In recent weeks, I have been reading about the Mitford sisters, enjoying the lively memoir by Jessica Mitford, Daughters and Rebels (1960), which led me to look at the lives of the other five daughters and the notorious family that made weekly headlines in British newspapers in the Thirties.
Just this week, the last of the Mitfords, Deborah (Dowager Duchess of Devonshire) died at 94. She was the youngest daughter of Baron Redesdale and lived a quiet life presiding over the grand country home, Chatsworth, where she collected Elvis memorabilia. Several of her sisters carried eccentricity to much more alarming heights. Four wrote books about the family, creating the Mitford Myth.
Jessica became an American and a Communist (and later a civil rights activist) after running away to Spain to fight in the civil war with Churchill's nephew, with whom she eloped; this happened just after her sister, Unity, became "Hitler's English girlfriend," having become a pistol-carrying Nazi, complete with black leather outfit and swastika. The most glamorous sister, Diana, also met and adored Hitler: she left her husband and two sons for the fascist leader Oswald Mosley. She was married in home of Joseph Goebbels in 1936, with the Fuhrer in attendance. Diana and Mosley were interned in prison during World War II for treason.
So much for the three main ones. Two lived quietly. Another, Nancy Mitford, wrote fourteen books, including fiction based on the family and its tyrannical father, whose hated of foreigners and overall bigotry was something the children absorbed in various degrees yet also rebelled against. Each of them carried the title The Hon. before their names, but few were honorable: they come across as arrogantly assured of their own privileges and opinions.
Like their parents, they never apologized for what they did because they felt they were always right. I refer mainly to Diana, the worst of the bunch, who until her death at 93, never altered her view that Hitler was wonderful. Her obit called her "A charming, unrepentant Nazi who was fatally loyal to her Blackshirt husband." She and Unity, who shot herself in the head when England declared war on Germany, were described in one book as representing the "frivolity of evil."
As I look at this family and this period, when so many in the upper classes in Britain were also fascist or pro-German and anti-Semitic (even when England went to war against Nazi Germany), I have many questions about what the origins of such attitudes. How much of the Mitfords' hate came from their upbringing, how much from their upper-class milieu, how much from their need to be independent? What leads talented, bright, attractive people to such dangerous extremes?
Jessica, whose life is the most colorful and amazing, sensibly says, "We delighted in matching wits with the world and this became a way of life, an ongoing battle against our class."
Although these class distinctions are less sharp in today's world, similar kinds of anger and hatred are alive and well in Europe today, where again anti-Semitism is on the rise and where terrorists are poised to strike at what we call the civilized world. Can we not learn lessons from recent history? If not, we need the humility to recognize, unlike those now-dead English aristocrats, that we are not always right.