It really is a shame, what?

In November, 2004, just prior to running out of money, a normal activity when one is on a tiny pension, a used copy of Granta, issue 57, fell into my hands. The subject of this issue is India, on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary of independence from the British. Independence arrived in 1947 with attendant bloodbaths.

Inside was this news clipping, assumed to be from the New York Times, which is self-explanatory. Someone that I know expressed the view that the Nazi party insignia was a reversed image of the ancient symbol. Simply not true, and merely another instance where a group has hijacked a name or symbol from common usage. Remember that the Gay Nineties were not about homosexuality. Neither were all of the gay young things of the twenties.

And then there were the Mitfords. This is the cover of a Penguin, showing a novel written in 1939 by one of the six sisters, and one brother, of infamy, or otherwise. They weren't all bad, Nancy was a writer for the Sunday Times for many years, as well as a producer of several books, somewhat Waugh-like, if you please. Well, she was a confidante of Waugh, as the potted history of the Mitfords shown below does indicate.


The myth of the Mitfords

Lady Diana Mosley, last but one of the Mitford sisters, died this week, her unrepentant fascism and admiration of Hitler still causing controversy. DJ Taylor considers the enduring legend of an extraordinary clan:

Thursday August 14, 2003
The Guardian

Enduring power: the Mitford clan

One of the most sinister photographs I have ever seen in my life was taken in Germany in 1935. It shows a couple of smiling, fresh-faced English girls, dressed in the fashions of the day, standing Valkyrie-like amid a group of deferential young men. The women are Diana Mosley and her sister Unity. The setting is the Nuremberg Rally. The men, passing admiring glances at these honorary comrades, are storm troopers. What gives the thing its horror, queerly enough, is the girlishness. The thought of some jolly English lark, set down among the shiny uniforms and eagle cap badges.

A starring appearance at a Nazi rally might be thought a difficult thing to live down, but Lady Mosley - or "Lady Diana Mosley", as she somewhat oddly insisted on calling herself - contrived to manage it. Much of her later life, in fact, consisted of a stalwart defence of the indefensible - or rather not, as she seemed never to have experienced the slightest qualm that she had anything to be ashamed of.

Her death this week, at the ripe old age of 93, has snapped one of the last links in the increasingly frail chain that connects the 21st century to that spangled interwar landscape populated by the likes of Evelyn Waugh, Sir Oswald Mosley and Adolf Hitler: the first of whom she encouraged as a writer (Vile Bodies is dedicated to her and her first husband, Bryan Guinness); the second of whom she married; and the third of whom was a witness at the wedding.

And yet despite the iconography of her glacial portraits and the tales of wicked Sir Oswald, Britain's only significant fascist (and, in case it should be forgotten, previously a leading light in the MacDonald-era Labour party), Lady Mosley's real significance rests on her supporting role in a much grander tableau: the story of the Mitford girls and the 80-year sway that they have exerted over upper-level English society.

It takes only a glance around the bookshops to establish the enduring power of Mitford chic. This year alone has seen a new biography, by Laura Thompson, of Diana's novelist sister Nancy, and the reissue of an old one by Selina Hastings. Mary S Lovell's group portrait, The Mitford Girls, has gone through eight reprints in two years, and the Hons Cupboard, where the girls whiled away winter afternoons in the family house, is as much a part of upper-class English literary folklore as Brideshead Revisited or Anthony Powell's Kenneth Widmerpool.

David Freeman-Mitford, later Lord Redesdale, and his wife Sydney (described by Nancy as "abnormally detached") had six daughters: a solitary son, Tom, died gallantly in Burma at the end of the second world war. Each of them, their father once remarked in a fit of exasperation, was sillier than the last, which is slightly unfair to what turned out to be a purposeful collective enterprise.

Nancy (1904-73) was a bestselling novelist and biographer, the confidante of Evelyn Waugh, and famous for nursing a decade-long passion for one of De Gaulle's acolytes, a free French colonel named Gaston Palewski. Pamela (1907-94), whom John Betjeman described as "the most rural of the Mitfords", had a relatively quiet life. Unity (1914-48), on the other hand, became obsessed by Hitler, migrated to Germany, shot herself in the head when war was declared, but survived another nine years. Not to be outdone in this catalogue of exotic deeds, Jessica (1917-96) opened her account by eloping to the Spanish civil war with her cousin Esmond Romilly and closed it as a bestselling US author of radical sensibilities, the friend of Sonia Orwell, Maya Angelou and many more besides. Deborah (born 1920), meanwhile, quietly married the future Duke of Devonshire and settled down to await her destiny as the chatelaine of Chatsworth.

As for the future of Diana, the second sister born in 1910, it's only necessary to take a look at the series of family group photographs that dot the various Mitford compendia: a ravishing blonde Elspeth at 12, metamorphosing into a steely Nordic heartbreaker of 19, the age at which she escaped the shackles of family life through marriage to the likeable but apparently uninspiring son of a Tory grandee. Contemporary onlookers diagnosed ambition, confirmed when she began her long affair with Mosley.

Ultimately, Diana backed the wrong horse - the trail led not to Downing Street and, who knows, some kind of Anglo-German alliance that would have kept Britain out of the war, but to disgrace, Holloway Prison and a long, drawn-out continental exile. Typically, though - a family trait rather than a personal one - there remained no doubt in her mind that she had done the right thing or that her husband was a wonderful and unappreciated man. Reunited in prison with Mosley she described the experience as the happiest days of her life.

All this would have created a pretty considerable myth on its own. The Mitfords, however, turned out to be the most ardent burnishers of their own public image. Nancy's novels and Jessica's memoirs offered a beguiling - and friends thought - inaccurate picture of the extraordinary life lived out chez Mitford under the irascible gaze of Lord Redesdale ("Uncle Matthew" in Love in a Cold Climate), celebrated for his dislike of foreigners and his daughters' friends, disparaged collectively as "sewers".

Looking to explain their allure to the modern bookshop browser, one finds it, on the one hand, in that eternal aristocratic poise: a visitor to Chatsworth once remarked that the most stylish thing he had seen there was a signed photograph of John F Kennedy and his wife going yellow on the corner of the mantelpiece - the Devonshires were so unimpressed by this gift from the most powerful man in the world that they couldn't be bothered to frame it.

Underpinning the witty remarks and the textbook flippancy ("call me early, Goering dear, for I'm to be Queen of the May" was apparently Nancy's riposte to news of Diana and Unity's German adventures) though, was an absolute and obdurate self-belief; a self-possessed seriousness only partly disguised by sisterly teasing. (Thompson's biography of Nancy, for example, hints at a rather sad and solitary woman determined that her innermost core should never be revealed.)

And now, Lady Diana having departed to that great Hons Cupboard in the sky, there remains only the octogenarian Duchess of Devonshire, the sprightliest literary luncheon-goer imaginable, and the only person I have ever met to have spoken to Hitler. As for Lady Mosley's own brand of self-possession, several of her obituarists have written in faintly awed tones of her encomia to the Führer's beautiful blue eyes, his dislike of cruelty and so on. Amid all the tributes to her pretty wit and elegant turn of phrase, it cannot be too often stated that this was a woman who thought Hitler was a good man who meant well, and could never be got to alter that judgment. There are corners of the Mitford myth - and some representatives - we can do without.

Special reports
What is Britain?
Northern Ireland

On Guardian Unlimited
Scottish parliament
Welsh Assembly
Northern Ireland Assembly

Useful links
British Council
Office for National Statistics
British Museum
British Library
English Heritage
Scottish Natural Heritage
Welsh Tourist Board
Irish Tourist Board
English Nature