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


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 – 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, 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 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 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!





Diana Birchall on meeting Jessica Mitford


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!



A Mitford Themed Day


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.


Jessica Mitford: Churchill’s Rebel by Meredith Whitford


Click here to purchase Churchill’s Rebel

When a new Mitford related book is released the online hype can be phenomenal. This new kindle biography on Jessica Mitford has only been released and already it has fellow Mitties clicking ‘download’. The biography itself surprised me– I should mention that I was sent an advance review copy of Churchill’s Rebel by Endeavour Press–it is a book crafted around Esmond Romilly and Jessica Mitford’s life together. To Meredith Whitford’s credit she has used a niche approach to the never ending story of the girls, the book itself launches straight into Romilly’s background rather than the subject so prominently featured on the cover.

“The Boy Romilly” as he was not so affectionately known by his father in law, Lord Redesdale, is always depicted as the villain in Jessica’s story. The rebellious public school boy who led her astray and estranged her from her family. But is that entirely true? Romilly’s side of the story has been painstakingly researched by the author. She delved into endless archives on both sides of the Atlantic (the Churchill Archives in England and Jessica’s papers in America). She also flew from Australia to New York to interview Jessica’s children.

My friend Joseph Dumas (a friend of Jessica’s and author of the foreword to my book) praised the biography as being “the most rounded portrait of Esmond Romilly I have ever encountered”.

I’ve conducted a question & answer session with the author because I always believe it is best to hear the story from their point of view.

When did you become interested in the Mitfords?
I became interested in the Mitfords when, at about 19, I found “Hons and Rebels” and “A Fine Old Conflict” in the library — until then I’d never heard of the family and hadn’t yet read any of Nancy’s novels; although I soon fixed that! I think I then found Giles Romilly’s “Hostages at Colditz” (also p/a “The Privileged Nightmare”. Soon after that, IIRC, David Pryce-Jones’s book about Unity Mitford came out, and then came a whole rush of Mitford books, and I just kept buying them and reading them. One thing that attracted me, odd though it may sound, is that Lord Redesdale sounded so like my own father — my dad of course had no title but was a land-owner, and had the same humour and occasional temper, the insistence on punctuality, the abhorrence of “mess”, the rather old-fashioned outlook (makeup! the horror!) and even used some of the same expressions. Jessica’s depiction of the vague, unaffectionate mother rang a bell, too… Other than that, the Mitfords’ lives could hardly have been more different from mine, but they are interesting, aren’t they. Do admit. And of course, the more I came to know about politics (not taught at my hi-falutin’ girls school), the more that aspect of their lives fascinated me.

Who is your favourite girl?
Well, Decca. Politically I’m of a leftish persuasion; but I like her humour, and the dogged way she fought for civil and black rights. I think in some ways it was easier for an Australian like me to relate to American political interests — back in the 70s, I mean, when I first began my Mitford voyage; Vietnam and so on. In some ways I could relate to Diana, having, like her, married young to escape a boring home and then divorcing at about 22, like her, but her politics put me off. Nancy can be very funny in her writing but is too affected to appeal greatly. So: Decca. Least favourite: Diana cos of politics, and Pam seems a bit dull. (Sorry.)

Did you learn anything new about Decca whilst researching?
I learned a great deal about Decca in researching the book. I’d better admit that I was frightfully annoyed by the anti-Dec & Es bias in Mary Lovell’s book, and thought at first of writing an article on that aspect. Then I started researching Esmond much more — read his two books etc, found out more about his family, got really interested in the Romilly side. I made contact with Giles Romilly’s son Edmund and daughter Lizzie, and met them when I was in England, and got a lot of useful info from them. The Literature Board of the Australia Council gave me a research grant to go to the USA and UK to use archives there, without which of course I couldn’t have written the book. I had hoped to find letters between Esmond and Churchill, but found none, disappointingly. He rather seemed to cut himself off from most of his family after Spain and marrying Decca — probably there was a lot of disapproval, and of course the death of their baby daughter, at 5 months, clearly affected both Decca and Esmond very deeply, and I think there was a natural wish to get right away from those memories. As a historian I believe in using primary resources wherever possible, and the family letters (mostly from the Jessica Mitford Archive in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room in the library of Ohio State University) often throw a very different light on people and events from that given in secondary sources. One thing I did find is that “Hons and Rebels” (written without access to the mass of family letters, including Decca’s own; she only found them after her mother’s death, after “H&R” was published) rather misrepresented her and Esmond’s circumstances — e.g. they were never nearly as broke and bohemian as she remembered. One thing I did discover is that the famous Toynbee story of D and E behaving badly at Lord Faringdon’s house, Buscot Park, was a mixture of false memories and stories Esmond amused himself by telling the gullible Toynbee. As I note in my book, it never happened! Re cutting off from Dec’s family — I certainly think Esmond disapproved of them (altho they were his relations too) and wasn’t keen on too much contact, but I think Decca did a lot of her own cutting off. However, as letters show, there was in fact a certain amount of contact all round, with friends as well as family.

I was impressed by your research into Esmond Romilly’s life. Nancy, Diana and Debo always paint him as some sort of villain. Do you think he played a part in keeping Decca from her family or do you think it was entirely her own choice to cease contact?
Esmond: Nancy called him the most horrible human being she’d ever met, and I bet he thought the same of her! They only met, of course, when Nancy and her husband were sent to beguile Decca home from France after she and Esmond eloped; not ideal circs in which to make friends! (BTW, I found from letters, there really WAS a plot to abduct Decca and bring her home on a Royal Navy ship!) I think the general bias against Esmond is part of the Mitford Industry’s attempts to promote a particular view of the family, which involves public disapproval of Decca, whose life and politics the others could never understand. That said, I think Esmond was someone you either loved or loathed, no middle ground, and no doubt he could be as irritating as any teenage boy — have to remember he was only 18 when they married, 19 when their baby died. Decca says, I think in “H and R” that he had matured a lot by the end of his life — he died at 23. Certainly letters prove that most of their American friends, and his comrades and superior officers in the RCAF, liked him greatly. But for all the Esmond-bashing that goes on in the various books produced by the Mitford Industry, you can find just as much to disapprove of in what one might call the other Mitford Men. When Diana Lady Mosley died her obit in the NY Times referred to Esmond as “a wastrel nephew of Winston Churchill” — quickly corrected, because Decca’s children live in NYC; but honestly, wasn’t Peter Rodd far more of a “wastrel”? And to save up that bit of spite for so long… And one must remember that the Mitfords never sympathised with Churchill’s politics, and held it against him that Diana and Sir Oswald Mosley were interned during the war, so Esmond was held guilty by association. (Also all those old adulteries in the previous generations make it hard to be sure just who was related, how, to whom, and there may have been certain reservations about Esmond and his mother because of that; also he and his mother both liked to gamble, which wasn’t a Mitford vice at all.) But I ended up thinking very well of Esmond — and of his brother Giles, who deserves his own biography. (I think his daughter thinks of writing one.)

What do you think would have happened had Esmond lived?
Had Esmond not died… well, he and Decca almost certainly planned in 1939 to live permanently in the USA, but as we know she was on the point of joining him in England in 1941 when he was killed. It’s heartbreaking to read her joyous telegram saying she’d made arrangements to fly to England, with Dinky, next week, then as if in reply she got the ‘gram telling her Esmond was dead. So, if he hadn’t died then, she would have joined him in England, and altho it’s only a guess I think they would’ve stayed there. Had Esmond survived the war I think he would have tried to go into politics in some capacity, especially with the “Khaki Election” of 1945 sweeping Labour into power. Possibly Decca would’ve done the same at some point. At the least I see them working in leftish politics or local government, and no doubt both writing. But who knows?

Will you write a sequel about Decca & Bob?
Re bio of Decca and Bob Treuhaft: the published collection of Decca’s letters (ed. Peter Y Sussman) almost amounts to a bio, but I strongly believe Bob deserves his own biography. I won’t be writing it, though, because I simply don’t know enough about American politics — one module at university isn’t enough! But Ben Treuhaft gave me a recording of Bob’s speech in front of the HUAC and it’s superb — funny, and a damning indictment, from a legal and moral perspective, of the whole stupid thing. So although I hope there’ll be a biography of him, I won’t be writing it, sadly. He was clearly a great bloke. Peter Sussman would be the chap to write it — he knew the Treuhafts, is a damn good writer, and also a great bloke. (Hey — I see the possibilty of a book of Mitford Men…)

I asked Mitford to write a short biography of herself. It seems all authors who end up writing about the Mitfords tend to have something (however small) in common with the family!

Moi: oh dear, too boring. Born and raised in South Australia, loathe living in the country (farming family), wasn’t allowed to go to university so got married much too young, and divorced. Worked for Federal and State governments. Married again; husband is a mathematician and Bridge Grand Master and I can’t even play Snap, which may be part of why we’ve lasted. Went to uni as a mature student in the 90s and got a BA in History, English and Classics from the University of Adelaide. Wrote “Treason”, a novel about Richard III, which won the 2002 international Eppie Award for Historical Fiction and which still sells well, gets 5-star reviews and some lovely fan mail — especially since the recent discovery of Richard III’s remains kicked the book up into Amazon’s Top 100 Movers and Shakers. Became a publisher for a while, and published a lot of good books, till the tax system here in Australia, and the lack of interest within the literary world (we published e-books, you see, shock horror, back at the start of the century) meant we had to close. Wrote “Shakespeare’s Will”, which is largely about Shakespeare’s married life and his (putative) affair with the Earl of Southampton. When my publisher, Bewrite Books, had to close this year, Endeavour Press took on both novels as well as the Decca and Esmond book. Went back to uni in 2010 and got a Master’s in Creative Writing. Am now doing a Ph.D. on Margery Allingham, at Flinders University. Have been director of “Between Us” Manuscript Assessment Service since 1998. Am married (31 years on the 7th of May, and we’ve staggered on thru my 20 years of CFS/ME and husband’s brush with cancer; we both seem to have recovered now). Have 2 adult children; son is married, with 2 kids, daughter still at uni and at home. Have 2 cats and spend far too much time talking to them. Have 2 more novels in the works but must focus on the PhD. BTW. I like to tell people I’m lucky enough to be a synaesthete, and enjoy the funny looks when I explain.