When I was twenty and longing to fall in love, I came across a book that seemed made for me. It was called The Pursuit of Love.
But far from being chick-lit (a term which hadn’t been invented then) it was an elegant, deliciously funny work of literature. Back then with no internet, and no Wikipedia, it was almost impossible to find out anything about the writer, Nancy Mitford, but when her next book appeared, I was waiting with eager open hands. Since however, a whole library of books has been written about Nancy Mitford and her extraordinary six sisters.
Actually The Pursuit of Love has wickedly funny descriptions of most of her sisters, and her parents too. Uncle Mathew – her father – having passed into legend. Nancy was the eldest, and had a series of love affairs and a miserable marriage until she met General de Gaulle’s chef de mission, a philanderer called Gaston de Palewski. She fell hopelessly in love with him, and after the war moved to Paris to be near him, swallowing his other affairs with difficulty. She went on to write a series of witty and sparkling best-sellers, including historical books. She was probably the most brilliant of the sisters.
Pam, next in line, was superficially the least interesting of the sisters – her idea of bliss was working a farm and milking. Poet John Betjeman wanted to marry her, and wrote poetry about her, but she ended up marrying a famous physicist, millionaire and amateur jockey, who won the Grand National, the most famous race in England, and also became a much decorated RAF pilot. There’s no room here for more of his extraordinary life and serial marriages! But when their fourteen year old marriage broke up, Pam became a lesbian, a farmer, bred dogs, and practised re-cyling so obsessively that she was the laugh of the family – but in hindsight, may have been one of the first conservationists.
Diana, the next, was a great beauty, and like all her sisters possessed of great intelligence and spirit. Married for a couple of years to a rich Guinness heir, she threw it all away for love of Sir Oswald Moseley, another philanderer, who was ravishing not only his wife but her two sisters at the same time that he was seducing Diana. When his wife died of appendicitis, Moseley, founder of the British fascists, the Blackshirts, married Diana. As fascist friends of Hitler and co, their wedding took place in Goebbel’s home, and Hitler strolled over from his office with a wedding present, to celebrate the occasion with them.
Back in England when the war broke out, Diana and her husband were imprisoned as potential traitors for most of the war, and Pam looked after their children. After the war, the Moseleys settled in a famously beautiful country home outside Paris, where he carried on his trouble making politics and his philandering, while Diana wrote and edited a fascist magazine plus her books. She never recanted her belief in the goodness of Hitler, and to her dying day said what had happened was exaggerated, or that his underlings had done it without his knowledge.
Unity the fourth sister, a tall imposing blonde, went to Germany to learn the language and fell in love with Hitler. Being a snob, as well as a racist, he found the blonde Aryan- looking aristocrat intriguing, and they became good friends. She introduced all her family to him, except for Nancy, and her two younger sisters. They were all very taken with Germany’s dictator who showered favours upon them. When war broke out, Unity shot herself in the head, but survived, and Hitler paid her medical expenses, and sent her on a special ambulance train to Switzerland, from where her parents could retrieve her. It caused a sensation! Unity survived until three years after the war, with the mind of a twelve year old, incontinent, and confused. She died of meningitis caused by the head wound.
Jessica ‘s story is in The Pursuit of Love – how she saved all her pocket money throughout her childhood for her running – away fund, and on meeting Esmond Romilly a troubled and truculent nephew of Winston Churchill, they eloped together at eighteen to join in the Spanish Civil War. Nancy Mitford’s account of their escapade is very funny, she had a gift for sending life up. Back in England, their first child died at a few months old, and they went to the US, as convinced communists.
When war broke out, Esmond joined the air force, and was killed, leaving Jessica with a daughter and no money. Eventually she married another communist and they had numerous problems during the McCarthy era, when they worked to help blacks in California. She made a name for herself in America writing books exposing scandals like the funeral parlour business – The American Way of Death etc. and her best- selling autobiography,‘ Hons and Rebels’.
Deborah, the youngest, married a Guards officer. His eldest brother, who was married to President Kennedy’s sister Kathleen, was killed in Normandy, so the young guards officer became the Duke of Devonshire. John Kennedy, Deborah’s brother in law was very fond of her, and invited her to his In-auguration where she sat beside him to watch the parade, and she attended his funeral of course, broken hearted.
As chatelaine of Chatsworth, one of the greatest houses in England, she restored it, made it a prosperous business so the family can afford to live there, and preserved all its treasures so the public can enjoy them too. She opened farm shops, bred and showed dying breeds of hens, cattle and ponies, has written wry witty books, preserved her marriage to her alcoholic philandering husband and survived several miscarriages to bring up a happy family.( So many of the Mitford girls’ men seemed to be both powerful and philanderers, unlike their rigidly upright father)
The story I like best about Deborah was when war broke out when she was nineteen. She was staying on a remote Scottish Island in the Hebrides with her mother, and had to get her goat, her Labrador and her whippet back to Oxfordshire. To get from the island there was a long walk from the house across a slippery sea-weed covered causeway at low tide to reach their boat. This meant leaving in the dark at 6.30 am. Once in the boat and having reached the Isle of Mull, there was another long and hazardous walk over rocks to the tin hut where their car was kept. From here she drove across Mull to catch the ferry to the mainland. The ferry took three hours to get to Oban, where she waited all day with all the animals for the London train. To pass the time, she went shopping around Oban. Accompanied by the goat and two dogs, and buying their lunch from a butcher and a greengrocer!
The train arrived at Stirling in the middle of the night, where she had to change trains and wait an hour for the London train. She took the animals into the first class waiting room, which she characteristically mentions she shouldn’t have done since she only had a third class ticket. Here she milked the goat, and gave it to the dogs to drink. Then off to London in the train, a taxi to her sister Nancy’s house, where the goat cleaned up her garden while they waited another two hours for the train to Oxfordshire. Now that’s what I call an epic journey. Deborah is still alive and lively at ninety three, her son now being the present duke.
The only son in this extraordinary family whose father, Lord Redesdale, prospected fruitlessly for years in the 1920 Gold Rush in Ontario, was a lawyer, musician and soldier who was killed in Burma. Book lovers like me have a whole library on this coterie of girls who were related to, or knew many of the main players in history at that time, including Winston Churchill who was their uncle. There are all their books, their letters to people like Evelyn Waugh, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, autobiographies, biographies, their novels plus memories of them written by others – a real niche market – and I have them all. Like ‘em or hate ‘em, they were an extraordinary phenomena, who unself-consciously lived lives less ordinary.
And this is why I prefer fact to fiction – facts are so interesting and truly, in that old cliché – so much stranger than fiction.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
This recipe for courgette slice was given me by a friend twenty five years ago. It’s one of the most blotched and spotted recipes in my book, as I often use it at this time of year when courgettes /zucchini are cheap and plentiful. The original recipe used three slices of bacon, but I use a tin of salmon. Beat five eggs, and add a chopped onion which has been gently fried in butter, a cup of cheese, chopped bacon or drained tin of salmon, and about four or five grated courgettes – 12 ounces in weight. Mix well with a cup of flour and half a cup of oil, add salt and pepper, and if using salmon, a good helping of dill.
Bake in a moderate oven. I serve it hot with new potatoes, green vegetables, and sometimes make a quick tomato sauce, frying tomatoes in olive oil, adding a little sugar, salt and pepper. I prefer it luke warm or cold, when it’s good with salad and summer vegetables. It’s great to take on a picnic, and cut off slices, or in a packed lunch. This amount serves six, but I often make double the quantity and freeze one.
Food for Thought
“Through respect for Divine Order, patience is cultivated. This brings knowledge of proper timing. In that is great intelligence. Often other issues and other needs have to be worked out before your plans can unfold, before your place can be set at the table. By respecting all things, and most especially Divine Order, you will attain peace and patience. Through this, you will be directed to the most efficient use of your life, so that you can experience self respect to the fullest…”
“ Love Without End – Jesus Speaks” by Glenda Green