Noblesse Oblige: The Last Of The Mitfords

‘I had letters from you & the Lady (Nancy) & Henderson (Jessica) today, wouldn’t it be dread if one had a) no sisters b) sisters who didn’t write.’        

– Deborah Cavendish to her sister Diana Mosley, July 1965

‘Debo’ as she was known to her loved ones, was always willing to correspond with those wanting to talk to her about her remarkable relatives, and her extraordinary life as the Duchess of Devonshire. With the laying to rest today of Her Grace, in the ducal churchyard at Edensor, the iconic Mitford sisters who came to occupy an almost mythical space in British culture are no more.

In reading the host of obituaries following the death last Wednesday of Deborah Freeman-Mitford, at the age of 94, a more genuine picture of the bonds that united the Mitfords in the face of Fascism, Communism, war and death, emerges from their own personal recollections. The sisters resist any contemporary comparison, because of their background and upbringing within a uniquely select world, one evolving for a thousand years then finding itself undergoing a period of rapid decline.

It was to be a process of radical political change in England, with which history will always associate the Mitford name. As was common in those of their class, the sisters wrote to each other for the duration of their lives, on occasion penning correspondence to their siblings several times a day. Offering a unique record of an age gone by 12,000 letters survive, presenting a profound insight into how their experiences of life in their childhood homes, would shape destinies subject to public notoriety and historical fascination ever since. What also emerges from their letters is the constant role of Debo as peacemaker, the preserver of a pastoral idyll tarnished and faded by crisis. In the life ahead of her she would need all the compassion and tact for which she would become renowned.

The Honourable Deborah Vivien was born on 31st March 1920, the youngest child of what were by then Lord and Lady Redesdale, of Asthall Manor in Oxfordshire. David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford and his wife Sydney Bowles. Debo’s elder siblings were Nancy, Pamela, Tom, Diana, Unity and Jessica. Known as Decca, Jessica had been born three years earlier at the sprawling Batsford House estate in Gloucestershire. Batsford was the home of Algernon Bertram ‘Barty’ Freeman-Mitford, David’s father with whom Sydney and their children lived after David joined up in 1914, the family having previously moved around various parts of London and Wiltshire.

In 1916, the year he was invalided out of service, it was inherited by David, along with the titles and lands. As the second son, David never expected to take on the estate or the responsibilities that came with it, but after his older brother Clement was killed during the Battle of Loos in May 1915, it became an inevitability. The Batsford estate, which included Redesdale Hall, built as a tribute to John Thomas Freeman-Mitford, the 1st Earl Redesdale and the childless cousin who had bequeathed Barty his lands, was surrounded by a vast garden which Barty delighted in landscaping in an Oriental style – a nod to his time as a diplomat in Japan. It would have undoubtedly pained Barty to know that, after living at Batsford for only three years, his son was forced to part with the house and estate, selling it to Sir Gilbert Alan Hamilton Wills who would later become the 1st Baron Dulverton in 1929.

Losing their Gloucestershire lands, upon which the use of the name ‘Freeman’ was grounded, it was largely discarded by David’s daughters. Already in possession of the leasehold to the Asthall estate, David purchased the manor house with the proceeds from Batsford and the family moved there in 1919. By 1926, financial troubles necessitated another move, this time to nearby Swinbrook House where, bored by their rural surroundings, the elder sisters came out for the Season from houses rented in West London by the family, their experiences mirroring that of the nobility.

The arrival of her many children would end Sydney’s ability to follow her passion for writing, as the daughter of the man who founded two society publications Vanity Fair (1868) and The Lady (1885). But her marriage to David would also mark the beginning of her daughters’ discovery of their own, in the library of their grandfather’s stately home. The latter magazine continues in its original incarnation to the present today, its audience more resilient than that of the former.

All lacked much in the way of formal education, on account of their father’s horror at the prospect of strong-willed daughters destined to acquire notable husbands being left with ‘fat ankles’ after playing hockey at school. With the Dowager Duchess admitting to her agreement with her father in a 2006 documentary, that the life that lay before Ladies required a different sort of education from that needed by boys, with the adroitly measured candour so characteristic of her correspondence. The Asthall estate’s barn, converted for the use of the family’s recently ennobled daughters, was turned into a library and ballroom. Offering a refuge for the older daughters blossoming into adolescence, who missed the governesses, gardens, library and unimaginable space, of the house built on lands sold by their father in 1919. The smaller, more manageable, and less financially perilous Swinbrook House would have to do for the daughters, while their brother was packed off to school ‘by the usual route’ for the family. Debo shared the ready wit of her siblings, but it was as gentle as she was sensitive; leaving her interviewer to infer her reference to the inability of her father to get into Eton.

She was discussing days whose significance were remembered by her only through her sisters’ recollections, brought to life to the reader of the letters between them. As the glittering dinner parties at Asthall of military men and diplomats disappeared, increasingly worldly women were presented with the option of either country pursuits or boredom. Often with little more than the farmyard or her nearest sister in age the Hon. Jessica for company, her tiny bedroom at Swinbrook, now a linen closet, was a place Debo would love for the rest of her life and would never quite get over leaving. ‘Nothing had ever taken its place and nothing ever will.’ She wrote of the move when she was 16, that it broke her heart.

All the siblings’ experiences at Swinbrook would have a profound effect on their lives, in different ways to that of their youngest sister, who though brought up in the intimate surroundings of a more modest home, would reach adulthood in the majestic halls of Chatsworth House. It was a journey unlikely to faze a girl from a family for whom dukes were a ‘recent’ invention. Her parents would produce four children by 1914, a date which would irrevocably change both the family, and the class whose disappearance they have come to represent in the popular imagination. In their childhoods Nancy (b. 1904), Pamela (b. 1907), Thomas David (b. 1909), and Diana (b. 1914), would all find themselves increasingly summoned by the bells of the two churches next to their homes, to steal glances at the funerals of men being returned home.

Another daughter the Hon. Unity Valkyrie, whose unhappy life is all too often unjustly deemed to summarize the role of Mitford women in political history, was born only four days after the declaration of the Great War, having been conceived in Ontario whilst their father was prospecting for gold. The Hon. Jessica Lucy’s arrival in 1917, alongside the granting of both titles and middle names, to the last three daughters at their births: pointing to the events behind the siblings’ transition. First into landed gentry with the death of their uncle, then into the aristocracy, with the death of their socially diligent but ultimately heartbroken grandfather.

Finally, in 1920, into a restless peace of social turbulence, the Hon. Deborah Vivien was born; the youngest sister of a boy who since his own arrival in 1909 everyone had just called Tom. He would die in the heat and horror of Burma, when Europe’s final attempt to tear itself apart brought a second conflict now shared by the entire world. His name inscribed into the roll of battle honours, of a house named for the peers of the king. The heir to the longest recorded seat of military power in England, Major Thomas Freeman-Mitford, of the men at arms of the Coldstream Guards, died in 1944.

The conflict of ideologies which killed him, also brought an effective end to the parties which began each summer in London. In a social whirl lasting until the parliamentary season began again, for the first men of the families of Britain, attending at the court of their king at St. James’s Palace. For the sons of these families, whose names had steered their island’s character and direction for a millennium, this marked the end of their chance. Often barely out of public school or into the army, their opportunity to snatch a first brief moment of intimacy with girls destined to be their lovers and wives, in gardens, hallways, ballrooms, drawing rooms, and balconies across the capital, was over for another year.

The closest they would get to these daughters of prospect and privilege, at first, would usually be during a short dance at a ball. The one at the Season’s zenith, named in honour of an old senior dowager of the court in the Georgian era, held to let each girl with the right background debut as a lady in London. An announcement of the beginning of her maturity, and her availability to be courted for marriage. ‘Queen Charlotte was resolved to keep her court pure, in the persons of its female part, at least,’ and had been scandalized to hear that the wife of the Duke of Cumberland had been ‘suspected of levity of conduct’ in early life. At her ball the men wore white gloves, naturally. Too many a clammy hormone-fuelled hand had ruffled the elegant deportment, and left marks on the courtly ball gowns, of London’s debs.

Above: BBC documentary Debutantes, in which the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire remember the Season of 1939

Together, in the churchyard of St Mary’s at Swinbrook, first Unity (d. 1948), then Nancy (d. 1973), Pamela (d. 1994) and Diana (d. 2003), all found peace from the men they loved. While the other sisters would both find a grave, near the homes they had made alongside their own men. Jessica (d. 1996) died a citizen of the United States, and is buried in California with her beloved Robert Truehaft. As a lawyer the son of Hungarian immigrants, would prove an equally radically left-wing, if more settled second husband.

Deborah, whose funeral took place at noon today, now lies within the estate of Chatsworth, which she shared with Andrew Robert Buxton Cavendish (d. 2004) the 11th Duke of Devonshire. No memorial service was held at St Peter’s Church, as were her express instructions. In the following posts I shall further examine the impact of the Mitford women, on social history as it was defined by them, and as it is today.

The current and 6th Baron Redesdale, Rupert Bertram Mitford (b. 1967) is a Liberal Democrat life peer who lives in Tufnell Park in London with his wife Helen a lawyer, their eldest son is fourteen. Heir apparent to the title but no longer the land of the Mitford dynasty, united by the Earl of Redesdale, through an Act of Parliament given Royal Assent on 31st July 1854.

The boy is doted on by his father’s eldest sister the Hon. Emma (b. 1959) and her five other siblings. The Hons. Tessa (b. 1960), Georgina (b. 1961), Victoria (b. 1962), Henrietta (b. 1965), and the youngest of the Mitford sisters, Georgina Clementine Freeman-Mitford (b. 1968).