Pamela Mitford: The Country Girl

deborah-and-pamela-lismore-1979-letters-between-six-sisters-toned_orig

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 

71reuaq2FUL

Advertisements

Something Higher Than A Friend

Extracted from The Mitford Society: Vol. III

Diana was 14-years-old when she first met James Lees-Milne, known to his friends as ‘Jim’. He had come down to Asthall Manor, the family home in Oxfordshire that was said to be haunted by a poltergeist, with Tom Mitford in the summer of 1924.

Both Diana and Jim were intrigued by one another, and he was bewitched by her beauty as he silently observed her sitting next to Tom as he played the piano. Diana, too, thought Jim the cleverest person she had met. She was impressed by his loathing of games and his preference for sitting indoors, listening to classical music and conversing about art and literature. Tom appeared to share an easy-going, brotherly type of affection with Jim, but their schoolboy camaraderie concealed a discreet affair that had taken place at Eton. The close bond between Diana and Tom reminded Jim of his loneliness and lack of familial ties – he despised his father, saw little of his mother, and had nothing in common with his siblings. Adding to his misery, all through his childhood and early adolescent years, Jim wished he were a girl. Society’s expectations placed on Jim as a boy, and his countrified father’s disapproval, conspired to make him ‘feel desperately ashamed’ of his wish. Adding to Jim’s feelings of shame was the guilt of his affair with Tom, and he desired to replace him with Diana, a socially acceptable catalyst for romance.

After Jim departed Asthall, he immediately wrote Diana a letter, asking her: ‘May I treat you as a much cherished sister to whom I can say everything? You don’t realise how essential they are to boys. Why are you so amazingly sympathique as well as charming?’ Diana, who was surrounded by six sisters and an all-female staff, was unsure how to respond to such flattery. She acted with indifference, which could have been mistaken as modesty – an appealing attribute in one so beautiful.

Jim returned to Asthall, and he, Tom and Diana became a peculiar trio. When the other Mitford children were outside riding and hunting, they spent their days indoors, lapping up joyous hours in the library where Jim expressed his devotion by teaching Diana to read the classics. They read poetry and fantasised about going to live in Greece, where they ‘would scorn material things and live on a handful of grapes by the sea’. Around this period, Jim had appointed himself as Diana’s faithful correspondent and the letters exchanged during this precarious time provide an insight into her outlook. As her intellect developed, she felt comfortable to confide her innermost thoughts to Jim. She told him: ‘There will never be another Shelley. I wish I had been alive then to marry him. He was more beautiful physically and mentally than an angel.’ And her philosophy on life was extremely modern for a sheltered teenager in the 1920s: ‘Why on earth should two souls (I wish there was a better word, I think SPIRIT is better). Why on earth should two spirits who are in love a bit have to marry … and renounce all other men and women?’ Monogamy, to Diana, was ‘SUPREMELY foolish’, but she was quick to acknowledge that speaking of ‘free love is almost a sin’. However, to dispel any hint of romance, she quickly informed Jim of his platonic place in her life: ‘I sometimes feel that I love you too much, but you are my spiritual brother.’

In 1926, Diana left for Paris to spend a year studying art at the Cours Fénelon, and during this period her letters to Jim became few and far between. She had fallen in love with the city, and had formed a circle of admirers who were a world away from Jim and his shy advances disguised by the written word. The ageing artist Paul César Helleu feted Diana, and this form of flattery coming from an adult turned her head more than Jim’s romantic prose.

After Diana’s departure for Paris, Jim had become morbidly obsessed with a recent divorcee, Joanie, the daughter of his mother’s cousin. Jim sent her love poetry – the typical gesture he would use time and time again with those he admired – and Joanie responded by driving down to Eton to take him to tea. In the New Year of 1926, they eventually began an affair, resulting in Joanie becoming pregnant. However, there is no certainty that Jim fathered the child, for she had so many casual affairs. The baby was stillborn, and Jim was haunted by guilt, stemming from his view that he had caused a human life, conceived in sin, to perish. Deeply disturbed by the incident, Jim fled England for Grenoble, where he studied a university course in French. His thoughts turned to Diana and the memories he held from their happier days in the library at Asthall Manor. The notion of being in love with an unworldly teenager was less troublesome than his love affair with the older Joanie, whose life came to a tragic end when she drowned herself at Monte Carlo.

Overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia, Jim wrote to Diana, in which he played to her frivolous vanity by addressing her as ‘Mona’ (after the Mona Lisa). Her letter, after a spell of silence, ‘dropped here today like the gentle dew from heaven. I cannot express my delight but imagine it as being intense … How I would adore to have a picture of you by M. Helleu’. He implored Diana to send him a memento; a snapshot of her Parisian self so he could see for himself if she had retained her Raphael face. ‘You can’t imagine what a joy it is to me the thought of having your face with me.’ Diana had become accustomed to receiving compliments on her beauty, rather than her brains, and the tokens dispelled in his letters were not a rarity. Jim confessed: ‘One can never love a friend too much,’ though by now he thought of Diana as something ‘higher than a friend’.

As for Diana, she was secretly pleased with Jim’s infatuation and had begun to recognise her power over the opposite sex, using it to exploit those who cared about her. Her letters adopted a priggish tone, boasting of her liaisons with French boys, after which, she warned Jim: ‘Don’t feel jealous’. It thrilled her to evoke feelings of jealousy, to torment the poor love-sick Jim, and she made it clear that she only confided in him because he was ‘so far from England’s green and pleasant land, where scandal travels fast’.

The hedonistic atmosphere was not to last and Diana suffered a bitter blow when Helleu died, suddenly, of peritonitis. The man she worshipped, and who for 3 months had worshipped her, was dead. She turned to Jim for comfort. ‘I shall never see him again …’ her letter ached with melancholy ‘… never hear his voice saying, “Sweetheart, comme tu es belle.”’ In another letter, she confessed: ‘Nobody will admire me again as he did.’ Jim might have disagreed, but he refrained from telling her otherwise, and wrote only to comfort her.

When Diana returned to England for the Easter holidays she was disheartened by the family’s new home, Swinbrook House – a grey, rectangular building designed by her father and decorated in mock rustic charm. Perhaps longing for a sense of familiarity, she wrote to Jim. ‘I have grown a little older, and more intense in my passions of love, sorrow and worship of beauty. To look at, I am the same. Pray for me, to your gods whatever they are. I am very unhappy.’ But, somewhere beneath her morbid facade, Diana was still a romantic at heart.

Jim’s letters from that time, although an escape from the dullness of everyday life, drew her attention to his love for her. In a sophisticated manner, she declared: ‘Sex is after all so unimportant in life. Beauty and art are what matter. Older people do not see my point of view.’ Diana failed to elaborate on the ‘older people’, surely a jibe at Jim, who was 2 years her senior. She did not, however, discourage the correspondence. In a similar light as Helleu, Jim praised her looks. ‘I have got dark skin and light hair and eyes which is an unattractive paradox,’ she dismissed his compliment. In the same sentence, Diana asked if he had seen the various beauties: Mary Thynne, Lettice Lygon and Georgie Curzon, to name a few. Jim’s passion could not be quelled, and Diana accepted his gifts of books, though she often critiqued his poetry when he sent it.

Finally, Jim was reunited with Diana in person. The sight of her in the flesh stunned him at first. She was no longer the sweet natured 14-year-old girl he had mentored in the library at Asthall. The long hair, which he had admired and likened to Botticelli’s Seaborne Venus, had been cut short. Although not outwardly fashionable, she began to alter her looks to appear more grown-up in her appearance. This adult version of Diana inspired the same feelings of passion he had felt for Joanie, who wore chic clothes and Parisian scent.

Hoping to instigate a romance with Diana, though from afar, Jim impulsively sent her a poem. Diana’s response was not what he had anticipated, and with a critical eye she advised him: ‘Read Alice Meynell’s short essay on false impressionism called The Point of Honour. This is not meant to be rude …’ Adopting an intellectual tone, she confidently told him: ‘Byron was a selfish, beautiful genius and not really more selfish than many men and most artists. As to Augusta, she was of the same temperament as I am, and just about as silly.’

Diana’s letters to Jim fizzled out, and tormented by her lack of communication, he turned his attention to Diana’s cousin and friend, Diana Churchill, whom he had met that summer. The other Diana, ‘like a fairy’ with her puny frame, pale complexion and red hair, was a haphazard substitute for his original love interest. In September, Diana invited him to the Churchill family home, Chartwell, and he readily accepted once he learned that Diana Mitford would also be staying with her brother, Tom. Unlike at Asthall and Swinbrook, where Jim could escape with Diana and Tom, the ‘brats’ (a Churchillian term of endearment) congregated in the drawing room and at the dining table. They listened to Winston Churchill’s monologue on the Battle of Jutland as he shifted decanters and wine glasses, in place of the ships, around the table, furiously puffing on his cigar to represent the gun smoke. With Churchill’s attention fixed on the children, his boisterous son Randolph seized an opportunity to flatter Diana, with whom he was madly in love. ‘Papa,’ he mischievously asked his father, ‘guess who is older, our Diana or Diana M?’
‘Our Diana,’ came the reply from Churchill, spoiling Randolph’s plan.
‘Oh, Papa, nobody else thinks so but you!’
During the stay, Diana was surrounded by her two most ardent admirers and Jim noticed that she outwardly relished being in Randolph’s company, despite her frequent protests about his immature behaviour. Jim could only look on, his hopes and feelings deflated.

In the new year of 1928, Jim returned to Swinbrook to stay for the weekend. Diana hoped to corner him for a congenial chat about literature, but the pleasant visit took a turn for the worse when, over dinner, Nancy praised an anti-German film she had watched at the cinema. Still harbouring a strong dislike for Germans, their father, Lord Redesdale, made his usual offensive remark: ‘The only good German is a dead German.’
Leaping to the defence of the film and of the German people, Jim said: ‘Anyhow, talking of atrocities, the worst in the whole war were committed by the Australians.’
‘Be quiet and don’t talk about what you don’t understand. Young swine!’ Lord Redesdale exploded.
Mortified by her father’s outburst, Diana broke the heavy silence when she haughtily announced: ‘I wish people needn’t be so rude to their guests!’
Flexing his authority as master of the household, Lord Redesdale ordered Jim from Swinbrook. Frogmarched to the front door, he was thrown outside where it was teeming with rain. After several failed attempts to start up his motorcycle, he sneaked back into the house and crept up to bed.
Awaking at 6 o’clock the next morning, Jim bumped into Lord Redesdale, stalking the hallway, as he did every morning, wearing his paisley print robe and drinking tea from a thermos. Anticipating another scene, Jim was pleasantly surprised when Lord Redesdale appeared to have forgotten the offensive exchange and greeted him warmly.

The turbulent visit settled into a bittersweet memory for Jim and, although he did not know it at the time, it would be his last visit with Diana at Swinbrook. He rightly sensed that Diana’s mind was focused on finding a suitable husband to rescue her from the great boredom of family life. With his ‘impecunious and melancholic’ nature, Jim knew he was not an ideal candidate, and long after he had departed from her life, Diana remained ‘the unattainable object of his desire’.

In 1928, Diana met and became engaged to Bryan Guinness. Jim received the news of Diana’s engagement with little enthusiasm. It came like a ‘cruel blow’ which greatly upset him. Diana attempted to console him with a short, but sweet, letter: ‘I know you will like him [Bryan] because he is too angelic and not rough and loathes shooting and loves travelling and all the things I love.’ She was preoccupied with a glamorous, materialistic world, and given Bryan’s wealth, it served to make Jim feel worthless. ‘When we are married and live in London, you must often come and see us,’ she gently coaxed him. He sent Diana a wedding present of books, and apart from her customary thank you note, he did not set eyes on her for the next 25 years.

Quotations from the letters between Diana Mitford and James Lees-Milne were taken from James Lees-Milne: The Life by Michael Bloch (John Murray, 2009) and reprinted with permission in Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford (The History Press, 2015).