Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Mitfords and Marie-Antoinette

The Mitford girls have to rank alongside the Boleyn sisters, the Lennox girls and the Brontës as amongst the most famous sibling units produced by the English upper-classes. Born between 1904 and 1920, the six sisters were the children of Tory country squire, Lord Redesdale, and his wife, Sydney, and each was to lead an extraordinary life and to capture the attention of high society and the tabloid press. Their lives have been immortalised on screen, on stage and in musicals, with their childhood being memorably lampooned by the scathing wit of the eldest sister in her fabulous best-selling novel, "The Pursuit of Love." One sister is today the personal heroine of J.K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, another (the only still living, sadly) is the curatrix of one of the most splendid private homes of the British aristocracy and another is a regular player in inaccurate and wild conspiracy theories that Hitler had a secret love child. There was also a brother, Tom, born between Pamela and Diana, who had a school-time fling at Eton with the future acclaimed architect, writer and socialite, James Lee-Milne, before becoming something of a ladies' man and who was tragically killed on active service in Burma in 1945.

Nancy, the eldest sister, was born in 1904 and became a best-selling author, known for her witty, satirical looks at upper-class life in her brilliant novels The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, Don’t Tell Alfred and others, as well as her equally popular historical biographies of Frederick the Great, Louis XIV and Madame de Pompadour. Pamela, born in 1907, was briefly married to a wealthy scientist; Diana, considered the greatest Society beauty of her generation, was first married to Bryan Guinness, the heir to the Guinness brewing fortune, before leaving him to marry Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists; Unity, born in 1914, moved to Germany and became a fervent Nazi and a confidante of Adolf Hitler; Decca (christened Jessica) ran off to Spain to fight for the Communists during the Spanish Civil War and later became a Civil Rights activist in America and Deborah, born in 1920, married the 11th Duke of Devonshire and still lives at Chatsworth House, today.

After the Second World War, two of the Mitford sisters ended up living in Paris - Nancy, by then both a fashion icon and phenomenally successful author, lived in the Rue Monsieur, where she was very much part of the city's "beautiful people." She continued to write an article for the Sunday Times back in London, as well as publishing scathingly bitchy articles on everything from travelling in Ireland to English women's sense of fashion. She had a famously dry "Mitford" sense of humour, once quipping that Rome was really nothing more than a town based around a vicarage, with one post office and one train station and that the true savagery of post-war rations for the French aristocracy meant that they could only afford one New Look Dior gown for a family wedding weekend.

To Nancy's evident chagrin, she was joined in Paris by her most beautiful and charming sister, Diana, now Lady Mosley. Having been imprisoned during the War without trial due to her husband's fascist politics and her own pro-German sympathies, Diana and Mosley had eventually realised that life in Britain was never going to quite recover for them. The stigma of fascism became a revulsion once the full, unfathomable horrors of the Holocaust were uncovered and they decided to live abroad for a while. (In fact, Diana kept a home in Paris until her own death in 2003.) So, they moved to Paris where they settled in a charming 19th century mansion in the suburbs, built during the time of Napoleon.

Nancy, very much used to being "queen bee" of the Anglo-Parisian glitterati, did not like the competition posed by the arrival of the notorious but undeniably glamorous Diana (above.) With her goddess-like good-looks and ability to charm the legs off a stool, Diana Mosley had already become the darling of writers like Evelyn Waugh and James Lee-Milne and she was likely to pose a serious threat to Nancy's uncontested popularity. Diana, naively, thought Nancy would be delighted to have her living in the same town.

To anyone who has read a biography of the sisters, or, indeed, their own books, Diana strangely emerges as the far more likable of the two - in everything except politics that is (since by most standards what she believed was abhorrent.) More than one close friend or biographer has remarked on their inability to reconcile how someone so gracious and affable, so funny and so charming, so apparently kind, fun-loving and well-mannered could possibly have believed things so unutterably grotesque. The usual cop-out was to blame her husband for everything, in much the same way as the Mitford family had tended to blame Decca's first husband, the rabidly Communist Esmond Romilly, for corrupting her into the world of the Far Left back in the 1930s.

The extract below comes from Diana's first autobiography, A Life of Contrasts, published in 1977. The memoirs give an unforgettably vivid portrait of life amongst the upper-classes in post-war Paris, in the age of Dior and De Gaulle, and the extract in particular chronicles a notorious incident in which Nancy Mitford insulted Marie-Antoinette in the autumn of 1955. In an article published to mark the bicentenary of Marie-Antoinette's birth, Nancy wrote: - "To me Marie Antoinette is one of the most irritating characters in history. She was frivolous without being funny, extravagant without being elegant, her stupidity was monumental; she was one of those people who cannot put a foot right."

Diana, writing in 1977, fascinatingly recalls: -

"For the bicentenary of Marie Antoinette an exhibition was arranged at Versailles. Beginning with her childhood at Schönbrunn one saw the whole life of the tragic Queen in room after room, through her years of luxury, grandeur, fun and riches to the poverty and suffering in the prisons of the Temple and the Conciergerie and ending with David’s cruel drawing of her with her prematurely grey hair cut short as she sat in the tumbrel on her way to the guillotine. It brought tears to the eyes.

Nancy chose this moment to publish her deep thoughts about Marie Antoinette. I think what set her off was a letter from Maria Theresa to her daughter when she was Dauphine, in which the Empress enjoin her never for one moment to forget ‘que vous êtres Allemande.’ The word, allemande, was too much for Nancy. She wrote that Marie Antoinette was a traitress to France who tried to persuade her brother and the other German monarchs to invade France on her behalf. There was just enough truth in it to annoy, for the French who idolize Marie Antoinette, the martyred queen, in much the same way but multiplied a thousand-fold as the English idolize Mary Queen of Scots.

During the ensuing storm we were lunching one day with Princess Natty de Lucinge. When we arrived she took me aside and whispered: ‘I’m afraid I’ve made a terrible gaffe. Van der Kemp is here!’ M. Van der Kemp, curator at Versailles, had arranged the exhibition.

‘Does it matter?’ I asked.

‘Oh, yes. Your sister’s article,’ said Princess Natty.

However, he rose above it, and a few years later Van der Kemp became one of Nancy’s greatest friends; during her illness he used to arrive at her house with armfuls of flowers for her.

A friend we were fond of at that time was the Marquis de Lasteyrie, an old gentleman who was descended from Lafayette and who lived at Lafayette’s country house, La Grange. He invited us to tea and raspberries in summer. Although he was very poor he never dreamed of selling any of the priceless documents at La Grange; priceless, because Americans would pay anything for the slightest scratch from the pen of Lafayette. He allowed his guests to look at everything but he himself was unimpressed, and he avoided his famous ancestor as far as possible. When M. Lasteyrie died and his cousin René de Chambrun inherited La Grange he was astonished at the chaotic way in which these Franco-American treasures were stored and disposed about the house. ‘C’est que Monsieur le Marquis n’aimait pas le Marquis,’ explained the butler, Delphin.

This dislike was the result of his deep love and veneration for Marie Antoinette. When Lafayette was supposed to be in charge of the safety of the King and Queen at Versailles the mob burst in and killed the Swiss guards. The Queen only escaped by using a secret passage which connected her room with the King’s. ‘Monsieur de Lafayette dort bien!’ she was heard to say.

Once at the Folie Bergère they did a comic sketch in which Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were made fun of. M. de Lasteyrie heard about it; he bought a ticket and sat in the front row of the stalls. When the rude sketch got under way he stood up and waved his arms shouting in his quavery voice: ‘Ce n’est pas vrai! Notre reine Marie-Antoinette était une sainte!’ There was a moment of shocked silence and then the whole audience began to laugh. There was a sort of riot of laughter. According to Josée de Chambrun, as dear, brave old M. de Lasteyrie left the theatre someone from management rushed up to him and asked what he would charge to do the same turn every evening."

Extract taken from: chapter 21 of 'A Life of Contrasts: The Autobiography of Diana Mosley' (1910 - 2003), published in 1977.

You can buy a copy of the book in the UK, here.

And books about the entire family in the US or UK.


  1. What an interesting family, made even more so by the times in which they lived. Being an only child myself, I always assume that siblings will somehow grow to be mostly the same, but the wild contrasts of these vivacious women is something at which to marvel! I have never heard of them before now, but I plan on picking up some of their books and learning more about their family and their lives. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  2. Not at all, Elizabeth - I'm glad you're intrigued. The Mitford industry is still a big one in the UK. I heartily recommend Nancy's novels, particularly "The Pursuit of Love," but a great starting factual book is the biography by Mary S. Lovell.

  3. I remember sitting up all night on a flight to Frankfurt devouring THE PURSUIT OF LOVE and LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE. I found it hilarious. Nancy's bio of La Pompadour in a lot of fun, too. It is difficult to tell exactly where Nancy's life ends and La Pompadour's begins.

  4. Being a historian of earlier eras, I never thought I would become as fascinated as I have become in the Edwardian and Inter-War periods. Only through blogging by the way, my own and other peoples'.

    You wrote "another (the only still living, sadly) is the curatrix of one of the most splendid private homes of the British aristocracy". Which home is it? I am assuming tourists can visit.

  5. The house is indeed open to tourists - it's the famous Chatsworth and the Dowager Duchess is a very successful CEO of the Chatsworth industries, as well as having masterminded the opening of the house to tourists for the first time back in the 1950s.

  6. Like Hels posted above, I'm also fascinated by the Edwardian and Inter-War periods. I think it's the feeling of ways of life being lost forever - something Nancy Mitford comments on (through Linda) in 'The Pursuit of Love'. But I must say, I've always found Nancy more sympathetic than Diana in any accounts of the sisters I've read. Perhaps I am just unable to separate her politics from the rest of her character.


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