Admiring the Mitfords

tina-brown1
Tina Brown

In September, veteran editor Tina Brown reviewed The Six, a new joint biography — no, not of the half-dozen famous French composers who went by that collective monicker — but of Britain’s notorious Mitford sisters, some of whom we’ve been discussing this week. Brown wondered:

Why did [Diana] and Unity find the shimmer of totalitarian violence so attractive? Why were they dazzled by the glamour of authoritarianism…? Why were even their milder siblings — placid Pam, brother Tom, and their refined, aloof mother, Sydney — also fascist sympathizers…? Why was Jessica drawn to — or blind to — Stalin’s nominally left-wing brand of murderous tyranny?

These were, of course, sensible questions (even though the bit about Stalin being “nominally left-wing” was an absurd, transparently feeble effort by the left-wing Brown to delink Stalin from “the left”). But they were followed by an utterly outrageous question: “So which of ‘The Six’ does one come to admire?”

Admire?

freeman
Hadley Freeman

Brown isn’t alone in thinking that there’s actually something worth admiring about these women. Alas, any number of biographers, memoirists, and others have spoken of the Mitfords in similar terms. One of them is Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman. Two years ago, she confessed to her own intense admiration for the Mitfords – and further confessed that she was uneasy about feeling such a powerful fondness for them.

Why was Freeman uneasy? Because Jessica was a Stalinist and the others were Nazis (or at least Nazi sympathizers to some degree or other)? No. Freeman was uneasy because she was worried that admiring the Mitfords is “seen as something girlish, shallow and immature, like having an over-developed fondness for ponies, or wanting to be a ballerina.”

mitford_family
The Mitford family

Freeman went on – and if you’re reading this standing up, please sit down:

As a middle-class American – and Jewish, to boot – I should be repulsed by the Mitfords. That I’m not is because they collectively represent something much greater than their (fascinating) biographical details….To me, and I suspect to a lot of other women (for it is mainly women) whom they fascinate, they remain an exciting reminder of a woman’s ability to shape her own life, for better or worse, uncowed by familial and social expectations and restrictions.

Yes, you read that right: the ultimate lesson of the Mitfords’ lives – the lives, that is, of these slavish, foolish, pathetic acolytes of Hitler and Stalin – is all about female empowerment.

nancy
Nancy Mitford

Freeman continued: “Decca went from being a pampered, uneducated aristocratic child to a fierce civil rights campaigner in the US.” Well, yes, Jessica (Decca) did involve herself in the U.S. civil-rights movement – but she did so because she, like her Kremlin masters, saw CPUSA participation in that movement as advancing the larger cause of spreading Communism in the Western world. As for Diana, wrote Freeman, she “remained unapologetically devoted” to her husband Oswald Mosley “to the day he died.” Yes, Diana loved her husband, the most dangerous Fascist in British history – and she also kept praising Adolf Hitler until the day she died. Nancy? She “lived a somewhat lonely life in Paris, writing novels.” Hoffman delicately omits to mention Unity, presumably because Unity’s devotion to Adolf Hitler was so fanatical that even Hoffman can’t find a way to prettify it.

“How many of us,” Hoffman asked, after offering up these perverse thumbnail portraits,

hitlerunity
Unity Mitford with Hitler

can say that we pursued such individualistic lives, utterly unshaped by our parents and unlike our siblings?….it might sound odd to say this about a family spiced with such bitter ingredients as Hitler and loss, but what the Mitford sisters represent is courage and freedom.

Hoffman was right about one thing: yep, this did sound odd. More than odd.

mitford_1441145cFor this was, in fact, a family of sisters who hated freedom, and made no secret of it. Indeed, if Unity, Diana, and Jessica hadn’t made so much noise about their hatred of freedom and love of totalitarianism, chances are they’d hardly be remembered today. Yes, the West’s twentieth-century struggle to defend liberty against the scourges of Nazism and Communism yielded up a great many examples of remarkable courage in the cause of freedom: the rows of grave in military cemeteries across Europe testify to that. To use these same words to sum up the lives of the vile Mitford maidens is, it must be said, nothing less than obscene.

The Red Mitford

mitford-family
The Mitford family

In the last couple of days, we’ve examined the lives of Unity and Diana Mosley, the celebrated British sisters who became friends and fans of Adolf Hitler. Today we’ll look at their sister Jessica (1917-96), whose love of totalitarianism, unlike theirs, had a crimson tinge. In 1937, Jessica – known to intimates as “Decca” or “Dec” – eloped to Spain with her “wastrel” cousin Esmond Romilly, who had decided to join the International Brigade and fight for the Soviet-supported Republican side. Two years later Jessica and Esmond moved to America, indifferent to the looming war until Germany invaded their beloved Soviet Union, an act that inspired Romilly to join the Canadian Air Force. He was killed in action in 1941, after which Jessica found a government job in Washington and married her second husband, a “’Red’ labor lawyer” (to quote Christopher Hitchens) named Robert Treuhaft.

treuhaft5
Jessica with her second husband, Robert Treuhaft

Like Jessica, Treuhaft was a Communist. She became a U.S. citizen not because she loved America but so that she could join the Party and work towards America’s destruction. She and Treuhaft moved to Oakland, California, where they took part regularly in Party activities. They remained active CPUSA members for fifteen years, staying within the fold even after 1956, when the Soviets invaded Hungary and Nikita Khrushchev spelled out the horrific crimes against humanity that his predecessor, Josef Stalin, had committed in the name of the Revolution. Jessica (who defended the brutal Soviet incursion into Hungary as a means of preserving the “socialist system” against a “fascist coup”) had two children, but later admitted to a friend that she was so “preoccupied with CP politics when they were growing up” that “while I was v. fond of them, I didn’t pay too much attention to them when they were little.” 

stalin1
Josef Stalin

When she left the Party in 1958, it wasn’t because she’d recognized its ideology as evil, but because she felt it had become “rather drab and useless.” Her issue with the Party, then, wasn’t philosophical or moral, but aethetic and practical. (Perhaps the real problem was that Stalin had died in 1953, and, after giving Khrushchev a few years, she finally decided that he just didn’t provide her with the same delicious frisson.) Though she would later say that she could scarcely imagine “living in America in those days and not being a Party member,” she was far happier in America than she’d been in England, which she considered unbearably bleak. (One can only imagine how bleak she might’ve found the Soviet Union, if she’d been forced to actually live there under the system she served.)

jessica
Jessica Mitford in her later years

Her grisly 1963 exposé of stateside funerary practices, The American Way of Death, made Jessica even more famous in America than she’d been as a glittering young thing back in Blighty. She went on to write many other well-received books. When the USSR collapsed, she expressed neither joy nor regret. As with her Nazi sisters Unity and Diana, her politics didn’t keep her from making famous friends – including, in her case, Maya Angelou (herself a longtime fellow traveler) and Washington Post publishers Philip and Katherine Graham.

Nor have her politics kept writers and journalists from treating her with more respect and admiration than some might think she deserves. We’ll conclude this survey of the Mitfords tomorrow with a brief look at this very subject – namely, the tendency of some biographers, memoirists, reviewers, and sundry scribblers to treat the Mitfords’ love of totalitarianism less as a moral outrage than as a curious personality quirk.