The S.S. Scholarship, the Sisters Mitford, and Bananas in the News

I am back from my great adventure! My adventure was a success. Like Ulysses’s, except at the end my wife didn’t marry someone else. Am I thinking of the right historical epic? Actually the comparison bears out a little bit, because I returned from my THREE DAY absence to find a dog wholly enraptured with Ye Olde Beardsley and almost dismissive of Yours Truly, when once ’twas quite the opposite chez nous.

The loyalty of the dog, oft-lauded in sentimental ballads and in blog entries about personal failure and how a dog chewed off somebody’s toe that was infected from them being a diabetic alcoholic and how it made them finally stop drinking, turns out to be a myth as insidious as the myth of dinosaurs.

My paper went great. Nobody sassed me in the Q&A, and in fact several fancy people complimented me, which was basically beyond my wildest dreams and hopes. Remember when I met George Tolles and nobody knew who that was so nobody could share in my star-struck giddiness? This was like that. But I don’t care. I met a great hero of mine and HE LIKED MY PAPER. It truly was a blissful dream come true. Also no one called me an idiot in public–one of my constant fears. If they called me so in private at least I don’t have to know about it.

My comfort and joy during this stressful time was this collection of letters between the Mitford sisters that Elizabeth kindly sent me last week. The Mitford sisters!!! These were high-society English dames, born into turn-of-the-century bankrupt nobility. Their father was a Lord, thus making them “Honorables,” yet they didn’t have that much money and so lived in a series of relatively ramshackle country manses and all the girls tried to marry rich. None of them succeeded except one, who married the Duke of Devonshire.

These sisters! They were famous and there was like a 20 year period where not a week passed without one of them being in the newspapers involved in some scandal or other. And once they stopped doing scandalous things, they all started writing memoirs about the scandalous things and then those memoirs became scandalous hits. There’s this great illustration in a 1946 newspaper issue that says “THOSE MITFORD SISTERS” and has a drawing of the hand of fate with puppet strings tied to each finger, and all the girls cavorting at the end of the puppet strings, and the caption says “The aristocratic Mitford sisters traveled, individually, this way and that, with the perverse hand of fate guiding them into channels that brought embarrassment to their parents.”

So, there is Nancy, the eldest, who became a writer of scandalous fiction obviously based on her family. She was friends with Evelyn Waugh, and eventually lived permanently in France to be near her lover, a French colonel who had tons of girlfriends and a wife. Then there is Diana, who became a fascist and married the most prominent member of the British Union of Fascists after living with him for 2 years while both were married to other people. Then there is Unity, who became enamored of Hitler and moved to Berlin and actually BEFRIENDED HIM, becoming a National Socialist and a great shocking titillating embarrassment to her countrymen, who were obsessed with her and printed many photos of her heiling hitler in her smart leather gloves. When England declared war on Germany she went to a public park in Berlin and shot herself in the head and when she woke up she was brain damaged and spent the rest of her (short) life at the mental age of twelve, wetting the bed. Then there’s Pamela, who seems to have been sort of autistic or something, who just wanted to live in the country and raise dogs and chickens and talk obsessively about her dogs and chickens. Also unhappily married. Then there’s Jessica, who eloped to America with a raving Commie and became an obsessive, dedicated civil rights activist and lifelong member of the Communist party. Thus never speaking to Diana the fascist ever again for the rest of her life. And then there’s Deborah, who married a Duke but then 80% of his inheritance went to the government when the father died, so they still became bankrupt. Debo is the only one still alive, and periodically there’s a story about her in the paper in which she says hilarious and charming things.

The letters are epic. The sisters are SO MEAN and SO BLITHE but also so full of love and emotion. They live really hard. They wrote letters to each other constantly for like 100 years all-told. This collection is 1,000 pages long and is only 5% of their surviving letters. The way they write is so riveting. There is constant use of italics and underlining, and extreme hyperbole, so of course I am loving it. Everything is “ghastly” or “ghoulish,” when something is funny everyone “simply SCREAMS,” grievances are only genteely hinted at directly and then mawkishly enumerated behind the back, allegiances are formed and broken, the parents are discussed in absolutely hilarious ways.

A description of having tea with Hitler and how he is simply a DARLING man will be followed by a long exegesis about how one simply can’t find tinned ham in the stores these days, or how somebody’s dachshund had puppies.

They say “in pig” for “pregnant” and they call their children “the pigs.” They have so many nicknames for everyone in their lives that this book offers a helpful “index of nicknames” in the front so you can refer to it. They call President Kennedy either “Fat Friend,” “F.F.” or “The Loved One.” when they love somebody or something they “worship” its “body.” Different sets of the sisters had their own invented language not spoken by the others (“Honnish” and “Boudleidge”) and they periodically compose poems to one another in these languages. They call their mother either “Muv” or “TPOF” (“the poor old female”) or “The Fem.”

The letters begin when they are all children and end when they are all like 107. Amazing to see them develop as people and writers, and to see european history march on through their eyes. I’m halfway through and now Nancy is sixty and writing poignant things about deciding not to dye her hair, and paraphrasing Voltaire: “this ruined body and yet it houses a young person.”

Some samples:

Jessica to Unity, 1929:

“Dee Droudled Boudle,
It is rather fun here, but it is a bore having to miss 1/2 term in London. Debo has been rather cross part of the time. Day before yesterday at lunch she told the maid she wanted ‘a very little ham,’ and she was furious with Nanny for saying afterwards she wanted ‘a very, very little ham’. She said ‘What’s the use of my saying I want a very little ham if you go and say I want a very, very little ham?’ Yesterday morning, too, she wanted to go out directly after breakfast, but poor Nanny had to go to the lavatory, and Debo was furious again, and said ‘When Muv was here we didn’t have to do all this silly going to the lavatory’. Nanny said very crossly ‘I shall go to the lavatory when I want to.’.
Love from DECCA Je Boudle
I swear it’s quite true about the ham & lavatory, don’t believe Debo.”

Jessica to Diana, 1935:

“You are lucky to have been out to Germany to see my hated Boudle. Did she write & tell you how she saw the Führer, of whom she writes as ‘Him’ with a capital H, as for Christ or God!! I love my Boud in spite of all.”

Nancy to Unity, 1935: She draws a picture of Unity with a head of bone, a heart of stone, holding a “rubber truncheon” and wearing “hobnail boots for trampling on Jews.”

In another letter to Unity Nancy writes:
“We were asked to stay with somebody called Himmler or something, tickets & everything paid for, but we can’t go as we are going to Venice & the Adriatic for our hols. I supposed he read my book & longed for a good giggle with the witty authoress. Actually he wanted to show us over a concentration camp, now why? So that I could write a funny book about them.”

Unity to Diana, 1935:

“I didn’t expect to see the Führer, as he apparently hasn’t been to the Osteria for weeks. However today at last he came, it was wonderful, & he was tremendously surprised to see me. He immediately asked me, as he came in (himself, for the first time), to go & sit with him. A bit later Max Schmeling came with Hoffmann, & sat on the Führer’s other side. He remember you & me from the Parteitag. The Führer was heavenly, in his best mood, & very gay. There was a choice of two soups & he tossed a coin to see which one he woul dhave, & he was so sweet doing it. He asked after you, & I told him you were coming soon. He talked a lot about Jews, which was lovely.

“The most amazing piece of news of all is–Baum is out of the Partei! She was in the Osteria yesterday, & Rosa told me. According to Stadelmann she was discovered to be a half-Jüdin. Isn’t it amazing. She also hasn’t any work poor thing, as there was a big row in her Mütterheim at Starnberg & she was kicked out. I am really sorry fo rher, as the Partei & her hate for the Jews were really all she had.”

Jessica to Deborah, 1936:

“There are some lousy people called the Grevilles here & the other day they asked Chris & me to go on a picnic with them. But when the time came they simply went without us, wasn’t it rude of them. So we pretended to the others that we had been on the ‘nic & that it was heaven with champagne & everything. But when I saw the slaver’s killing old père de famille-ish face believing it all I couldn’t contain my giggles so it all came out. So the s. was simply horrified at me telling such a lie & he said his faith in human nature was shaken. So now we’re always telling him lies like ‘we saw two people fall out of a boat this morning’ & then he says ‘did you really and we say ‘no!’ It teases like mad.
Love from Tarty”

Deborah to Unity, 1936:

“Dear Bird,
Would you send me a letter with a German stamp & an Olympic Games stamp on it like you sent to Muv because Sex Hay longs for one. DON’T FORGET.
I’ve started a new National Movement & its slogan is FOOD & DIRT. That’s what we stand for. There are 3 members.
It’s called Nourishilism.
It’s a very swell movement.
Goodness the weather.
Sex has been staying here. Ivan has got a job about anti-aircraft intelligence at the Home Office. Isn’t it killing, I mean the intelligence bit. I’m afraid poor England will be beaten in a war if we have Ivan as chief.
Isn’t it wicked about the bombing of the Alhambra. If only all the Spaniards could be converted to Nourishilism it would never have happened. THE BRUTES.
Well DON’T FORGET about the Olympic stamp.
Hail Food!
Hail Dirt!
Hail our leader Ramsbotham!
Yours in National Nourishilism, Dawly”

Unity to Jessica, 1937:

“About Esmond’s feeling for fascists (actually I prefr to be called a National Socialist as you know) I will explain how I feel about it, & I don’t really see why he should feel any different. I hate the communists just as much as he hated Nazis, as you know, and it naturally wouldn’t occur to me, nor would I want, to make friends with a lot of communists, if I had no reason to. But I don’t see why we shouldn’t personally be quite good friends, though politically enemies. Of course one can’t separate one’s politics & one’s private life, as you know Nazism is my life & I very much despise that democratic-liberal-conservative-English idea of walking about arm-in-arm with one’s opponent in private life and looking upon politics as a business or hobby; but I do think that family ties ought to make a difference. After all, violent differences of opinion didn’t prevent you & me from remaining good friends did they. My attitude to Esmond is as follows–and I rather expect his to me to be the same. I naturally wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him if it was necessary for my cause, and I should expect him to do the same to me. But in the meanwhile, as that isn’t necessary, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be quite good friends, do you. I wonder if he agrees.”

Anyway, it kind of goes on from there. During the war it gets awkward for Diana, whose husband remains this crazy fascist for his entire life. Diana spends four years in prison–AFTER NANCY INFORMED ON HER AND THEN ALSO PROTESTED AGAINST HER GETTING PAROLED!!!!!! And Diana never found this out! So all during her imprisonment she and Nancy are writing these loving, detailed letters to each other, and meanwhile Nancy is going to the British government and saying Diana is a “danger” and a “menace” and should be kept in prison. OMG

And after Unity shot herself it got so sad and weird. Because she’s now this brain-damaged child again, but she looks the same, and since it was a suicide attempt the details of her injury are kept pretty hush-hush, so everyone in Britain still thinks of her as this insane Hitler-loving Nazi. So she’s back at home all during the war, “ambling along,” in one of the sister’s words, and people periodically start screaming and throwing things at her when they see her. Meanwhile Unity is writing letters to her sisters where she’s like “Oh darling I GOT A PUPPY how TOO Marvelous for WORDS well I can’t write anymore because you know my right side doesn’t work anymore darling PLEASE write me soon I ABSOLUTELY DIE TO HEAR FROM YOU!!!!!!!!!!” totally transitioning back to her teenaged writing style. Such a crazy change from her pre-brain-injury letters which are super long and go into crazy political detail about National Socialism and how awful it was for Hitler when he had to have his good friend murdered, she feel so awfully sorry for him. Then she catches meningitis from the hole in her head and she dies. It’s kind of awful because her letters were the most shocking and interesting and then she disappears, and the rest of them just get world-weary from the war and start writing about their pigs and their china and the difficulties of finding a good cook. Then Jessica comes to england for the first time in SIXTEEN YEARS and they all hate her because she’s “so American.” They’re particularly appalled when they ask her how old her husband is and she says “pushing forty.” Their letters sometimes end with “THROW THIS AWAY” because they’ve unburdened themselves with all this terrible hate and jealousy about some other sister and then they don’t want to be caught later having said such awful things.

Also they’re always having horrible miscarriages and stillborn children and then it’s like one week later they’re writing about how boring it is to have to stay in bed. Also they have a cousin who’s related to Winston Churchill?? It’s so confusing. Debo writes this great letter as a teenager where she hears this ruckus outside and comes out to find her two dachshunds mating in the street and all the men come out of a pub to point and laugh, and she has to get the chauffeur to bring the car around and load the dogs into it, the male dog having to “go in backwards” due to being stuck to the female dog, and she was never so ashamed in her entire life, and they stayed stuck together for half an hour “and now OF COURSE she’ll pig, and isn’t it AWFUL.”

It’s the 50’s now and Debo is friends with JFK for some reason I can’t figure out. She keeps trying to get Nancy to see how lovely the Americans are and Nancy refuses. I wonder what will happen when Kennedy is shot. So weird to read Debo’s letters about selling the Edwardian furniture in Lord Cavendish’s home and then to think “at this moment Don Draper is in a conference room trying to sell an ad campaign to Pampers.”

Also in the New Yorker there is an entire Shouts & Murmurs devoted to describing how horrible bananas are. I have never been so validated in all my days.

Thank you for your time!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Now I have to leave my dog alone in the house for 20 minutes so he can practice shrieking and being a huge pain in my butt. It’s for his own good.

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6 Responses to The S.S. Scholarship, the Sisters Mitford, and Bananas in the News

  1. cdog says:

    Hail Food! Hail Dirt!
    Hail Food! Hail Dirt!

    Amazing! Thank you for sharing this. I have been in the dark for so long.

  2. Sarah Meadows says:

    I very recently read this and found it delightful:

    Very similar style as the letters… what a weird clan!

  3. elizabeth says:

    Get On

    Their cousin related to Churchill was Decca’s first husband who she ran away to America with and who died in the war! Also Debo’s brother-in-law was married to JFK’s sister, Kick.


  4. Cindy says:

    The Duchess of Devonshire (aka Debo) has just published a memoir called ‘Wait for Me’. It should be out in the US this month, I think.

    JFK’s dad was the US ambassador to the UK in the ’30s, so that’s why the Kennedys. Debo was friends with JFK’s fav sister, ‘Kick’, who married the elder brother of Debo’s husband. He was the one who ought to have been Duke, but was killed in WW2 (Kick died in a plane crash four years after) and the Dukedom passed to Debo’s husband.

  5. Cindy says:

    P.S. – Ignore the ambassador part. I read that in Vogue, but I can’t seem to find any other source to back it up, but the Kennedys were in London in the mid 1930s, ostensibly so JFK could study at the London School of Economics.

  6. Christina says:

    JFK’s Dad was ambassador to the court of St James in the 30’s, and he took all the family to London with him. Debo became very close with Kik as they were sister-in-laws, and with JFK.

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