Pen portraits of six sisters

PUBLISHED: 11:54 16 December 2010 | UPDATED: 16:03 20 February 2013

The Mitfords - Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlottle Mosley is published by Fourth Estate (an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers)

The Mitfords - Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlottle Mosley is published by Fourth Estate (an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers)

'... wouldn't it be dreadful if one had (a) no sisters (b) sisters who didn't write' Deborah to Diana Mitford 21 July 1965

This certainly was not the case for the Mitford girls, as they became famously and infamously known. The correspondence between the six sisters exceeded some 12,000 letters, calculated to be over four million words, spanning eighty years - an extraordinary record by any prolific writers' standards. But, then, the Mitford sisters were anything but ordinary by any other family's standards. Realising that a complete collection of letters of one family may be of some future value, Nancy, the acclaimed writer, advised Deborah, who became the Duchess of Devonshire, to throw nothing away as such a collection would be 'gold for your heirs'. Diana, famous for her beauty and infamous for her marriage to the fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, wrote a few months before her death to Diana: 'I've started this letter and for the first time in my life I can't think of anything to say. My old mind is a blank. If this had happened sooner it would have saved Charlotte a lot of trouble'. As Charlotte wrote: 'Happily it did not'.

Charlotte Mosley is Diana's daughter-in-law and undertook the monumental task of editing the letters between the six Mitford sisters and using but a fifth of the total still extant has let the letters draw pen portraits of them, their loves and lives in their own style - confiding, commiserating, teasing, squabbling, and gossiping with sharp wit and comic characterisation which evades even the most skilled biographer or journalist. J K Rowling sums the resulting book, recently published on the Mitfords as 'the story of the extraordinary Mitford sisters has never been told as well as they tell it themselves'. And there has been plenty written about them: making headlines since the late 1920s, and rarely out of the news for one reason or another for the rest of their lives in books, articles, documentaries, a television series and a musical, described by Deborah as a 'high kicking show', first staged in 1981. These public portrayals resurrected old rivalries between the siblings and spurred on angry letters of resentment where one or the other thought she was being unfairly misrepresented.

Except for Jessica, after she learned to type at the beginning of the war, the sisters wrote all their letters in longhand. Writing to Jessica in 1987, Deborah says 'I bought a hugely expensive typewriter thinking I would try but somehow haven't. I wish I could type, one could see what it looks like instead of waiting on someone else to do it a little bit wrong'. Jessica by then was already a respected author and personality in America; Deborah was aged 62 when her first book was published, followed by another seven about Chatsworth, the stately home and garden which owes much to her dynamic drive and hard work. Her passion for chickens was inherited from her mother, Lady Redesdale who paid for the children's governess from the slim profits she made from her small chicken farm. The sisters each kept their own birds and sold the eggs to their mother to supplement their pocket money. Pamela, who settled at Caudle Green, near Cheltenham, used a woodcut of a hen with its chicks as part of her letter heading, she introduced a rare breed of hen, the Apenzeller Spitzhauben into Britain from Switzerland and became an expert poultry breeder. Writing to Deborah in 1977, Pamela describes how this Cotswold hamlet set about celebrating the Queen's Silver Jubilee.

Darling Stublow (the girls all had nicknames)

We are deep in our Jubilee Party arrangements. Just the people of Caudle Green and it will be on the Monday because all the other parties are on the Tuesday. It will be a Barbecue, Sausages from the Monks, rolls from the Nudist Colony!!! A real Cheddar cheese in its own skin, a barrel of jolly beer, some of the Appenzeller eggs pickled in vinegar as one sees them in the Pubs. There will be a bonfire and games, three-legged and sack races etc etc. And the room with the great west window is to be tidied up for the occasion - it's exactly what we need with light and water laid on!

Much love from Woman (one of Pamela's nicknames)

Deborah wrote from Lismore Castle, County Waterford about Pamela's rural junketings planned deep in the Cotswold countryside. 'Yogi Day' Darling Honks ... Have you had Woman's description of Caudle Green Jubilee celebrations? It's going to be held in her Chicken House!!!! Oh Honks, would that we could all be there. Much Love, Debo

Despite their worldly ways and sophisticated life styles, the Mitford girls show great attachment to their Cotswold home roots. Their father, Lord Redesdale, had inherited Batsford Park in 1916, but could not afford its upkeep and moved his family to ancient Asthall Manor which the children loved, then to his newly built Swinbrook House - which they hated. In a letter to Deborah in 1986, addressed from Riverview Cottage, Swinbrook, Diana refers to this. 'We went up to Asthall. It looked charming and of course one can see nearly everything from the churchyard. 'The Barn' looks just as old as the house, well of course it is except for the rather grandiose east window, but even that looked nice I thought. Oh how mad to have done all that and then sold it at a loss to build Swinbrook. Farve must have had a strong and obstinate character and paid no heed to Muv.' (Farve was the girls' nickname for their father and Muv was their mother.)

It was to Mill Cottage at Swinbrook that Unity, who was infamously associated with Hitler , was brought home after her attempted suicide on the day war broke out left her partially paralysed and mentally scarred. In a letter she wrote to Diana (who was imprisoned at Holloway as, according to a Home Office official who signed her detention order, was 'an extremely dangerous and sinister young woman') Unity is enthusiastic about her forthcoming confirmation. 'Darling Nard, I am in the Choir!! In the church, of course. Aren't I lucky!!! I'm afraid all this sounds nonsense to you, only you see how I am so bored here. Well Nard, I am afraid I must stop, you don't know how slowly I do write. Best love, Nard, from Bobo.' Religious mania replaced Hitler mania in Unity's troubled mind for the rest of her short life.

Unity's letter, written in 1923 when she was nine years old, is the earliest surviving letter of the collection; a fax sent in 2003 by 83 year old Deborah to 93 year old Diana, who was dying in Paris, is the last of these extraordinary sisters' letters. The post was of paramount importance in their lives: Deborah dreamt of being a postmistress of a small village; Nancy recommends Lark Rise as 'a fascinating book' in a letter to Pamela in 1972 (she, too, was obviously entranced by accounts of village post office life); Diana's move to a flat in Paris was mainly because it was immediately above a post office, and Jessica left 5,000 in her will to her local postman.

In our age of electronic mail, texts and 'voice mails' in their various forms the postman's knock is becoming more of a rarity and importance in our form of communication. Never again shall we be privy to such a story of these sisters of letters.

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