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The Sisters

The Saga of the Mitford Family

by Mary S. Lovell

Paperback, 611 pages, W W Norton & Co Inc, List Price: $18.95 |


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The Saga of the Mitford Family
Mary S. Lovell

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A powerful portrait of the humorous, eccentric, beautiful, and brilliant women known as the Mitfords who were shattered by the violent ideolgies of Europe between the wars follows Jessica, a Communist; Debo, the Duchess of Devonshire; Nancy, a best-selling novelist; Diana, who was the most hated woman in England; and Unity, who was obsessed with Adolf Hitler. Reprint. 25,000 first printing.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Sisters

The Sisters

The Saga of the Mitford Family

W. W. Norton & Company

Copyright © 2003 Mary S. Lovell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0393324141

Chapter One



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 At that moment, Sydney wrote inan unpublished memoir, she lost her heart.

    It was 1894. Sydney's father Thomas Bowles, a ‘consistentlyeccentric, back-bench MP’ had taken his children to visit hisgood friend Lord Redesdale, Algernon Bertram ‘Bertie’, universallypronounced ‘Barty’, Mitford. Both men were highachievers, and hugely successful personalities in their own fields.

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

    Thomas Bowles was a widower and for some months, eversince he had purchased a substantial London house in LowndesSquare, Sydney had been its young chatelaine, in sole charge of therunning of the household and the not inconsiderable finances ofthe establishment. Her father was Member of Parliament forKing's Lynn. A man of character, he had a vast network of friendsand entertained a good deal. Sydney apparently managed herresponsibilities with distinction, failing only in the area of beingable to control the male servants. Quarrelling footmen anddrunken butlers were amused by her rather than respectful of her,and caused her a good deal of heartache. From that time, until theend 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 theirfather's boats. Shortly after the death of his wife, when Sydneywas eight, Bowles took them aboard his 150-ton sailing schoonerNereid and set off on a year-long voyage to the Middle East. Hispublished log of the voyage gives details of horrendous storms,weathered with aplomb by his four motherless children whiletheir governess and nurse were prostrated with seasickness. Aftertheir return to England, during election campaigns, he made hissecond yacht, the Hoyden, his temporary home and campaignheadquarters; his children often accompanied him on those electioneeringtrips, and each year during the parliamentary summerrecess the family lived on the yacht, usually sailing to France. So,though she had been as protected as any upper-class girl in theVictorian era, Sydney's exceptional experiences had given her aseriousness beyond her years.

    We do not know what David Mitford thought of Sydney atthat first meeting. His insouciant pose, which so impressedSydney, disguised his status as the undervalued second son of theextraordinarily energetic Bertie Mitford. David lived in theshadow of his elder brother Clement, who was adored by everyone— if asked, David would probably have said he lived inClement's sunlight. It was Clement who would one day inheritthe title and family fortune, and he was as outgoing and confidentas his father, a notable traveller, linguist, writer and MP.Like his father, Clement had attended Eton, an experience hefound wholly enriching. Three further sons followed David andat least one, Jack (known as Jicksy, who was ‘brave as a lion andclever as a monkey’ and his parents' favourite child), attendedEton. David, however, was sent to Radley, which was consideredsecond rate.

    No secret was made of the fact that this choice of school wasdeliberate. Lord and Lady Redesdale did not wish Clement'scareer at Eton to be affected by David's behaviour. All his lifeDavid was liable to erupt in sudden violent rages if upset or frustrated.Unlike his gifted father, he was a poor reader and slow tolearn, and his only real interest was in country sports. It seemsprobable that he suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia for he wasnot unintelligent, as his adult speeches in the House of Lords andhis 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 teamgames, so he was never popular at Radley, and he loathed histime there. And there is no doubting his fearsome temper: onone occasion having been locked in his room as a punishment forsome misdemeanour he heated a poker in the fire until it becamered hot, then threatened to attack his father and kill him with it.He was eventually released and calmed by ‘Monsieur’, the Frenchtutor who taught them so well that all of the Redesdale childrenwere bilingual and all lessons were conducted in French.Monsieur, who became known as ‘Douze-Temps’ because of hisdemonstrations of rifle drill, ‘Un! Deux! Trois! ...’, had served inthe Franco-Prussian War and kept the boys — especially David — spellboundwith stories of his experiences.

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

    Sydney's teenage crush on him did not last. While David wasin Ceylon she grew up and was launched into Society. She hadbeen educated at home, latterly by a very able governess (whosubsequently became Thomas Bowles' mistress). There was talkof Sydney going to Girton, the women's college at Cambridge,and she went to view the college, but for some unknown reasonthe idea was dropped. Only a handful of women attended universityat the end of the nineteenth century; perhaps Sydney didnot wish to be regarded as a ‘blue-stocking’. With her tall, slenderfigure, a cloud of light brown hair, generous sulky mouth,and large blue eyes she was pronounced beautiful, and she thoroughlyenjoyed the experience of being a débutante: the dancesand 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 — lovedthe sea. Those weeks every summer when Tap's family livedaboard his yacht and sailed to Trouville or Deauville were thehighlight of her young life. At Trouville Tap gravitated naturallytowards the artistic community which gathered there, andamong his acquaintances were Boldini and Tissot. More importantto Sydney was Paul-César Helleu, a fashionable portraitpainter who liked to spend his summers with his family, aboardhis yacht the Étoile. The Bowles and Helleu families met whenthe Hoyden and Étoile were moored up alongside each other, andfrom this small incident would spring a lifelong family friendship.After that they met every year and Helleu painted severalportraits of Sydney at the height of her beauty.

    It was inevitable that Sydney would receive the attentions ofyoung men and she fell in and out of love with several, somemore suitable than others. In London ice-skating was a favouritepastime, and her instructor, a Swede named Grenander, wasone of the men she particularly favoured. ‘I love being withhim,’ she wrote in her diary, ‘I would do almost anything heasked me. I would let him call me Sydney, I would even let himkiss me ...’ It was Grenander who came to her aid when shefell and hurt herself badly. Because of her attachment to him,Sydney managed stoically not to cry, or even wince, at the shatteringpain as he manipulated what was later diagnosed as abroken ankle. But she realized that there was no future for her ina relationship with a skating professional, and eventually theinfatuation faded.

    One relationship ended sadly when the young man was killedin the Boer War. But the suitor who made the greatest impressionon her was Edward ‘Jimmy’ Meade. Her love for Jimmy, in 1903,was apparently both deep and passionate, and was movingtowards an engagement when Sydney discovered that he was awomanizer. She wisely broke off the relationship, and it was generallybelieved in London Society that she took up with DavidMitford on the rebound.

    David spent less than four years in Ceylon where evidently hedid not take to the life of a planter. While he was on his firsthome leave in 1898, events unfolding in South Africa intervenedin his future. Paul Kruger's ultimatum concerning the independenceof the Dutch republics of Transvaal and the OrangeFree State provoked war between the British and the Boers. Thisgave David the opportunity to be both a patriot and to engage inthe career he had always longed for. With all thoughts of a returnto Ceylon forgotten, he enlisted in the ranks of the RoyalNorthumberland Fusiliers. His elder brother Clement alsofought in the Boer War, serving in the crack regiment of the10th Hussars.

    David's letters to his parents confirm his early intuition thatthe Army was the career he would enjoy above all others. Hiscommanding officer, Lord Brabazon, took a liking to the earnestand gallant young man and appointed him as his orderly, whichDavid modestly considered ‘lucky’. Shortly afterwards, in March1900, he received a flesh wound in the leg (his second wound ofthe war). Writing from the hospital at Bloemfontein, he asked hisfather to try to get him a commission, ‘... after this it would notbe very difficult, and then I would have the career I alwayswanted’. It was not to be. In the following year, while in thethick of fighting, David was badly injured in the chest and lost alung. He was nursed in the field hospital for four days, and whenit was suspected that he might live he was carried back to campin 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 débutin Society, there had been some further contact between the two,for while David was in hospital he dictated a love letter toSydney, to be given to her in the event of his death. Since theirfathers were the closest of friends they would have met quitenaturally at each other's homes, and probably also at Prince's ice-skatingrink, for both David and Sydney were excellent skatersand regular patrons there. After his homecoming Sydney — withher experience of losing a boyfriend in the war — would undoubtedlyhave been especially sympathetic to a man shipped homewounded.

    In fact, little is known of the courtship of David and Sydney.Photographs confirm what witnesses recall: they made a handsomecouple. 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 wasreckoned a beauty as a young woman. What is not apparentfrom old photographs is the humour they shared. According toseveral contributors, David had ‘a terrific sense of fun — betterthan any professional comedian’, while several people commentedon Sydney's understated, dry wit. When David went tosee Tap, to request the hand of his daughter, Tap replied dauntingly,‘Which daughter?’ Having established that it was Sydneythey were discussing (surely Tap was teasing?), Sydney's fathernaturally wished to know how David intended to support her.‘Well,’ said David, ‘I've got £400 a year, and these.’ And he heldup his large competent-looking hands.

    When they married on 6 February 1904, some ten years afterthat first meeting, Sydney was twenty-four years old. A couple ofstories survive; the first was apparently widely circulated inLondon Society at the time. It was whispered that when shewalked up the aisle of St Margaret's Church, Westminster,towards her bridegroom, she was in tears, weeping — they said — forJimmy Meade. The other story was that a few days before herwedding day a married friend told Sydney what to expect on herwedding night. Sydney was dumbfounded, A gentleman wouldnever do anything like that,' she said.

    The couple honeymooned aboard the Hoyden, and later visitedParis, after which they settled down in a modest house inGraham Street, a few steps from Sloane Square. By the standardsof their class they were relatively poor. Apart from theallowance of £400 a year from David's father, Sydney had a smallincome from Tap. However, even combined, this income was notenough to live on in comfort, and here Tap was able to assist theyoung couple in a practical manner. It was not to be expectedthat, as a self-made man, he would hand over large sums ofmoney to the newly-weds, but he was happy to give David a job.Among Tap's most successful business ventures had been thefounding of several magazines. The first of these, Vanity Fair, hadsince been sold on, but he still owned the Lady (founded in1885 and named at the suggestion of the Reverend CharlesDodgson), and he offered David the position of office manager.

    It must be said that it might have been a better business movehad he made Sydney office manager, for she had a natural abilityin accounting and enjoyed bookkeeping. David, however, hatedbeing indoors, hated office work and office hours, and hardlyever bothered to read a book. There is a family legend that he hadonce read Jack London's White Fang and found it so good hethought it unnecessary ever to read another book. Since there arereferences in some of his letters to books that he was reading it issafe to say that this was a joke and not fact. But he was notbookish and can have had little interest in a women's magazine inwhich half the space was (and still is) given over to small advertisementsfor domestic staff and holiday accommodation.

    Indeed, the act for which he is best remembered during hisdays at the offices of the Lady is unconnected with the administrationof the magazine itself. When the twenty-seven-year-oldDavid arrived for work he found that the cellars of the building,and no doubt those adjoining it, were infested with rats. InCeylon householders encouraged a mongoose to take up residencein their gardens to control rats and snakes, and by a pieceof good fortune David had brought one home with him. He setit to work with significant success. The image of David spendinghis days hunting rats, to simulate country pursuits in order toavoid the office work he loathed, was fostered by Nancy throughher character Uncle Matthew, and is not based on fact. Heremained at the Lady, working in friendly harmony withSydney's eldest brother George (who was general manager andco-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'strust in him. George Bowles had been president of the Union atCambridge, and editor of Granta. Would such a man have toleratedDavid as a passenger for ten years? It seems unlikely, andit is even less likely that Tap would have continued to employDavid if he had not made some positive contribution. As forDavid, he described the first year of his marriage in correspondenceas ‘a year of the greatest happiness to me’, so it is unlikelythat he found the work too irksome.

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

    With David's salary the couple had a joint income of arounda thousand pounds a year, and on this Sydney's meticuloushousehold accounts reveal that they employed five female servants.However, they lived quietly, seemingly content in eachother's company, and their limited social life revolved mostlyaround the Bowles or the Mitford families. The fact that thecouple's first child, a daughter, was born on 28 November a littlemore than nine months after their marriage was probably partiallyresponsible for this. Sydney was initially disappointed forshe had wanted, and absolutely expected, a boy, but David wasecstatic. They thought of calling the child Ruby but later decidedupon Nancy. Though worried about ‘my Sydney’, as he affectionatelyreferred to his wife (for the baby weighed nine and ahalf pounds at birth and the mother was uncomfortable for somedays afterwards), David thought the baby ‘the prettiest child ...our happiness is very great,’ he wrote to his mother. Unusuallyfor the time he had insisted on being present at her birth, and hereported that Sydney had been ‘sweet and brave’.

    It seems such an ordinary story, this handsome but otherwiseunremarkable young couple settling down to a quietly happymarriage, looking forward to further children. Though they hadno great prospects they were content with their lot in life. Therewas absolutely no indication that their children — there would beseven in all — would be so extraordinary that they would makethe family a household name.