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The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family

by Mary S. Lovell


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"Fascinating, the way all great family stories are fascinating."—Robert Gottlieb, New York Times Book Review

This is the story of a close, loving family splintered by the violent ideologies of Europe between the world wars. Jessica was a Communist; Debo became the Duchess of Devonshire; Nancy was one of the best-selling novelists of her day; beautiful Diana married the Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley; and Unity, a close friend of Hitler, shot herself in the head when England and Germany declared war.

The Mitfords had style and presence and were mercilessly gifted. Above all, they were funny—hilariously and mercilessly so. In this wise, evenhanded, and generous book, Mary Lovell captures the vitality and drama of a family that took the twentieth century by storm and became, in some respects, its victims.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393324143
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 03/17/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 168,273
Product dimensions: 6.35(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Mary S. Lovell's best-selling biographies include Straight on Till Morning (Beryl Markham) and The Sisters (the Mitford family). She lives in England.

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Chapter One



Sydney Bowles was fourteen years old when she first set eyes on David Freeman Mitford. He was seventeen, classically handsome, as were all members of his family, and with luminous blue eyes. Dressed comfortably in an old brown velveteen keeper's jacket, he stood with his back to the fire, one foot casually resting on the fender. As Sydney entered the brightly lit library of his father's country house at Batsford in Gloucestershire, she was dazzled by light and warmth after a drive through dark winter lanes in the waggonette from the station. Her first impression as she walked through the hall had been of the sweet smell of beeswax, woodsmoke and oriental spices, but as soon as she saw David all this was forgotten. At that moment, Sydney wrote in an unpublished memoir, she lost her heart.

    It was 1894. Sydney's father Thomas Bowles, a 'consistently eccentric, back-bench MP' had taken his children to visit his good friend Lord Redesdale, Algernon Bertram 'Bertie', universally pronounced 'Barty', Mitford. Both men were high achievers, and hugely successful personalities in their own fields.

    Tall, angular, and dressed in the shapeless sailor suit that was the prescribed all-purpose day-wear for Victorian children, Sydney felt all the natural frustration of a teenager wanting to look older to impress this handsome and apparently confident young man with her newly blossoming womanhood. Yet she was miserably aware that her outfit labelled her achild, along with her siblings. At fourteen she was scarcely more, but Sydney's had been an unusual childhood for the time.

    Thomas Bowles was a widower and for some months, ever since he had purchased a substantial London house in Lowndes Square, Sydney had been its young chatelaine, in sole charge of the running of the household and the not inconsiderable finances of the establishment. Her father was Member of Parliament for King's Lynn. A man of character, he had a vast network of friends and entertained a good deal. Sydney apparently managed her responsibilities with distinction, failing only in the area of being able to control the male servants. Quarrelling footmen and drunken butlers were amused by her rather than respectful of her, and caused her a good deal of heartache. From that time, until the end of her life, she only ever employed women as indoor servants.

    Prior to his buying the London house, the children of 'Tap' Bowles had spent much of the previous six years at sea, on their father's boats. Shortly after the death of his wife, when Sydney was eight, Bowles took them aboard his 150-ton sailing schooner Nereid and set off on a year-long voyage to the Middle East. His published log of the voyage gives details of horrendous storms, weathered with aplomb by his four motherless children while their governess and nurse were prostrated with seasickness. After their return to England, during election campaigns, he made his second yacht, the Hoyden, his temporary home and campaign headquarters; his children often accompanied him on those electioneering trips, and each year during the parliamentary summer recess the family lived on the yacht, usually sailing to France. So, though she had been as protected as any upper-class girl in the Victorian era, Sydney's exceptional experiences had given her a seriousness beyond her years.

    We do not know what David Mitford thought of Sydney at that first meeting. His insouciant pose, which so impressed Sydney, disguised his status as the undervalued second son of the extraordinarily energetic Bertie Mitford. David lived in the shadow of his elder brother Clement, who was adored by everyone — if asked, David would probably have said he lived in Clement's sunlight. It was Clement who would one day inherit the title and family fortune, and he was as outgoing and confident as his father, a notable traveller, linguist, writer and MP. Like his father, Clement had attended Eton, an experience he found wholly enriching. Three further sons followed David and at least one, Jack (known as Jicksy, who was 'brave as a lion and clever as a monkey' and his parents' favourite child), attended Eton. David, however, was sent to Radley, which was considered second rate.

    No secret was made of the fact that this choice of school was deliberate. Lord and Lady Redesdale did not wish Clement's career at Eton to be affected by David's behaviour. All his life David was liable to erupt in sudden violent rages if upset or frustrated. Unlike his gifted father, he was a poor reader and slow to learn, and his only real interest was in country sports. It seems probable that he suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia for he was not unintelligent, as his adult speeches in the House of Lords and his surviving letters reveal, and he spoke and wrote fluent French. Described by a grandson as 'impulsive, naïve and rather humble, with a touching idealism', David was sensitive and disliked team games, so he was never popular at Radley, and he loathed his time there. And there is no doubting his fearsome temper: on one occasion having been locked in his room as a punishment for some misdemeanour he heated a poker in the fire until it became red hot, then threatened to attack his father and kill him with it. He was eventually released and calmed by 'Monsieur', the French tutor who taught them so well that all of the Redesdale children were bilingual and all lessons were conducted in French. Monsieur, who became known as 'Douze-Temps' because of his demonstrations of rifle drill, 'Un! Deux! Trois! ...', had served in the Franco-Prussian War and kept the boys — especially David — spellbound with stories of his experiences.

    When Sydney first met him, David must have been experiencing a huge sense of relief that his years at the hated boarding-school had come to an end. He had hoped to make a career in the Army (perhaps because of Monsieur's influence), but having failed the written examination for Sandhurst it was decided that he would emulate many younger sons of good family by going east, to Ceylon, to make his fortune as a tea-planter.

    Sydney's teenage crush on him did not last. While David was in Ceylon she grew up and was launched into Society. She had been educated at home, latterly by a very able governess (who subsequently became Thomas Bowles' mistress). There was talk of Sydney going to Girton, the women's college at Cambridge, and she went to view the college, but for some unknown reason the idea was dropped. Only a handful of women attended university at the end of the nineteenth century; perhaps Sydney did not wish to be regarded as a 'blue-stocking'. With her tall, slender figure, a cloud of light brown hair, generous sulky mouth, and large blue eyes she was pronounced beautiful, and she thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being a débutante: the dances and balls and parties, riding in the crowded Row with her father, which was 'like an amusing party taking place every day', and, especially, meeting new people.

    But above everything, Sydney — in common with her father — loved the sea. Those weeks every summer when Tap's family lived aboard his yacht and sailed to Trouville or Deauville were the highlight of her young life. At Trouville Tap gravitated naturally towards the artistic community which gathered there, and among his acquaintances were Boldini and Tissot. More important to Sydney was Paul-César Helleu, a fashionable portrait painter who liked to spend his summers with his family, aboard his yacht the Étoile. The Bowles and Helleu families met when the Hoyden and Étoile were moored up alongside each other, and from this small incident would spring a lifelong family friendship. After that they met every year and Helleu painted several portraits of Sydney at the height of her beauty.

    It was inevitable that Sydney would receive the attentions of young men and she fell in and out of love with several, some more suitable than others. In London ice-skating was a favourite pastime, and her instructor, a Swede named Grenander, was one of the men she particularly favoured. 'I love being with him,' she wrote in her diary, 'I would do almost anything he asked me. I would let him call me Sydney, I would even let him kiss me ...' It was Grenander who came to her aid when she fell and hurt herself badly. Because of her attachment to him, Sydney managed stoically not to cry, or even wince, at the shattering pain as he manipulated what was later diagnosed as a broken ankle. But she realized that there was no future for her in a relationship with a skating professional, and eventually the infatuation faded.

    One relationship ended sadly when the young man was killed in the Boer War. But the suitor who made the greatest impression on her was Edward 'Jimmy' Meade. Her love for Jimmy, in 1903, was apparently both deep and passionate, and was moving towards an engagement when Sydney discovered that he was a womanizer. She wisely broke off the relationship, and it was generally believed in London Society that she took up with David Mitford on the rebound.

    David spent less than four years in Ceylon where evidently he did not take to the life of a planter. While he was on his first home leave in 1898, events unfolding in South Africa intervened in his future. Paul Kruger's ultimatum concerning the independence of the Dutch republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State provoked war between the British and the Boers. This gave David the opportunity to be both a patriot and to engage in the career he had always longed for. With all thoughts of a return to Ceylon forgotten, he enlisted in the ranks of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. His elder brother Clement also fought in the Boer War, serving in the crack regiment of the 10th Hussars.

    David's letters to his parents confirm his early intuition that the Army was the career he would enjoy above all others. His commanding officer, Lord Brabazon, took a liking to the earnest and gallant young man and appointed him as his orderly, which David modestly considered 'lucky'. Shortly afterwards, in March 1900, he received a flesh wound in the leg (his second wound of the war). Writing from the hospital at Bloemfontein, he asked his father to try to get him a commission, '... after this it would not be very difficult, and then I would have the career I always wanted'. It was not to be. In the following year, while in the thick of fighting, David was badly injured in the chest and lost a lung. He was nursed in the field hospital for four days, and when it was suspected that he might live he was carried back to camp in a bullock cart, his wound swarming with maggots. He recovered, and was invalided home in early 1902.

    Clearly, while David had been planting tea and soldiering, and Sydney was running her father's home and making her début in Society, there had been some further contact between the two, for while David was in hospital he dictated a love letter to Sydney, to be given to her in the event of his death. Since their fathers were the closest of friends they would have met quite naturally at each other's homes, and probably also at Prince's ice-skating rink, for both David and Sydney were excellent skaters and regular patrons there. After his homecoming Sydney — with her experience of losing a boyfriend in the war — would undoubtedly have been especially sympathetic to a man shipped home wounded.

    In fact, little is known of the courtship of David and Sydney. Photographs confirm what witnesses recall: they made a handsome couple. He was tall with handsome patrician features, tanned skin and strikingly blue eyes. She was almost his height, elegant and self-composed. It is not difficult to see why she was reckoned a beauty as a young woman. What is not apparent from old photographs is the humour they shared. According to several contributors, David had 'a terrific sense of fun — better than any professional comedian', while several people commented on Sydney's understated, dry wit. When David went to see Tap, to request the hand of his daughter, Tap replied dauntingly, 'Which daughter?' Having established that it was Sydney they were discussing (surely Tap was teasing?), Sydney's father naturally wished to know how David intended to support her. 'Well,' said David, 'I've got £400 a year, and these.' And he held up his large competent-looking hands.

    When they married on 6 February 1904, some ten years after that first meeting, Sydney was twenty-four years old. A couple of stories survive; the first was apparently widely circulated in London Society at the time. It was whispered that when she walked up the aisle of St Margaret's Church, Westminster, towards her bridegroom, she was in tears, weeping — they said — for Jimmy Meade. The other story was that a few days before her wedding day a married friend told Sydney what to expect on her wedding night. Sydney was dumbfounded, A gentleman would never do anything like that,' she said.

    The couple honeymooned aboard the Hoyden, and later visited Paris, after which they settled down in a modest house in Graham Street, a few steps from Sloane Square. By the standards of their class they were relatively poor. Apart from the allowance of £400 a year from David's father, Sydney had a small income from Tap. However, even combined, this income was not enough to live on in comfort, and here Tap was able to assist the young couple in a practical manner. It was not to be expected that, as a self-made man, he would hand over large sums of money to the newly-weds, but he was happy to give David a job. Among Tap's most successful business ventures had been the founding of several magazines. The first of these, Vanity Fair, had since been sold on, but he still owned the Lady (founded in 1885 and named at the suggestion of the Reverend Charles Dodgson), and he offered David the position of office manager.

    It must be said that it might have been a better business move had he made Sydney office manager, for she had a natural ability in accounting and enjoyed bookkeeping. David, however, hated being indoors, hated office work and office hours, and hardly ever bothered to read a book. There is a family legend that he had once read Jack London's White Fang and found it so good he thought it unnecessary ever to read another book. Since there are references in some of his letters to books that he was reading it is safe to say that this was a joke and not fact. But he was not bookish and can have had little interest in a women's magazine in which half the space was (and still is) given over to small advertisements for domestic staff and holiday accommodation.

    Indeed, the act for which he is best remembered during his days at the offices of the Lady is unconnected with the administration of the magazine itself. When the twenty-seven-year-old David arrived for work he found that the cellars of the building, and no doubt those adjoining it, were infested with rats. In Ceylon householders encouraged a mongoose to take up residence in their gardens to control rats and snakes, and by a piece of good fortune David had brought one home with him. He set it to work with significant success. The image of David spending his days hunting rats, to simulate country pursuits in order to avoid the office work he loathed, was fostered by Nancy through her character Uncle Matthew, and is not based on fact. He remained at the Lady, working in friendly harmony with Sydney's eldest brother George (who was general manager and co-owner with his father) until the outbreak of war in 1914, and from all accounts tried hard to live up to his father-in-law's trust in him. George Bowles had been president of the Union at Cambridge, and editor of Granta. Would such a man have tolerated David as a passenger for ten years? It seems unlikely, and it is even less likely that Tap would have continued to employ David if he had not made some positive contribution. As for David, he described the first year of his marriage in correspondence as 'a year of the greatest happiness to me', so it is unlikely that he found the work too irksome.

    There is another, lesser-known, anecdote dating from David's time at the Lady. His salary was paid weekly, in cash in an envelope, as all employees were paid in those days, and it was his custom to hand over his entire wages to Sydney but for a very small sum. For many years, every Friday afternoon, after he was paid, he would wander over to Covent Garden Market and buy the most perfect peach he could find. This he presented to Sydney. She always received it with every sign of enthusiasm and would eat it after supper, sometimes offering him a piece or two. Twenty years passed before he learned by accident that Sydney loathed peaches. She had never told him, knowing that it would spoil his pleasure at having cleverly discovered a gift that he considered both economical and acceptable.

    With David's salary the couple had a joint income of around a thousand pounds a year, and on this Sydney's meticulous household accounts reveal that they employed five female servants. However, they lived quietly, seemingly content in each other's company, and their limited social life revolved mostly around the Bowles or the Mitford families. The fact that the couple's first child, a daughter, was born on 28 November a little more than nine months after their marriage was probably partially responsible for this. Sydney was initially disappointed for she had wanted, and absolutely expected, a boy, but David was ecstatic. They thought of calling the child Ruby but later decided upon Nancy. Though worried about 'my Sydney', as he affectionately referred to his wife (for the baby weighed nine and a half pounds at birth and the mother was uncomfortable for some days afterwards), David thought the baby 'the prettiest child ... our happiness is very great,' he wrote to his mother. Unusually for the time he had insisted on being present at her birth, and he reported that Sydney had been 'sweet and brave'.

    It seems such an ordinary story, this handsome but otherwise unremarkable young couple settling down to a quietly happy marriage, looking forward to further children. Though they had no great prospects they were content with their lot in life. There was absolutely no indication that their children — there would be seven in all — would be so extraordinary that they would make the family a household name.

Excerpted from THE SISTERS by Mary S. Lovell. Copyright © 2001 by Mary S. Lovell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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