it look as though their dead loved-one was watching over them. Clever for its day, spirit photography serves as an example of the mass commercialism – or accessible commodity – that spiritualism had become.

Spiritual photography: a ghostly apparition appears in a photograph of Rev. Charles and Mrs. Tweedale

Spiritual photography: a ghostly apparition appears in a photograph of Rev. Charles and Mrs. Tweedale

Away from London, in the sleepy Cotswolds village of Oxfordshire, the Mitfords were experiencing their own ghostly experience. Asthall Manor, the family’s gabled Jacobean home built around 1620 was said to be haunted by a poltergeist so active that it tore off a maid’s bedclothes. In the daytime hours, cutlery flew across the scullery, china cups and saucers were hurled from their shelves, water-taps turned on by themselves and windows flew open despite their being locked. When night fell, footsteps could be heard on the paving stones outside, and on close inspection nobody could be seen. Could this have been the workings of the children’s overactive imaginations? Perhaps. The nursery windows overlooked the old graveyard of wool merchants’ graves, and although the children were forbidden to watch the funerals, they always did. Once, Decca and Debo fell into a newly dug grave, and Nancy warned them it meant “bad luck forever”.

 

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Asthall Manor

Farve, Pamela and Diana – the two of his seven children who felt the uneasy presence of the specter – witnessed the phenomena first-hand. They ignored the eerie happenings, pushing it to the back of their minds and refraining from speaking openly about it, lest they conjure it up. Pamela, though, was more than curious to see if the poltergeist did exist, and she told Diana: “We want to do some table turning one night but we are so afraid that Farve might find us at it. That would be awful of course.”

 

Debo carried the tale of the poltergeist with her throughout adulthood. A non-believer in such things, she flippantly dismissed it as “one of those nuisances that accompany teenage girls”, and was happy to be the instigator of ghostly pranks. Knowing of the ghost stories surrounding old, stately homes, she summoned her own make-shift ghoul to terrify some American guests who were staying at Lismore Castle. Mr. Twigg (sec. of the hunt) dressed up in a sheet, a night-cap, chains and carried a lantern. She fixed fishing-wire to the chandelier in the dining room and it shook and rattled, and then Mr. Twigg appeared through the windows. One American woman nearly fainted; she screamed and demanded to leave at once, to go anywhere, even to a hotel. “She was really horror-struck,” Debo recalled. “The joke nearly went too far.” Too far indeed, but Debo was one of the few in her family who did not believe in such things.

 

Superstitions, too, governed Farve’s life to an extent that he would write the name of an enemy on a piece of paper, sometimes slotting it into a matchbox (a makeshift coffin?) and putting it away in a drawer. He believed the person who had vexed him would die within a year. Given that he often carried out this ritual on his many sons-in-law – Sir Oswald Mosley, Peter Rodd and Esmond Romilly, in particular – it is clear that his theory did not work. However, the very mention of “the drawer” was enough to send a chill through the room.

 

After ten years of living at Asthall Manor, the house was promptly put on the market. The family vacated the haunted house for temporary lodgings in Paris. Although financial difficulties inspired his decision to sell the house, the family believe the poltergeist played a significant part. For a sensible, philistine man like Farve, the very mention of a ghost turned his blood cold. Could there have been more than a hint of idle gossip in the existence of the poltergeist? His offspring seemed to think so.

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The Mitford Society’s annual is available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com as well as Barnes & Noble

The Mitford Society Annual Vol. 2

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The Mitford Society’s second annual is now available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com as well as various retail outlets. This year’s edition features lots of exciting features, photographs and tributes to Debo from those who knew her and admired her.  I have included a complete list of contents below…
The Horror Sisters: A Mitford Tease by Meems Ellenberg & Lyndsy Spence

Evelyn Waugh & Diana Guinness by Lyndsy Spence

An American’s Conversion to U-Speak by Nathan Duncan

How Do U Do Social Qs? A Mitford Quiz by Meems Ellenberg

The Making of a Modern Duchess by Katherine Longhi

Cooking and Eating Like a Duchess by May Tatel-Scott

The Kennedys & The Devonshires: A Family Intwined in History by Michelle Morrisette

The Mitfords & Hitler by Jane Thynne

The Mitfords in Love by Georgina Tranter

Tilly Losch & The Mitfords by William Cross

Sheila Chisholm: An Ingenue’s Introduction to High Society by Lyndsy Spence

Reviving an Icon by Robert Wainwright

Decca Mitford: Rock Star by Terence Towles Canote

Doris Delevingne: The Constant Courtesan by Lyndsy Spence

The Asthall Poltergeist & High Society’s Fascination With the Unseen by Lyndsy Spence

Tales From the Archive by Lucinda Gosling

Nancy Mitford: A Celebration by Eleanor Doughty

Lady Ursula d’Abo: The Girl with the Widow’s Peak by Lyndsy Spence

Wolf for Two: A Wartime Dinner with Pamela Mitford & M.F.K Fisher by Kim Place-Gateau

Only Connect by Lee Galston

The Rodds in Italy by Chiara Martinelli & David Ronneburg

The Mitfords & The Country House by Evangeline Holland

The Old Vicarage: Debo’s Closing Act in Edensor Village by Andrew Budgell

Memories of Debo by Joseph Dumas

Tributes to Debo

– Emma Cannon

– Emma Gridley

– Robin Brunskill

– Stuart Clark

– Leslie Brodie

Guest post: Esmond Romilly by Meredith Whitford

ESMOND ROMILLY

By

Meredith Whitford BA, MCA

Esmond Romilly commented wryly in his first book that if he lived to be sixty, in headlines he’d still be ‘fifteen-year-old nephew of Mr Churchill’. He didn’t live to be sixty; he was only twenty-three when he died on active service with Bomber Command. Even posthumously, though, ‘Nephew of Winston Churchill’ stuck – as did various slurs. The New York Times’ obituary of his sister-in-law Diana, Lady Mosley, referred to Esmond as “a wastrel nephew of Churchill”. Esmond’s daughter lives in New York, so the NYT soon had to add:

Correction: September 9, 2003, Tuesday An obituary on Aug. 14 about Diana Mosley, the British aristocrat who was a staunch supporter of Hitler and fascism, referred incompletely to Esmond Romilly, who had married one of her sisters, Jessica Mitford. Although Mr. Romilly was a rebellious young man of privilege, he also became a published writer and an ardent anti-fascist who fought against Franco in Spain and, while serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force, died in 1941, at 23, in a bombing raid against Nazi Germany.

 
That Esmond was a “wastrel”, or some similar term, is a view often put forward in the various books about the Mitford family. Although he never joined the Communist Party, he spent a lot of energy, as a teenager, on calling himself a Communist, and he fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and in 1930s terms he was certainly a rebel – but “wastrel”? Unfortunately, two books by people who adored him do rather contribute to this view. In Philip Toynbee’s Friends Apart, and Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels Esmond seems an opinionated, unscrupulous chancer, wild, perennially broke because of his gambling, an iconoclast, and a damn nuisance. However, the two books he wrote (Out of Bounds: The Education of Giles Romilly and Esmond Romilly* – co-written with his brother — and Boadilla, about the men he fought with in Spain) and his letters, reveal a much more interesting figure. These sources show an intelligent, funny, tough, sometimes naïve boy (and it must always be remembered how very young he was: fifteen when he became famous for running away from school, eighteen when he married, twenty-three when he died), a fine writer, a loyal friend, loving father, faithful husband. Engagingly, he was under no illusions about himself, and had a nice line in sending himself up.

 
Books date, opinions and attitudes change, and what was screamingly funny or clever in a past era now seems bewildering or very unfunny indeed. But it is my opinion (and of course no more than that) that in writing Hons and Rebels some twenty years after her time with Esmond, Jessica was keen to present a picture of them as “two against the world”, two aristocratic rebels who fell in love, opposed their families’ politics, lived rather riotously, and were cast out as a result. There is truth to this view, but, again, letters and other personal papers show things a little differently – plenty of friends, concerned families, enough money, steady jobs. Toynbee seems to have fallen completely (certainly not in any sexual way) for the rebel boy who’d escaped his public school, loudly espoused Left-wing politics, and helped publish the subversive journal, “Out of Bounds”. Leaving his own school to join this delightfully rebellious hero in London, Toynbee quickly found himself out of his depth when faced with Esmond’s reality; also, it has to be said, Toynbee was a sucker for Esmond’s tall stories and Esmond enjoyed leading him on. They were friends for a while, then lost touch, and (again, as letters show) Peter Nevile and then the American writer Selman Rodman, not Toynbee, were Esmond’s closest adult friends. Researching for my book about Jessica and Esmond, I was able to explode one of Toynbee’s stories that made its way into other books and helped to damage the Romillys’ reputation. In brief, Toynbee describes a visit he, Jessica and Esmond paid to Lord Faringdon of Buscot Park in November 1937. Toynbee says the Romillys forced their host to let them stay the night, then proceeded to steal, tease the servants, and make thorough and obnoxious pests of themselves. Apart from the fact that Lord Faringdon was of a left-wing persuasion, supported the Republican cause in Spain and gave a home to refugees from the war, and so would not be someone Esmond would want to offend – well, the present Lord Faringdon emailed me a scan of the Buscot Park visitors book for the night in question. Yes, Jessica (8 months pregnant) stayed the night, but Esmond didn’t. He may not even have dined there. It was all a story he made up to see if Toynbee would swallow it. No wonder that years later Jessica had only the vaguest idea of the past excitements Toynbee rattled off.

***

So who exactly was Esmond Romilly? Actually, he was the nephew of Churchill’s wife, Clementine (pronounced Clementeen), whose younger sister Nellie was his mother. His father was Lieutenant-Colonel Bertram Romilly, a several times decorated officer of the Scots Guards. (The vague rumour that Esmond was actually fathered by Winston Churchill can be utterly discounted.)The Romillys were an old Huguenot family who fled to England to escape religious persecution in France. Perhaps the most famous of Esmond’s Romilly ancestors was Sir Samuel Romilly, the lawyer and MP who helped abolish slavery. A hefty inheritance, and marriages to daughters of earls and dukes, made the family rich; their estate was Huntington Park, over on the Welsh border. (Sir Samuel’s sister Catherine married the Roget of Roget’s Thesaurus, and in my fairly ancient paperback copy the editor is Samuel Romilly Roget.)

 
Esmond’s mother was (Margaret) Nellie, née Hozier, third daughter of Sir Henry Hozier and his wife Lady Blanche Ogilvy, whose father was the Scottish Earl of Airlie. Marital fidelity was not a feature of Hozier married life, and most sources agree that Nellie’s father was Algernon Bertram (“Bertie”) Freeman-Mitford, Jessica’s paternal grandfather. Thus, Esmond and Jessica were second cousins because their grandmothers were sisters (Lady Clementine Ogilvy married Bertie Freeman-Mitford, later Lord Redesdale), and quite possibly also first cousins because her father and his mother were half-siblings. This may be yet another reason for the family panic when Esmond and Jessica wanted to marry.

 
Bertram Romilly (who already was, or became, a close friend of Winston Churchill) married Nellie Hozier in December 1915. Their first son, Giles, was born in September 1916, Esmond on 10 July 1918. In a letter to her mother-in-law, Lady Randolph Churchill, Clementine Churchill wrote that Esmond arrived prematurely:

 

Nellie had a beautiful son this morning. But something went wrong with the chloroform apparatus & it was born absolutely without it…[The baby] came a fortnight too soon so nothing was ready, layette cradle and all were at Lullenden [their country home], I brought everything up this morning and found the poor midget ‘wrapped in swaddling clothes’.

 

Esmond’s birth certificate shows that Nellie registered his name as Esmond Samuel David. “Samuel” was a Romilly name used in every generation; it was his father’s and Giles’s second name. Mysteriously, it vanished from his name; in every other document he is Esmond Marcus/Mark David Romilly. (“David” perhaps after Nellie’s cousin/?half-brother, Jessica’s father.)
Much is made in various books about Esmond’s difficult relationship with his mother, so we could argue that this was because his birth was painful or difficult. I don’t think it’s as easy as that. Nellie was something of a drama queen who tended to “smother” her sons, and she and Esmond (himself no stranger to a spot of drama) swung between mutual devotion, impatience and stormy disagreements. In the diary that covers Christmas at Chartwell in 1931 Esmond records how his mother managed to irritate both him and Giles, and how much he missed her when she left. “I love her very much,” he wrote. He was also very fond of, and respected, his father, but it seems that Colonel Romilly was often away, or played a small role in his sons’ upbringing. He had been badly wounded in the war, he disliked noise, and was perhaps easily upset by family strife; he preferred the peace and quiet of Huntingdon Park, which bored his sons rigid.

 
Both Giles and Esmond went to Wellington, which offered reduced fees for officers’ sons. As his diary shows, Esmond wanted to leave from the moment he arrived. Both he and Giles disapproved of the ethos of Wellington and public schools in general, and had a wonderful time ripping into it in Out of Bounds. Reading between the lines of Esmond’s diary and various books on the subject, it is possible to infer that Esmond, who always strenuously resisted any homosexual approaches, was troubled by that aspect of school life. In February 1934 they agreed they’d both run away.

 
Giles didn’t but Esmond did. The newspapers went mad, because of the Churchill connection and because by now both Romilly boys were calling themselves Communists. This was real shock-horror stuff in the 1930s, when “Bolsheviks” (all too often the word was linked with “Jews”) was shorthand for the bogeyman threatening British society. After all, the Communists had killed the Russian royal family, and might come after “ours”; every industrial strike or piece of political activism might be the beginning of the end. And here were two upper-class, privileged boys calling themselves Communists! The kindest interpretation was that they’d been brainwashed. Many people thought they just needed a good thrashing. In fact Esmond had privately decided that Communism was rather “rot” and wrote of himself and his proselytising that

 

…over-enthusiasm without age or experience is most irritating to those possessed of both the later qualifications. I, myself, am always prepared to argue for the sake of argument, and there must have been something ludicrous in the spectacle of a boy of fifteen laying down the law…

 

Unwilling or forbidden to go home, Esmond settled in at the Parton Street bookshop in Bloomsbury run by David Archer. It was fashionably left-wing, and from there he (and Giles, still at school) began their “subversive” journal “Out of Bounds” – subversive both politically and because it touched on sexual issues. Giles’s article “Morning Glory” could hardly have been more explicit for its era (hint: it wasn’t about the pretty blue plant) and another article told readers that masturbation was quite normal and didn’t send you blind.

 
Philip Toynbee left Rugby to join Esmond in London just in time for Mosley’s infamous Olympia Rally of 1934. Both boys wrote it up, but the violence of the rally, and his father’s tracking him down, sent Toynbee briskly back to school. Surprisingly, Esmond too returned to school, but to Bedales, not Wellington, and only for about a month. After that he was on his own again, or occasionally at home, while Giles spent the summer in Germany before going up to Oxford. At about this time Giles wrote to a very revealing letter to his mother:

 

I am sorry you had such a bad time with Esmond, but was afraid it would be so. He seems to have been as much upset as you were and thinks, as I do too, that no ‘compromise’ of any kind is possible, anything that involves bargaining. You are quite right that it is the parental relationship which mucks up every-thing [sic]. Esmond is quite adult, and does not need it, and resents it. I think it is unfair to hold it over him, especially as without it there could always be considerable love between you. I mean, why insist on your rights, even if you think it to be for his good, when by doing so you wreck your personal relationship. If you remember, the promises about Communism and Out of Bounds were extorted from Esmond when he was thoroughly overwrought, as every other promise has been in the past. The appeal of ‘grey hairs in sorrow to the grave’ etcetera he has never been able to resist. You and Daddy have played on that appeal unmercifully, though you have almost destroyed its effectiveness with lamentation about money, heavy Bedales fees etcetera. If Esmond had the offer to live alone without interference or help, he would not refuse. And your money has not been wasted, for of course he has got far more out of his education at sixteen than the majority of people at twenty-one. And you admit that his character has improved. (That I see myself from his letters.)… Remember too the number of times you have been ‘converted’ to Socialism yourself. Remember the letter you wrote to the Daily Worker. If that had been allowed to appear – it was Esmond who stopped it – how could you address him as you do now without appearing a complete hypocrite?

 
Actually I know of course that it is for Daddy that you are so unhappy… he tends to emphasise his own feelings, and you have always rather indulged him in that, so much so that he is now completely dependent on you. It might be better if you tried to persuade him that he is not so unhappy as he thinks, instead of augmenting it by encouragement, and making yourself unhappy at the same time by having scenes with Esmond. Is it necessary to call Esmond a murderer, for instance? … And does the blame rest entirely with Esmond anyway?

 
I’m sure the situation is not worth all the tragic drama with which you and Esmond and Daddy invest it. It is a hackneyed situation, and should not be allowed to make life difficult for anyone. This modern generation, the tragic father, the rebellious son – it is all so commonplace. Why not get rid of it by writing a book, or something? You would probably have a great success…

 

I wonder whether these last couple of lines were a bit of a dig at Nellie, who’d written a novel, Misdeal, and published it under the name of Anna Gerstein in 1932.

 
Toynbee reappeared on the scene. He says that he and Esmond got drunk and made some disturbance at the Romillys’ house in Pimlico. Exactly what happened isn’t clear in any source, but it seems that Nellie called the police, and both boys were arrested. Despite the judge’s criticism of parents who left a sixteen-year-old boy to his own devices, Esmond ended up in a Remand Home for nearly three weeks. His description of this dumping-ground for anything from criminals to homeless boys to mentally handicapped ones makes grim reading, although he made as light of it as possible, reserving his sympathy for the other inmates.
On his release he went to stay with a distant cousin, Mrs Dorothy Allhusen, where he met and became friends with Peter Nevile. By now Esmond and Giles had started writing Out of Bounds, which was published in 1935. Living on a small allowance from his father and without much to do, Esmond took a job as a silk-stocking salesman, on commission. Later, when he fell back on the same job in America, Jessica noted that he was “disturbingly successful” at it. In Out of Bounds Esmond wrote that

 

I have always found selling fairly easy, as I am naturally inclined towards exaggeration and have often been criticized for an over-willingness to talk, and to go on talking… having no specialized knowledge of any kind, and not being troubled with an over-quantity of honesty or scrupulousness, it was, I suppose, inevitable that I should soon be selling somebody something.

 

A faint echo of this, perhaps, in some of Jessica’s remarks about the salesmen of the funeral industry in The American Way of Death.

***

Esmond took a couple of other jobs before, in October 1936, he went to Spain to fight on the Republican side. Boadilla describes his experiences very thoroughly, with humour and without pomposity or self-aggrandizement. Most of his friends died at Boadilla del Monte. Alive, but very ill with dysentery, Esmond was invalided home. He visited the families of all his dead comrades, then in February 1937 went to stay again with Mrs Allhusen. In the small house-party was the cousin he’d never actually met: Jessica Mitford.

***

The story of their falling in love and running away together, intending to get back to Spain, is probably very well known to everyone reading this. It’s a long and involved story, with Jessica’s family dragging Scotland Yard and the government into it, an attempt to lure Jessica onto a British ship and bring her home forcibly, her parents making her a Ward of Court and so on and so forth. They were prevented from returning to Spain, and the more she and Esmond tried to get married quickly, the harder her family made it. In the end, because Jessica was pregnant, they were allowed to marry.

 
They took rooms in their friend Roger Roughton’s house in Rotherhithe; not quite the slum this is often made out to be, at the time this was rather an arty, Bohemian little enclave. Esmond got a job as a copywriter with an advertising agency at a decent wage, Jessica did part-time work as a market researcher. They had a lot of friends and a lot of parties, saw a lot of Giles and even of some of Jessica’s family, and in December 1937 to their great joy their daughter Julia Decca was born.

 
At about the time of Julia’s birth Jessica wrote to her younger sister Deborah, who had measles. It was possibly at the same time that their mother too had measles. Wherever she caught it, in May Jessica too had the disease very badly. The local health clinic people assumed she would have had it already, so that breast-fed Julia would be immune. Sadly, they were all wrong. At the end of May the baby died, aged five months. Her death certificate, lodged by Esmond, chillingly records that he was “present at the death”. He was still not quite twenty.

 
Heartbroken, the Romillys left everything behind and went to Corsica to recover. Later they found a flat near Marble Arch, took up their jobs again, and watched their country’s reaction to the Munich Agreement and Kristallnacht. Certain that time was running out before Britain would be at war with Germany, and still mourning their baby, they decided to go to the United States.
They loved egalitarian, friendly America, so unlike uptight, hide-bound England. The made friends, were asked everywhere; when Kay Graham invited them to stay with her parents, Eugene and Agnes Meyer, Jessica thought of her parents’ reaction if she’d invited two strangers home. They were genuinely popular with most of the people they met, but of course they were also a delicious curiosity with their aristocratic connections and background. Networking like mad, making friends everywhere, unsure of the future but treating the present as a working-holiday, they both got jobs, Esmond as a copywriter at the dizzying wage of $125.00 p.w. and later, again, as a silk-stocking salesman. When they’d saved enough they set out on what was meant to be a long tour of the USA. Thanks to Jessica’s bad map-reading they ended up in Miami. Claiming experience he didn’t have, Esmond got a job as a waiter at a small Italian restaurant. The fiasco is one of the funniest passages in Hons and Rebels and in the articles they wrote for their friend Eugene Meyer’s Washington Post. Ignominiously sacked, Esmond asked if he could take over the running of the restaurant’s bar – at least he had genuine bar-tending training. But the licence cost $1000, which neither the Romillys nor the restaurateur could afford. Bright idea: Esmond would borrow the money from Eugene Meyer. Eagerly outlining his arrangements to repay such a loan, Esmond didn’t even notice that Mr Meyer had said “Yes” at once. To the amusement of Meyer’s daughter, Esmond was so taken aback that all he could say was, “Oh! Well, I hope it won’t leave you short.” Mr Meyer, a multimillionaire, thought it wouldn’t. The loan was carefully repaid.

 
Meanwhile, Russia and Germany had signed the mutual non-aggression pact, which left Communists looking silly. Soon, war was declared between Britain and Germany. Jessica’s beloved sister Unity, Hitler’s great friend, shot herself. Mad with worry about her, without hard news for months, unable to express herself to Esmond, who had no time for the Nazi members of her family, Jessica was besieged with requests for interviews and information. At last she heard that Unity had been brought home, brain-damaged and her life effectively over.

 
During the “Phoney War”, September 1939 to April 1940, Esmond evidently had no faith in the Chamberlain government’s will to stand up to Hitler. He wrote an article, presciently titled “Britain’s Next Prime Minister” about Churchill, and no doubt wondered what to do. A lot of his American friends were Isolationist, and all he could do was tell them not to under-rate Britain.

 
In April the Germans over-ran Norway and Giles Romilly, a civilian war correspondent for the Daily Express, was taken prisoner. He remained a prisoner for the rest of the war, most of it in Colditz. There was nothing Esmond could do but hope and try to get food parcels to his brother. Then his grandfather died, aged 90, and a week later his father died of cancer. Perhaps he thought of going home. Then, and it must have seemed all at once, Hitler cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war, and Churchill became Prime Minister of Britain. Esmond immediately enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Leaving Jessica with their friend Mrs Virginia Durr in Washington, he at once went north to begin his training.

 
His and Jessica’s letters to each other reveal their misery at being apart for the first time in three years, and their determination not to burden each other with their loneliness. Humour and courage mattered most; everything else was understood. Jessica had conceived another baby, born February 1941 and named Ann Constancia, always nicknamed Dinky, or Dinky-Donk, or The Donk. (After the Democratic Donkey, because she’d kicked so hard in utero while Jessica was at the Democratic Convention.) Esmond wasn’t keen on the name Constancia; “it is right out”, he wrote to Jessica, but he’d taken so long to make up his mind about the baby’s name (he wanted “Carol”) that she’d gone ahead and registered the name anyway.

 
Esmond did well in his air force training, although after several months, and passing several exams, he was told than a childhood operation for mastoid made him unfit for aircrew. Faced with being kicked out so suddenly and so late, he for once pulled strings, but instead of approaching his uncle the PM, or pointing out that an ancestor had been Governor-General of Canada, he asked a local MP for help. The matter was resolved somehow (if it hadn’t been, he said, he would have returned to England to enlist in the RAF, which would have sent him to Canada for training), he went on with his training, passed, was posted as an observer (navigator) and was finally commissioned (against his will, but it was too much trouble to refuse.) In June 1941 Pilot Officer Romilly was posted to England, to Bomber Command.

 
For a long time he and Jessica couldn’t decide whether she and the baby should stay in America or join him in England. The death of RCAF comrades made him for once put off the defence of humour and admit how desperately he wanted her with him.
At the very end of November she sent him an exultant telegram telling him she’d got passage on a plane and would be with him very soon.

 
As if in reply, she got a telegram telling her that Esmond’s plane had failed to return from a bombing raid. There was no hope that he had survived.

 
He had died on Churchill’s birthday, 30 November.

***

Clearly, Esmond was someone people either loved or loathed; no middle ground, and nor would he have sought it. Most people who came to know him well liked him. By the time he died the noisy teenager had become a happily married man, a father, a dedicated officer in the armed forces and fiercely anti-fascist. The many, many letters Jessica and his mother received when he died all speak of people’s liking and admiration for him, and a sense of great potential lost.

 
Churchill was both irritated and amused by his politics, but no letters between them seem to have survived. Had Esmond lived, he would almost certainly have gone into politics. If he had stayed in England after the war, he and Churchill might have ended up facing each other across the floor of the Commons.

 
But Esmond died young, and Jessica was a widow at twenty-four. Too proud to go home or accept help, she struggled to raise Dinky on what she could earn, saving her air force pension for Dinky’s education. In 1943 she found another soulmate in Bob Treuhaft, and with him forged a career as a political activist and writer.

 
But without Esmond – what would have become of her?
———————————————————————————————–

Notes

Letters referred to in this article are mostly in the Jessica Mitford Archive in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room of Ohio State University.
Giles Romilly’s letter, quoted here, is in the GSB Romilly Archive in Hereford, and is used by kind permission of Edmund Romilly.
Mrs Churchill’s letter about Esmond’s birth is in the Churchill Archives at Churchill College, Cambridge.
The quotation from Out of Bounds is used by kind permission of Edmund Romilly.
Copies of the four issues of “Out of Bounds” are in my possession.
Other sources for this article are listed in my book Churchill’s Rebels: Jessica Mitford and Esmond Romilly. E-book Endeavour Press UK, 2013; paperback Umbria Press UK, 2014.

~~

Meredith Whitford is also the author of the award-winning Treason and Shakespeare’s Will (e-published as Love’s Will by Endeavour Press (UK). Both are available in e-book and paperback.

© Meredith Whitford November 2014

Click here to purchase Churchill’s Rebels

Mary Spencer-Churchill, Lady Soames

I remember once lunching with my mother at Rutland Gate and being somewhat bewildered by the sheer numbers of Mitfords of all ages, all of whom seemed to speak at once!  It was sad for me that I was not destined to ‘discover’ my matching-in-age cousins Decca and Debo until over forty years later. – Mary Soames, extracted from A Daughter’s Tale: The Memoir of Winston and Clementine Churchill’s Youngest Child. 

 

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15th September 1922- 31st May 2014