Nancy Mitford’s first novel, Highland Fling, is about a young British gentlewoman in the late 1920s, wriggling uneasily but divertingly in the generation gap of her time and class. Her parents’ generation seems to be stuck in the mud of the grouse moors: tough as old boots, the elders blaze away, pausing to reminisce about World War One and the filthy Hun. Her young friends (rather camp, resembling Driberg and Betjeman) offer a different lifestyle, a gossip-column world of nightclubs, Continental cities, private views and political dissidence. Caught between bright young aesthetes and grim, dim old hearties, the girl thinks wistfully, romantically, about her chic and forceful Victorian grandparents – and she is encouraged in this ‘nostalgia’ by her most Betjemanic young friend, Albert (‘Memorial’) Gates, a surrealist artist who annoys the elders with his modern, pacifist dissidence, as well as his eccentric reverence for ‘Victorian monstrosities’. The girl tells another chum about her splendid Victorian grandparents: ‘Brains often skip a generation, you know, and come out in the grandchildren. Poor mummy and daddy are both terribly stupid: darlings, of course, but narrow-minded and completely unintellectual.’ This engaging fantasy tells something about the imagination of Nancy and her five sisters, the Mitford girls, affectionately scornful of their parents, eager to emulate the grandeur of their grandfathers.
So it was quite a good idea for Jonathan Guinness (Nancy’s nephew) and his daughter Catherine to begin The House of Mitford with long chapters about the two grandfathers. Bertie (pronounced ‘Bartie’) Mitford and Thomas ‘Tap’ Bowles were both tremendous swells. They looked rather similar, something like Edward Elgar, and when they were in the House of Commons they worked together in a spirited, efficient and defiantly independent manner, never as lobby-fodder. Neither could be called ‘democratic’ or ‘anti-racist’; but Tap Bowles was always keen to praise the British working class (especially the crew of his yacht and other trusty servants) and to bring down the over-mighty (through his magazine, Vanity Fair), while Bertie Mitford was expert in studying the customs of foreigners in a friendly but patriotic spirit, encouraging Japanese and Germans to learn how to do things the good British way, teaching the hillbillies of the Wild West how to shoot buffalo cleanly, while keeping up a decent appearance and looking after their guns. Both grandfathers spoke unusually good French (among other languages) as a result of their unconventional upbringings. Bertie was the son of divorced parents; Tap was (less unusual at the time) an illegitimate child – and he fathered some more illegitimate children after the death of his wife, bringing up all his children in his own independent way, often on a yacht, all dressed in sailor suits, among his sturdy Suffolk seamen. Both grandfathers wrote very well about interesting subjects: they were learned, clever, efficient, schoolboyish, sportsmanlike. Tap might have been a hero for an H.G. Wells story, while Bertie belongs rather to Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle. They were members of the ruling class: they knew how to perform that function and play that role. Any granddaughter could be proud of Bertie and Tap.
But eventually Bertie’s dim son, David, became Lord Redesdale (his elder, grander brother having been killed in action) and David married Tap’s dim daughter, Sydney. David and Sydney did not know how to be Lord and Lady Redesdale: perhaps, as Highland Fling suggests, no one quite knew what lords and ladies were for after 1918. The dim Redesdales produced the six Mitford girls, so bright and silly, as well as an overshadowed son (killed in action). The parents will be remembered only for what their daughters did to them. The brightest, Nancy and Jessica, put the Redesdales into their books, as lovable comics (like the country-house retainers the Redesdales ought to have been). The silliest daughters, Unity and Diana, did worse: they persuaded their parents to become Nazi supporters in real, horrible life.
Jonathan Guinness is in a difficulty when writing about his mother and his aunts. He is the son of Diana, the most unpopular of the Mitford sisters now that Unity’s dreadful life is over. Diana left her husband, Bryan Guinness, became a Fascist and married Oswald Mosley: it is suggested in this book that Diana was even more anti-Jewish than her husband. Though the six sisters tried to remain sisterly, both Nancy and Jessica thought it right that dangerous Diana should be locked up during World War Two. Jessica wrote in 1960 that she had resumed contact with all her sisters – except, it is reported, Diana who she was afraid would make her son – Jessica’s son, that is – ‘into soap because he is half-Jewish’. Jessica has declined to help the Guinnesses with their book.
It is hard not to moralise, in a self-righteous way, when confronted with the disastrous careers of the Fascist sisters, Unity and Diana. The Guinnesses are a solemn pair and have written a moralising book, from an extreme right-wing position. Jonathan Guinness has been chairman of the Monday Club, a Conservative Party tendency which many observers hold to be disagreeably ‘racist’, with an anti-black rather than an anti-Jewish bias, to accord with the spirit of the age. Jonathan and his daughter attempt to spread the guilt of Unity and Diana all over the Mitford family, even unto the grandfathers’ generation. If the Fascist sisters were snobbish, racist and inclined to kowtow to foreign potentates, so were the rest of the family (argue the Guinnesses) and it was quite understandable in the context of their times: what’s more, with all this coloured immigration and left-wing how’s-your-father, a touch of Mosley’s right-wingery would do the nation a power of good – without, of course, overstepping the mark, like Hitler and Streicher, because some of the Guinnesses’ best friends are Jews, nowadays ... The Guinnesses don’t know where to draw the line. They are constantly, wince-makingly, overstepping the mark which divides the bedevilled world of Diana and Unity from the pardonable, teasable peccadilloes of other Mitfords. They cannot see the difference between what is funny and what is horrible. They are too solemn.
For instance, they fasten self-righteously on Nancy’s little touch of the French flu and compare it with Unity’s pro-German, anti-Jewish mania. Nancy was rather keen on the French (this comes out even in Highland Fling of 1931), partly because the heterosexual males of that country pay attention to women’s clothes, and she may have been a bit too soft on our awkward but admirable ally, Charles de Gaulle. This peccadillo cannot fairly be compared with Unity addressing two hundred thousand Nazis at Hesselberg, alongside Streicher, and telling them: ‘I want everyone to know that I am a Jew-hater.’ No wonder Nancy’s sighing letters address Unity as ‘Dear head of wood, heart of stone’. The Guinnesses, nevertheless, attempt the absurd comparison, bolstering it with amateur psychology. Nancy, they aver,
was unable to see that there was any other form of French patriotism than Gaullism, just as Unity had been unable to see that anyone opposing Hitler could love Germany ... Critics have accused the Mitfords of power worship; there is something in this as long as one emphasises that the feeling was always essentially subconscious. They directed themselves towards an idea of power ... with a plant-like inevitability, as a flower turns towards the sun. We see in it a version of the pre-human urge in the female to secure the best mate ... It is inappropriate as well as uncharitable to blame them for it.
With this pompous argument the Guinnesses offer priestly forgiveness equally to decent Nancy (C of E, Girl Guide, Labour Party) for her French flu and to wooden-headed, stony-hearted Unity for joining the pagan tribeswomen of Sudetenland, ‘sobbing and stretching out their hands’ (in Unity’s admiring words) while they chanted to Hitler: ‘Dear Führer, when are you coming to us?’
The Guinnesses have an unusual bias, extremely right-wing but self-consciously non-Fascist. This gives a curious turn to their discussion of the Victorian grandfathers. Almost like witch-finders, the Guinnesses are ever on the lookout for signs of snobbery-and-racism, as well as that odd sort of ‘Napoleonism’ – admiration for foreign enemies – which has tempted so many Britons. When the Guinnesses sniff out one of these tell-tale signs they explain it and forgive it. Take Bertie Mitford first. He went to Japan before it was modernised, he was delighted by the samurai and thought the whole place had a Medieval, knights-in-armour charm: he fought off bandits, witnessed the ceremonial hara-kiri performed by one of them upon the orders of the Shogun (‘the best-looking man in Japan’, said Bertie) and he entertained the Duke of Edinburgh in old Yedo (later Tokyo), demonstrating mastery in Japanese court language and etiquette. Bertie wrote it all up, claiming that going to old Japan was like taking a trip in Wells’s time machine. Later in life, Bertie went back to Japan with the Duke of Connaught to present the Order of the Garter and some Orders of Merit to friendly modernised Japanese: the hosts laid on some ancient ceremonies for the British guests and the young Japanese princesses asked old Bertie if they were doing it properly. He was an expert on the Japanese. All credit to him. But the Guinnesses treat this triumphant story merely as an example of the Mitfords’ ‘snobbery’ – which they want to justify in their moralising way: ‘He explicitly compared the samurai with the class to which he himself belonged, the English gentry with roots in the chivalry of old ... His snobbery was of that old-fashioned kind which was not wholly devoid of sense. He recognised that an upper class needed to have a purpose; that to have a right to its position, it needed to perform certain social duties and exhibit certain virtues.’
We get the same nervously right-wing moralising when Bertie is in America, inspecting Mormons and shooting buffalo. He is sorry for the Red Indians, cheated by ‘Indian Agents’, and he puts the blame on ‘universal suffrage’. Some people suppose that universal suffrage means the same as democracy – so the Guinnesses must explain Bertie’s apparently anti-democratic remark: ‘A system based on votes, the majority of which will be those of the unsophisticated, will tend to throw up officials who are on the take. They will be those who know how to pander to the representatives of the populace rather than those who have a tradition of service or inherited self-respect.’ The Guinnesses are forgiving Bertie for going a bit too far: at the same time they exaggerate his throwaway remark into a point of principle. Bertie writes cordially about the ruffianly leader of the buffalo-hunters: ‘His features were regular and showed breeding.’ The Guinnesses pounce on that word ‘breeding’ and forgive Bertie for using it: ‘A remark like this would not be made nowadays, and there might be a temptation, in the overheated atmosphere developed around the Mitfords following the activities of two of Bertie’s granddaughters, to regard it as a kind of proto-Nazism ... A care for breeding and for genetic quality was a constant concern of Bertie’s ... It ties in with his later interest in the breeding of animals, and perhaps anticipates his respect for the writings of Houston Stewart Chamberlain.’
H.S. Chamberlain is best-known for his racial theories, praising Germans and dispraising Jews. However, he also wrote (in German) about Kant, Goethe and Wagner. Bertie was interested in Chamberlain’s work and translated two of his books into English, adding a foreword to the effect that Chamberlain was unjust to Jews. When World War One began, Bertie dropped Chamberlain, censoring references to this dangerous pro-German in his own published works. The Guinnesses comment on this information in a sort of ‘Wet Fascist’ style. Lacking Bertie’s bold curiosity and political good sense, they explain to us that it was quite all right, perfectly safe, to be anti-Jewish in those days. It’s all a matter of fashion, they hint in their self-righteous way: ‘This particular tendency was disgraced by Nazism, but also, perhaps, because it is obscurely felt that the northern European peoples are so generally prosperous that it is somehow not cricket for them to consolidate this prosperity by exercising a racial self-interest that less privileged races can be permitted. As the decline in their power becomes more generally apparent to themselves, this fashion may change.’ That last dreary sentence sounds almost like a Wet Fascist threat. When the fashion changes it will be safe to be anti-Jewish or anti-Arab.
When old Tap Bowles was 76 he spoke at a Navy dinner where he was congratulated on his part in defeating a move to internationalise the conventions about naval blockades in time of war: he laughed at ‘the fantastic Hague International Prize Court composed of defaulting Dagoes and Negro neologists’. Most of us will forgive him his jokily racist alliterations, but the wretched Guinnesses must offer their mean little comment: ‘He would not have been enamoured of the United Nations.’ They try to be righteously ethical but they haven’t the spirit, only the pomposity. They quote Tap’s writings but don’t understand them. He argues against Bentham – ‘Jeremy, thou wast a noodle’ – citing the disinterestedness of his yacht crew. The Guinnesses assure us that ‘this is not really a refutation of Bentham’ and that old Tap really ‘accepts hierarchy, that is relationships between higher and lower ... Fiercely as he loves freedom, he does not fall for anarchism. That each man is unique does not imply that all men are kings.’
When the Guinnesses reach our own times their information is less interesting and their commentary more embarrassing. They offer a worried discussion, in Wet Fascist style, about Mosley’s career after World War Two, when he was making contact (as the Guinnesses put it) with ‘the respectable remnants of European Fascism’ and asserting that ‘the coloured immigration then beginning, still a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, would cause problems if it continued.’ This is too dull. I remember, after the Notting Hill race riots, how Mosley’s adherents kept crossing the river to Electric Avenue, Brixton, stirring up trouble. They were poor speakers, easy to heckle, apart from Mosley himself. He spoke most eloquently and righteously about the cruelty of imprisoning the white lads who had bashed the blacks at Notting Hill. ‘Imprisoned by a Jewish judge!’ shouted one of Mosley’s sergeant-like adherents. Mosley looked at the shouter in a curious, fake-reproachful way, with a whimsical smile, a twinkle in the eye and a ‘naughty-naughty’ flap of the hand – rather like a colonel insincerely reproving his rankers for brawling with men from a rival regiment.
He was hard to heckle, a talented street-corner orator, fascinating his audience. An old chap in a cloth cap bicycled along Electric Avenue, on his way home from work, and halted beside us unsuccessful hecklers. When Mosley paused, dramatically, the old chap asked loudly: ‘Hey, Mosley, is it true you’re Jewish?’ Mosley lost his cool, flushed red and began telling the crowd about his noble British ancestry, losing their attention. The old chap nudged me in the ribs, remarked, ‘Always gets him!’ and bicycled off home, well pleased. When Mosley had finished his officer-like discourse, his sergeants dressed him in his military mac and ushered him to his motor car. Another heckler cried: ‘Why don’t you carry him home?’ Mosley grinned at the heckler, rather endearingly, and flapped his hand in the same ‘naughty-naughty’ way. You could see his ‘man-to-man’ appeal – and his sex appeal was, of course, notorious. The Guinnesses, brooding thoughtfully on Mosley’s political philosophy, do not seem interested in his style of political communication. They are too solemn. That is why they are not so dangerous as the Mosleys.