A Fly in the Ointment: A Mitford Tease

Words by Lyndsy Spence & Meems Ellenberg

(Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol III)

The echoing footsteps of Mabel along the long, narrow hallway of Rutland Gate caught Farve’s attention. The sound of his Puccini aria spinning on the gramophone did nothing to dispel an impending sense of doom. As he watered his window box of fascinators – the seedlings he had scattered the year before – he made a mental note to check on Mr Dyer tending to the boiler in the basement. Being a fellow who was susceptible to the supernatural he pondered if Dyer, who lived a subterranean existence below the seven floors, was dead. It was a distinct possibility. Before leaving the library he locked his cold cup of coffee in the safe, lest some money’s orphan should remove his suckments.
Farve passed Mabel, who held in her hand a lilac-coloured envelope. ‘So gauche, so noveau-riche,’ Muv had groaned when these bizarre envelopes had first started to appear on the tray of post. They were always addressed to Miss Nancy. ‘What a stench!’ Muv had choked, reacting to the overwhelming scent of tuberose. She knew with certainty, as she knew most things from her days on the high seas, that tuberose was responsible for many a debaucherous deed. ‘Another one?’ Farve approached Mabel, he was looking especially exotic in his paisley print dressing gown, sipping tea from a thermos and puffing on a gasper. He took the letter and examined it. A scattering of letters rudely cut from a magazine were glued to the lilac page. ‘You are a charlaten and I hate you,’ it read, though charlatan was spelled incorrectly. Having read only one book in his life, Farve failed to notice. ‘I am a Mitford and I despise you,’ the venom dripped off the page, or was it runny glue? ‘You are ALL I despise,’ it added once more in case the message wasn’t clear.
‘Who do you suppose it is?’ Mabel asked. ‘Not Jicksy, I should hope.’

Entering the drawing room, Farve asked the girls to gather around the fire. It was serious, Debo concluded, for they were allowed to abandon the jars of dripping jam on the sideboard and crumbs remained on the good table cloth.
‘Such a bother,’ Muv bemoaned. ‘I should sooner send the table cloth up to Edinburgh than have beastly Harrods charge me a king’s ransom.’
No one remarked save Mabel, who may have been heard to mutter, ‘Penny pinching peeress.’
Nancy, taking a break from her preparing an article for The Lady magazine, slithered into the room. ‘I say,’ she rubbed the ink stains on her hands, ‘I wish Snell would up my pay. This cheap ink is too too sick-making.’

Nobody spoke, presumably nobody cared. Nancy’s constant complaints were what were too, too sick making, thought Decca, although her pique may have been due to another all-nighter reading Dorothy L. Sayers. So much bickering ensued about who said what to the Londoner’s Log about Diana’s impending nuptials to Bryan Guinness, Pam’s broken engagements and Nancy’s fledgling literary career, that Farve had to bellow for silence. But, having to have the last word, Unity sneezed. ‘Hatschie, Geräusch beim Niesen,’ she said.
Delphine Ale-Stout, the letter was signed. Nancy and Diana wracked their brains but failed to place the name. ‘Watney’s Red Barrel,’ Pam piped up and everybody laughed. She liked three-worded names: Purple-Sprouting-Broccoli, in particular.
‘Perhaps we met her on the cultural cruise?’ Debo suggested.
Unity and Decca wondered if Delphine Ale-Stout was a white slaver. ‘It certainly sounds a white slaver name,’ Decca mused.
‘Sie sicherlich,’ Unity agreed, something she seldom did.
‘In English!’ Muv exploded in a rare bout of bad temper. ‘In English,’ she said once more, repeating that, along with the King’s English, she supported the Church of England, voted Conservative and believed in the afterlife – ‘I should like to see Cecily,’ she mused. ‘And Uncle Clem.’ She spoke of the afterlife as though it were a meeting of the hounds, and certainly very English.
Ever since Nancy had started working for The Lady, Delphine Ale-Stout began to send her poison-pen letters. It all began rather incoherently, a jumble of letters and initials. ‘HstCE,’ one said in reference to that flippant tart Hamish St. Clair Erskine. ‘NFM,’ Nancy Freeman-Mitford retaliated. Though, as Blor pointed out, it could very well mean something else. ‘Errr,’ she scolded, ‘no one will want to be your friend if that’s how you talk.’ retaliated. Though, as Blor pointed out, it could very well mean something else. ‘Errr,’ she scolded, ‘no one will want to be your friend if that’s how you talk.’
Then the letters spiralled out of control. Threatening words slipped through, warning that Delphine and her followers would kill her. Nancy vaguely remembered that one had the name of a colonial drink. ‘It puts heaven in a rage,’ Diana sighed.

Nancy was most vexed. Delphine Ale-Stout, a puzzle. Delphine Ale-Stout, a cipher. Delphine Ale-Stout, a rival writer. Delphine Ale-Stout, only a name in a sea of articles, never a fot. Delphine Ale-Stout: perhaps she did not have a photography face? Pathos personified. ‘She eeees,’ Nancy murmured.

‘Oh blissipots!’ Debo bubbled. Nancy’s problems had been nothing to her as she had been invited by Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie to go shooting. Cousin Clementine wrote to say that Diana was welcome at Chartwell. Uncle Wolf wired an invitation to Fraulein Unity, but Muv said nein to ‘going abroad with a stranger’. Decca, darling little D, was already packing for a weekend with the Paget twins. And, Pam, where was Pam? Surely she couldn’t…Nancy snatched the letter. ‘Charlaten,’ her triangular green eyes honed in on the misspelling. Hmmm, poor Pam, she thought, always the thesaurus, never the dictionary.
‘Here I am,’ Pam breezed into the room in slow motion, her presence was as long and lingering as her vowels. ‘I was just across town selling eggs to the Bed of Nails. Say!’ she whipped two newspapers out of her basket, ‘your tiff with Delphine Ale-Stout has made the front pages. Looook!’
It was too sensational, too good to be true. ‘Disney with knobs on!’ Nancy squealed.
Blor, thinking a horrible accident had occurred, rushed into the drawing room. ‘So sorry,’ she gasped. ‘I thought Miss Decca was on the roof again.’
‘Look, Naunce,’ Pam scanned the article. ‘It says here that Delphine Ale-Stout has many occupations. She’s a philanthropist. Haberdasher. And sometime chanteuse.’
‘So non-U,’ Nancy remarked.
Blor sniffed meaningfully.

The crossing to Dieppe was choppy. Decca opened her picnic hamper and noted Muv had packed a whole meal loaf and Pam had boiled up a dozen new potatoes – a fitting luncheon for a farmer in a brown suit. The Paget twins agreed to meet her at the port, and together they would enjoy a motoring holiday around the Channel coast.
In the car, the twins rapidly spoke about a tour of Austria, and Decca listened intently to their itinerary. They would be staying with an elderly aunt, they said. ‘A good alibi if one wanted to forge a naughty letter,’ they added.
‘I couldn’t run away,’ Decca’s eyes widened at the thought. ‘I haven’t lodged my Christmas money for one thing. Besides, Cousin Winston would send a tanker to find me.’
‘The mountains,’ advised the Paget twins. ‘No water to sail a tanker on in the mountains.’
They were brick girls, those Paget twins.

The following week another letter arrived for Nancy from Delphine Ale-Stout. This time she slipped up and included Lady as a prefix. Muv retrieved her well-thumbed copy of the Peerage and scanned through the double-barrel names and the list of those tradesmen who had risen a rank or two. ‘Really,’ she was aghast; ‘the peerage resembles a shopping-list these days.’ There was no Delphine Ale-Stout, no Ale, no Stout…
Farve agreed, commenting that the peerage’s pandering to household brands was lower than the belly of a snake. ‘What next?’ he harrumphed. ‘Women in the House of Lords?’
‘I don’t see why not,’ Pam looked up from polishing the silver. ‘After all, you worked for a lady’s magazine.’ He scowled in reply and reminded himself that Pam’s turn in Rat Week was long overdue.
‘Settle down,’ Muv scolded. ‘After luncheon I shall read Tess of the d’Urbervilles aloud. Or would you prefer White Fang?’
They returned to the sick-making business of Delphine Ale-Stout. She had written a strongly worded, though incoherent, letter to rogue newspapers that dared to paint her as a villain. ‘I committed no crime,’ one of the more intelligible sentences read. She accused the newspapers of rewriting history and claimed that nobody would have heard of Miss Nancy Freeman-Mitford had she not put her on the radar.
Nancy shrieked whether in joy or consternation, was unclear.
Farve’s mind scrambled to his latest list of suspects. The Wid was swiftly added to it and, recalling the sight of a discarded handkerchief in a hedge, he also included the Duchess of Marlborough. He also remembered that sewer with the comb in his breast-pocket. The list was growing.
But there was a twist at the end of this letter. Delphine Ale-Stout demanded a sum of money.
‘Blackmail is such an unfortunate word,’ said Muv.
Nancy could bear the riddle no longer. Delphine Ale-Stout demanded £50. She was explicit in her instructions. £50 in a lilac envelope (enclosed) should be left under an empty milk bottle at the Army and Navy stores on Victoria Street.
‘The Army and Navy stores on Victoria Street?’ repeated Farve. ‘I shall escort you.’

Nancy and Pamela went along with Farve to the Army and Navy stores on Victoria Street. As Pam had errands to run on behalf of Muv, she left Nancy in a Lyon’s teashop and told her to pay attention to the comings and goings at the stores. The morning rush was too divine and Nancy whipped out her pen and notepaper and began taking notes on the conversations on mantelpieces and settees ringing in her ears. She thought of constructing an article for The Lady, or perhaps a future book. Farve contented himself with reviewing the new shipment of entrenching tools.

Meanwhile in Dieppe, Decca had bumped into old Aunt Natty, otherwise known as Blanche Hozier, Farve’s aunt. She was in high spirits, having come into an unexpected windfall of money. ‘You must come to the casino,’ she told Decca and the Paget twins. They agreed, whereupon they were introduced to Natty’s admirer, the local and much-married fishmonger.
‘How lucky to see you,’ Natty said as she rolled the dice. ‘We’ve just returned from our little benjo.’ Pulling pound notes out of her handbag she ordered the fishmonger to place more bets.
‘Where did you get all that money?’ Decca enquired. The Paget twins were competing against one another at the billiards table.
‘I pawned my Kodak,’ said Natty.
‘There must be fifty pounds in there, Decca began to count the pound notes.
‘Don’t count, darling,’ Natty snatched the money. ‘Arithmetic is so unseemly for girls.’

‘Oh look,’ Muv drawled. ‘Decca’s written to say she bumped into Aunt Natty in Dieppe. ‘She said Natty treated her and the Paget twins to a honnish evening in the casino where they went back to her house and gambled fifty pounds playing Snakes and Ladders.’
‘Who won?’ asked Nancy.
‘Oh,’ Muv rolled her eyes. ‘She did not say.’
‘Fifty pounds!’ exclaimed Pam.
‘Such a waste of money. Of course one can’t help it if one’s rich but….’
‘Don’t you see!’ interrupted Pam. ‘Don’t you get it? Delphine Ale-Stout wanted fifty pounds. Naunce, you were at the teashop, tell them what you saw…’
‘Well I…’ Nancy thought for a moment. She decided to embellish the truth. ‘I saw a very tall lady, very well-dressed with a Scottish terrier. She wore a cape over her nightgown, much to my everlasting embarrassment, you must understand.’
‘Yes, and?’ they shouted at once.
‘Well that’s all I saw,’ she shrugged. ‘So sorry.’
‘Natty,’ bellowed Farve.
‘Natty,’ whispered Muv.
‘Telephone Cousin Winston,’ he ordered his wife. ‘We must send a tanker at once!’

Later that evening, Decca was back at Rutland Gate. The Paget twins caught a lift on the tanker and stopped off at Peter Jones to spend their Snakes and Ladders winnings. ‘Five hours was all it took,’ she chirped. Muv was most impressed at the efficiency. Pam said Dieppe was so close it was just like home. Nancy scoffed and said Paris was the place to be. Within the hour, Debo returned, covered in pheasant feathers and pigeons blood and weeping about a gruesome tale called The Little Houseless Match. Unity was upstairs, or so it was assumed by the goose-stepping thuds coming through the ceiling and the repeated playing of ‘Horst Wessel Leid’ on the gramophone.
‘So tell me everything, from the start,’ Muv ordered.
Decca said that Aunt Natty was her charming self and, after suggesting they go back to her house with the fishmonger, and having been hosed down at the front door, they all sat down to a thrilling game of Snakes and Ladders.
‘Not Racing Demon?’ Debo asked.
‘No,’ Decca stated. ‘Oh, before I forget,’ she reached into her pocket. ‘Natty said to give you this.’
Narrowing her green eyes to slits, Nancy accepted the odoriferous lilac coloured envelope. ‘Dare I open it?’ She looked at Muv and Farve. Before awaiting their answer she tore into the envelope and realised there was fifty pounds inside.
‘She is a good woman,’ Muv said.
‘Such a clever cove,’ Farve agreed.
Like rich people, Muv told the children, some people could not help being naughty. Diana and Decca readily agreed and nodded in unison.
‘Well, let’s say we forget the whole ghastly business of Delphine Ale-Stout,’ Nancy tossed the letter onto the fire.
‘Whatever do you mean?’ Decca jumped to her feet. ‘Natty isn’t Delphine Ale-Stout. She simply had no note-paper and the Paget twins came to the rescue.’ With great difficulty she retrieved the half-singed letter from the fire. ‘Money for an old war debt, love Natty,’ she read aloud.
Blor sniffed. ‘The Paget twins, eh?’
Five minutes later there was a knock on the door and Mabel entered, bearing another letter from Delphine Ale-Stout. It was an odd letter, quite rambling in its tone. ‘Dearest Nancy Freeman-Mitford. I don’t know who you are. I have never heard of you. I was impersonated by an old governess wishing to seek revenge and destroy my reputation. Please don’t write back. I have blacklisted you.’
Nancy did not throw the letter onto the fire or tear it up. She added it to her pile of correspondence. ‘One day I shall publish a book of letters, you’ll see,’ she told her disbelieving family.
They all laughed and forgot about the non-U escapade that was Miss Delphine Ale-Stout.
‘One last thing,’ Muv interrupted the jovial scene. ‘What else did Natty say?’
‘Oh,’ Decca beamed, ‘she promised to introduce me to her grandson, Esmond Romilly.’
There were floods. Absolute floods.

(Apologies for WordPress’s lack of formatting. It is too, too sickmaking!)

 

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Guest Blog: The Mitford Girls by Dr. Peter Hancock

The Mitford Girls

 

The Mitford girls, the Mitford girls

Not enmeshed in jewels and pearls

But decked with jibes and witty barbs

And silly names like muvs and farves

 

In France a writer we behold

Mocking love in climates cold

Pursing love in all its verdure

Gaining nothing but its urdure

 

Quiet Pam of Betjeman fame

Never in the ‘Mitford game’

Woman of deep caudle green

Seldom heard and rurally scene

 

Goddess fair we drink to thee

Toasting thy canardary

Paramour of Mosley

Chaste and caught so furiously

 

Bobo oh! you Valkyrie

Hitler’s girl and Nazi bride

Searched for Nordic Unity

But failed to practice suicide

 

Tempestuous, red sheep, little D

Leaning socialistically

Lost a husband in the sea

Fought for us right civilly

 

Duchess Debo Darling D

Not as tall nobility

But doyenne of the orangery

She kept a house you can now see

 

Swinbrook is a pretti-place

Of past indulgence little trace

In Mitford graves without a fence

Lies natural ends to decadence

 

 

Professor Hancock is the author of over seven hundred refereed scientific articles and publications as well as writing and editing fifteen books including: Human Performance and Ergonomics in the Handbook of Perception and Cognition series, published by Academic Press in 1999. Stress, Workload, and Fatigue, published in 2001 by Lawrence Erlbaum and Performance under Stress published in 2008 by Ashgate. He is the author of the 1997 book, Essays on the Future of Human-Machine Systems and the 2009 text, Mind, Machine and Morality also from Ashgate Publishers.

An interview with Kendra Bean author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

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Vivien Leigh and Nancy Mitford had many friends in common; Lady Diana Cooper, Noel Coward and even Winston Churchill, though as we Mitty fans know, ‘Cousin’ Winston was more than a friend to the family. I am certain Nancy and Vivien must have met one another along the way, though I have found no evidence of this. However, in her letters, Nancy writes of a film adaptation of the Love in a Cold Climate and how Vivien Leigh was a contender to play Linda. Sadly the film fell through.

I’ve been anticipating my interview with Kendra Bean, author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, because some familiar factors are at play here: Kendra and I have known one another – in the online sense – for years, probably a decade but who is counting! We secured book deals within a day of one another and on a more significant note, today is the centenary of Vivien’s birth.

Kendra runs www.vivandlarry.com – an online treasure trove of information on Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Her gorgeous coffee table book, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait was published by Running Press and is gaining much attention in the media and by fans alike. I caught up with Kendra to quiz her about her book, the interview follows below.

Click here to purchase Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait.

When did you become a fan of Vivien Leigh, can you tell us about the defining moment?

There wasn’t really a defining moment. My interest in Vivien began when I first saw Gone With the Wind and deepened over time as I read and learned more about her.

Did you ever imagine it would lead to a website, an international following and a publishing deal?

When I first became interested in her story? No, not really. There were quite a few Vivien websites online at that time. I’d been a fan for a while when I decided to start vivandlarry.com, which I did because as I began doing my own collecting and research about Vivien, there were a lot of things I wasn’t finding on those other websites and wanted to share them with other people. Over the years it’s grown exponentially, which was surprising as I never knew there were so many other fans out there. As you know, the book deal was a long time coming, even after I’d decided I wanted to do it. It took a lot of persistence to convince publishers that Vivien is still relevant today.

What inspired you to write a coffee table book rather than a conventional biography of Vivien?

My interest in Vivien led to a further appreciation for vintage fashion and Hollywood studio photography. In some ways I almost enjoy coffee table books about Old Hollywood more than straight biographies because those actors, those stars, lent themselves so well to the visual medium. Also, in maintaining vivandlarry.com there were so many photographs of Vivien that turned up, which I hadn’t seen before.

My original vision for An Intimate Portrait was to have all new and super rare photos, and there were a lot that I found which aren’t included in the book for various reasons ranging from copyright issues to things being too expensive for my budget. But during the publication process, I learned that there has to be a sense of familiarity for readers, as well as new material, and a mix of colour and black and while photos.

Can you describe the process which you undertook in gathering information and how you go about transcribing it?

This book was five years from idea stage to finished product, and in that time I obviously had other things going on in my life – working full time, graduate school, moving half way around the world, working again. But the research process consisted of gathering as many materials as possible to form a timeline. This included sourcing articles, transcribing letters and documents in archives, listening to audio, watching Vivien’s films again, going through the previous biographies, etc.

Then I had to sort the pile of information in front of me and start to construct a narrative. As this isn’t a full biography, I really had to editorialise and think about what worked here and what didn’t, what was really important and what wasn’t in reconstructing Vivien’s story. There were areas I wanted to highlight and felt I could bring something new to, whether it was new documentary information or new analysis based on my own knowledge of film history.

What was your publishing journey like, can you tell us about any unexpected twists or turns?

It was a long road. When I first started out on this journey I knew next to nothing about how to take my idea and turn it into an actual book. How does one go about getting published? I asked a lot of questions and, thankfully, people were encouraging and willing to offer advice. Things got serious when I packed up and moved to London in 2010. I got an agent pretty much right away, which was really exciting and a step in the right direction, but then it took two years to actually get a publisher. In that time, the focus of my book changed (for the better, I think), so I had to re-write my proposal.

I was a bit disappointed that a lot of publishers didn’t think Vivien was that relevant anymore, and therefore didn’t think she would sell. From running my website and Facebook page, I knew there was an audience for a book like this, but I had to prove it. I have enough awareness of marketing to know that big anniversaries are a good selling point, and because there hadn’t been a good biography about Vivien since Hugo Vickers’ in the late 1980s, I knew that if I didn’t get it published for this 100th anniversary on 5 November, the ship would pass and there wouldn’t be another good opportunity for years, by which time people really might not care anymore. So, time was of the essence, and I needed a publisher that had the resources to publish this specific type of book. Running Press asked me to pitch the book via a conference call with the senior editor and publisher, and luckily I was able to convince them that this was a worthy project.

An Intimate Portrait was a late acquisition for Running Press’ fall 2013 list, so the turnaround time between getting my contract and handing in the manuscript was really fast. There was a lot of stress involved because not only did I have to finish the manuscript, I had to finish sourcing, purchasing, and clearing copyright for photos, which was a time consuming task in itself.

Is this the start of a writing career? What would you like to do next?

I hope so. I have a few different ideas kicking around. I’d like to try my hand at a full biography and also branch out into other areas of film history. I’m currently working in the photographs department at the National Portrait Gallery, which I love, so maybe there’s some more archival or curatorial work in my future. We’ll see what happens!

Aside from Vivien Leigh and the world of acting, who are you literary heroes?

I don’t have heroes, per-se, just favourite books. I read a lot of books about film history, but when it comes to literature, I’m a big fan of historical fiction. Some of my all-time favorite books include Gone With the Wind (an obvious one), The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I love the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I’ll read basically anything by Cormac McCarthy.

And last but not least, who is your favourite Mitford girl?

I don’t have one as yet, but I have The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life in front of me and am looking forward to learning more about all of them.

American Mitties

Hello American Mitties!

It seems that amazon.com has released The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life a month or so early. This is very exciting news and once again I’d like to express how grateful I am to those of you who have been supportive of my little book.

My article in Vintage Life magazine

I’ve just received a copy of Vintage Life magazine which features my article ‘The Mitford Sisters and the Turbulent Thirties’ along with a review and an ad for my book!  Please see below for photographs. Issue 34 will be available from Aug 29th!

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Diana Birchall on meeting Jessica Mitford

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In the appendix of my book The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life you will find many personal stories of the girls. I love this story which Diana Birchall so kindly shared with me. See below for this extract (please note: this is copyrighted material and should not be produced elsewhere on the internet).

“My lifelong fascination with the Mitfords drove me, in 1995, to try to meet one. Singular as they were, I wanted to talk to and observe one of the sisters at first hand in order to have a better understanding of the family and the phenomenon. Also, they were getting older, and it was clear that if I was ever going to meet a Mitford, I had to accomplish it soon. As I live in Los Angeles, Jessica was the closest, but this was before e-mail and google, and making contact was more difficult. I couldn’t think how to track and meet her. Then a friend in San Francisco, intrigued by my determination, reported a sighting. Jessica was being auctioned off by the Berkeley Library – or at least a dinner with her was. My friend loyally bid $100. But a wealthy lady won the auction, for $700, the proceeds to go to the library, and this kind lady very generously arranged a dinner for eight, and invited me and my friend to be of the party. So I flew up to Berkeley and went to this elegant soirée at the lady’s beautiful home high on the hills.

The amusing thing was that none of the other people invited (except my friend, and myself) really knew who Jessica Mitford was. They were just doing something nice for the library. Knowing that this was perhaps my only chance to ask a Mitford everything I wanted to know, I compiled a list of questions. What was Farve really like? Did Jessica get along with the others now? Were there really Nazi sympathies still in the family? How did she reconcile her lifelong love of communism with the fall of the Soviet Union? And could she demonstrate for me what the Mitford shriek sounded like? Superficial, perhaps, but the multiple biographies, Letters Between Six Sisters, and Decca’s letters had not yet been published, and the Mitford reader did not know about the sisters’ lives in such depth as we do now.

I found Decca sitting composedly alone and apart in the living room, a silver haired lady in her mid to late seventies, distinguishable from the other rather elderly ladies by her elegant finger-waved silver hair and the triangular, blue, baleful Mitford eyes. Those, I recognized instantly. The other ladies were gathered in little clutches, not liking to approach her, so I went up to her, plonked myself down on a footrest, and proceeded to ask my questions. She instantly lit up and opened out, answering every one of my questions in expansive detail. (She even gave me the Mitford shriek, which to my surprise sounded like a trilling little 1920s debutante giggle.) We talked for about an hour before being ushered in to the elegant dinner, and our lively chat continued during the meal, with the others looking on silently. Was I rude to hog her? But she seemed to like having somebody who knew about her and was interested in her stories. As for me, I was in heaven!
After the main course, the hostess, thinking she ought to say something, introduced Jessica formally to the group and then said, “Now Jessica. We all know you came from England. Would you like to tell us what in your life brought you to this country?” The blue eyes blinked a bit in startlement, as of course she had by then been talking hard and animatedly about nothing less than her complete life story, for at least two hours. “No,” she said, “I don’t really want to talk about myself, but I will tell you what I will do. I will sing you a song.” And she charged into a lively rendition of the Grace Darling song, with all the verses, followed by an amusing anecdote of how, when her family was on their island of Inch Kenneth, and they sang the song loudly with its chorus of “Help! Help!” small boats would pull onto the island to see if there was any trouble. How she did know how to entertain – and to amuse!
The ladies, however, listened rather uncomprehendingly. After this rousing entertainment, another lady addressed Jessica earnestly, with, “Jessica, I understand you have written a book called The American Way of Death.”
“I have,” said she.
“Well, I want to ask you this,” the lady said in a wavering voice, “I am so concerned about this subject because – my husband, he is getting older, and it is just terrible – he is such a brilliant man! He has two college degrees! Tell me, Jessica, as an authority on the subject, do you believe there is an Afterlife?”
Jessica levelled her eyes at her questioner, not the eyes of a gentle elderly old pussycat at all, and said succinctly, “No.”
My friend hastily interposed a general comment about how different religions believed different things, and Jessica raised an eyebrow and asked my friend what religion she was. “Unitarian,” said my friend. “Oh,” said Jessica, laughing, “But that is really no religion at all, is it?” My friend laughed and conceded it.
Then to change the subject, Jessica announced, “I think I will sing another chorus of the Grace Darling song now.” And she did.

I felt flattered that Jessica Mitford, my long time heroine, seemed to take such a shine to me, and actually asked for my phone number at the end of the evening. No doubt she did enjoy my interest. But I soon found out that she was also a canny organizer, and her method was to make use of people to achieve her various worthy aims. When she called and faxed me, she explained that her friend, Sally Belfrage, had died recently and prematurely of cancer, just after publishing a book about having been a Red Diaper Baby. Sally had not been able to do a book tour, so Jessica had organized a memorial book reading in San Francisco, and now she wanted one in L.A. She had an actress who was willing to have it at her house. Would I help organize, and as I was then the local Jane Austen Society president, invite everyone I knew? So I said I would, and Jessica came down to L.A. and invited me to lunch at her hotel, the Sofitel.
This was another very pleasant occasion with me asking her rather more serious questions. About her belief in communism after the fall of the Soviet Union, she said, “Well, that is the problem, isn’t it!” About fascism, she said heatedly that most of her family still did hate Jews really, and that was why she did not care to be among them much.

She did not come back down for the actual book launch, which was a rather strange occasion, since the spectacle of seventy-five Jane Austenites listening to excerpts of a Red Diaper Baby memoir was slightly surreal. But a lot of books were sold. I next saw Decca on a visit to L.A. when she invited me to a party at her lawyer’s house, at which I met Maya Angelou and a delightful bevy of eighty-year-old communists and legendary screenwriters. My son came with me and it is one of his all-time cherished memories.

Soon after, the Duchess of Devonshire came to Los Angeles on a lecture tour, and I met her too. I cheerfully told her that I had won her sister at an auction, but she looked wary and alarmed – the look in the blue eyes, so similar to Decca’s, was startlingly similar – and merely said, “Oh really,” and backed away.”

Diana Birchall is a successful author and is a lover of all things Honnish (she’s quite the Hon, herself!) Click here to visit her personal website and here to have a look at her lovely books.

Social & Personal Magazine

My friend alerted me to a great 6 page spread in Ireland’s leading fashion publication Social & Personal Magazine. I’ve attached photos of the the writeup. Please note: They have used extracts and photos from my book so if you haven’t read it already you might want to skip this post!

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A Mitford Themed Day

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This event has been in the pipeline for such a long time and I am thrilled to finally announce that it is going ahead. Alex (from The Amy Grimehouse) has been working tirelessly to organize what will be a wondair occasion. The date has been confirmed as Saturday 7th September at Sutton House in Hackney, and the party will begin at 7pm and run on until midnight. There will be a screening of the BFI doc Nancy Mitford: A Portrait by her Sisters–a must for all Mitford fans as this is very rare!! How extraorder will it be to see (and hear) Pam on the big screen!! That in itself is a reason to attend. Apart from the screening, there will be talks and Nanny Blor will be hosting the evening.

I am hoping The National Trust (the partners of this event) will permit The History Press to send copies of my book. Regardless, it is going to be a fun filled evening!! I can’t wait to finally meet our dedicated Mitties from The Mitford Society.

Blissikins!