The secrets of the lost sister

PUBLISHED: 14:53 28 September 2012 | UPDATED: 21:58 20 February 2013

The secrets of the lost sister

The secrets of the lost sister

When Diana Alexander heard there was to be a talk on the Mitford sisters at Cheltenham Literature Festival, she booked tickets immediately.

The secrets of the lost sister

Id bought a donkey for my children, only to find that hay had suddenly shot up from 9p a bale to 1! So when this lovely neighbour asked me if Id help her friend get her house tidied up after the builders had been in, I willingly said Id do it.

Words by Katie Jarvis

Colour Photography by Gavin Crilly; other photography from the Mitford Archive

When Diana Alexander heard there was to be a talk on the Mitford sisters at Cheltenham Literature Festival, she booked tickets immediately. A pretty high-powered event, it promised to be an absolute romp through the lives of these six dazzling girls who charmed and outraged the 20th century in equal measure.

The panel included Mitford Girls biographer Mary Lovell; Deborah Moggach, who adapted Nancys books for the screen; and the journalist Valerie Grove. But as these acknowledged experts chatted their way through the polar politics of Diana and Jessica Mitford, the literary brilliance of Nancy, Unitys Hitler obsession and Debos tireless work saving Chatsworth House, Diana Alexander could hardly contain herself. Finally, I managed to grab one of those microphones in the crowded town hall, and I said to them, But what about Pam!

Whereupon they all looked a bit shifty and said things like, Well, she was the homely one; she was the cook; she was the one they all went to. Then one of them asked, Didnt she live around here?

And I said, She certainly did and I was her cleaning lady!

Of course, the whole town hall erupted.

Were sitting in Diana Alexanders farmhouse in Syde, a hamlet occupying the beautiful no-mans land between Cheltenham and Cirencester. She and her husband, Malcolm Whitaker, are well known in local intellectual circles. He founded the Harcombe Society, a literary meet that has been addressed by luminaries such as the poet Jenny Joseph and author Jonathan Guinness, a Mitford descendant himself. And Dianas is a name that will be familiar to readers of the Wilts & Gloucestershire Standard, as one of the papers one-time feature writers. So its little surprise that she has just written a thumpingly good book, The Other Mitford, all about Pamela, who died in 1994.

What is, perhaps, more arresting is that the seeds of this endeavour stem not from an erudite literary interest per se, but from 12 years of cleaning floors, polishing silver and changing beds for the lost Mitford sister the sister few have written about and none ever studied; whom few even mention any more; the sister often categorised as less sharp than they were by her somewhat cruel siblings.

Yet this was also the woman who captivated and married Derek Jackson, one of the outstanding physicists of the 20th century. The woman the other sisters ran to in times of trouble, who quietly got on with her life amidst the turbulence created by the shenanigans of her eccentric and controversial family (eccentric even by the standards of the English aristocracy). And this is the woman the Poet Laureate John Betjeman was head over heels in love with for years.

Pam and I always used to chat while I cleaned, Diana recalls. At the time, John Betjeman had a programme on great Victorian hymns that we used to listen to while I was polishing the floor and she was cooking. I remember saying to her, You know, Pam, I dont think Betjeman has quite got the edge since he became Poet Laureate. Oh, she said, but hes such a lovely man. He wanted to marry me for years, but I couldnt. He was far too squalid.

Then her big blue eyes opened wide and she said, Of course, his wife suits him perfectly. Shes squalid too.

Though it was said entirely without malice, for malice was not in her nature!

Their association began back in 1973 when Diana and her family moved to the pretty Cotswold backwater of Caudle Green. With two young children and no childcare, work options were limited. And I was stuck in a big house wed been doing up ourselves, miles from anywhere, Diana says. On top of that, Id bought a donkey for my children from an old friend, only to find that hay had suddenly shot up from 9p a bale to 1! So when this lovely neighbour asked me if Id help her friend get her house tidied up after the builders had been in, I willingly said Id do it.

At first, Diana didnt twig that Mrs Pamela Jackson of Woodfield House was anyone out of the ordinary - though clues quickly began to surface. First of all, there was The Voice (high-pitched and posh as youve never heard posh before). And then there were what Diana refers to as The Treasures.

There was a picture of her husband, Derek, by William Rothenstein I knew about the Arts and Crafts people because Id lived in Water Lane [one of the epicentres of the Cotswold Arts and Crafts Movement]. And, in the attic, I found pictures of the girls with Beaton underneath. Pam also had a picture by Hitler goodness knows how she came by that.

And then, very early on, I met Debo [Pamelas sister, the Duchess of Devonshire], when I was brushing the stairs and she was coming down them. These rather elegant feet in patent leather shoes kept coming towards me, and I was thinking, What am I going to do? I dont do curtseying!

At the bottom, she stuck out her hand and said, Im Mrs Jacksons sister. We walked past your house with Beetle [the dog] and we love it. I said, My goodness! Thats a tremendous compliment from somebody who lives in probably the nicest house in the land [the Devonshire seat of Chatsworth in Derbyshire].

Its the sort of anecdote Dianas book is stuffed with funny, charming, homely, and elucidating. She begins the story, however, on much-travelled paths: the births and childhood of the six sisters, and their one brother, Tom, back in the early years of the 20th century. They were raised in a series of grand Cotswold houses (becoming slightly less grand as money ran out) at Batsford, Asthall and Swinbrook. The girls splendid rural isolation probably added to their idiosyncratic ways: educated mainly at home by a series of (often horrified) governesses, they even invented their own private language. It was an upbringing satirised and romanticised in Nancy Mitfords novel The Pursuit of Love.

Their father, David, Lord Redesdale, was fictionalised as Uncle Matthew, whose rigid ideas and sudden bursts of fury were as fascinating as they were terrifying; while Nancys portrait of Sydney, her mother was as the vague, other-worldly Aunt Sadie. In real life, Sydney was a woman who had to face up to tragedy: her only son, Tom, was killed in Burma in 1945; and for many years she devotedly nursed her daughter, Unity, whose love for Hitler led to a suicide attempt that left her brain-damaged.

The girls grew up to be as outrageous as they were beautiful. Jessica known as the red sheep of the family eloped with her second cousin, Esmond Romilly, and espoused Communism. Unity moved to Germany, where she forged a close and open-eyed friendship with Hitler. And Diana left her husband Bryan Guinness, with whom she had two young sons, for the Fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Even Debo, not at all unconventional, made the headlines by marrying Andrew Cavendish, who went on to become the 11th Duke of Devonshire.

No wonder Pamela, dubbed by Betjeman the most rural of them all, played sixth fiddle. Nancy, the eldest, born in 1904, famously remarked that the first three years of her life were perfect: Then a terrible thing happened, my sister Pamela was born.

Nancy claimed that it put her into a permanent rage for about 20 years, Diana writes in her book. What initially upset her most was that the nanny of the time immediately transferred her affections to the new baby and Nancy was heard by her mother to say: Oh Ninny, how I wish you could still love me! Whether or not that perceived loss of love was responsible, Diana details the teasing at times, verging on outright bullying that Pamela was subjected to for much of her life.

Perhaps as a result, family lore painted this rather lonely child whose brush with polio left her with a weak right leg as house-wifely, careful with money, and intellectually dull: In Hons and Rebels Jessica remarks that Pam eventually gave up wanting to be a horse and did the next best thing by marrying a jockey, Diana writes. Of course, she adds with a touch of irritation, as we talk, Derek Jackson was anything but just a jockey. He was one of the brightest men of his generation.

Her championing continues throughout the book. The lacklustre qualities by which Pamela is mythologised are transformed into a woman who lacked any form of self-pity; who adored cooking and making people feel at home; and whose quiet life and sheer common sense stood in stark contrast to the madcap acts of her sisters. There was also an admirable courage, so unobtrusive it is usually overlooked: Her great friend, Margaret Budd, whom I knew well, told me shed said to Pamela on one occasion, I dont know how youre so calm after your divorce from Derek. Pam replied, If only you knew.

Diana also brings out her sheer generosity. When Diana and Oswald Mosley were imprisoned during the war for their Fascist beliefs and Nazi associations, it was Pam who took in her sisters children, despite being childless herself. And regardless of Nancys lifelong teasing, it was again Pam who nursed her during her last, painful illness in a cramped and uncomfortable flat in Paris.

But Dianas book really comes alive when she moves away from the stuff of legend and talks, from first-hand experience, about the Pamela she knew. Including things that only a cleaner would be party to. Theres the fact that the bed sheets were not always laundered for each new guest. Debo is coming to stay next week and Diana will be here in two weeks time, so one of them can sleep on this side and the other on that. There are observations from friends, such as Dee Hancock: Although she [Pam] suffered from what I used to call work-houseitis and couldnt bear to waste anything she ate rabbit bran for breakfast she was also very generous, always sharing the exotic vegetables which she grew in the garden and she even lent me a dress to wear to Buckingham Palace.

Another villager, Celia Fitzpatrick, who eventually took over as cleaner, tells of a heavy snowfall blocking the local roads. Her husband, Mike, a farmer, brought milk and bread in by tractor and went to see if he could bring anything else for anyone. He was somewhat nonplussed when Pam said she would like some sauerkraut.

Diana also talks of meeting Diana Mosley. I was sure I was going to dislike her, she says. My lovely husband says to me, Think of the concentration camps, and I understand that, but she was the favourite sister and she was so kindly. I met her when Id washed the floor and neither of us wanted to tread on the wet bit, so we sort of linked fingers to shake hands. She shakes her head: Wrong bloke.

The right bloke for her, though?

They all married oddly. But somebody and I cant remember if it was Jonathan [Guinness] said their obsessions with men were all very similar, although the men were all very different: Unity for Hitler; Diana for Mosley; Jessica for Esmond; and the Colonel [her French lover] for Nancy.

The connections continue: Max Mosley, Diana and Oswalds son, would bring his children, Alexander and Patrick, to play with Diana Alexanders her girls were devastated when Alex died of a drug overdose in 2009.

But not all of her famous link-ups were through Pam. Diana met Jonathan Guinness independently, at a church harvest festival at Rodmarton. She tells a hugely funny story of a lunch party when Malcolm famously left-wing and liberal announced, I think the two most despicable Englishmen of the 20th century were Evelyn Waugh and Randolph Churchill.

Whereupon, Diana says, Jonathan threw back his head, laughed, and said, Werent they dreadful! And they were both my godfathers.

It is an excellent book. But Ive one final, important question, which is this: what would the reclusive Pam say if she knew she were the subject of this biography? Well, I loved her and my children loved her, Diana says a fact which comes over clearly. And I would like to think she would say, and here, as always when quoting, she adopts Pamelas wonderfully elevated tones: Oh, Diana, extrorder of you to want to write this book about me!

Shed pretend she wasnt but I think shed secretly be rather pleased.

The Other Mitford, Pamelas Story, by Diana Alexander (with foreword by Jonathan Guinness) is published in hardback by The History Press on October 15, price 17.99.

Latest from the Cotswold Life