Sister act

The Mitford sisters always claimed to be mystified by the attention they received. But they were ski

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After reading the obituaries of her sister Decca (the communist Mitford) in July 1996, Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire, writes to Diana (one of two Nazi Mitfords) about the Mitford phenomenon. "The Mitford Girls are described, variously, as Famous Notorious Talented Glamorous Turbulent Unpredictable Celebrated Infamous Rebellious Colourful & Idiosyncratic," she says. For readers who know nothing about the Mitfords, this is a good starting point. Between them, the six sisters (Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah) were rarely out of the headlines from the 1920s onwards. Most recently Deborah was named as a bit-part actor in the romance between David Blunkett and Kimberly Quinn, some of which was played out in a cottage on the Duchess's estate at Chatsworth in Derbyshire. It would be easy to come up with a list of less flattering adjectives to describe the Mitfords - they often use some pretty fruity language about each other in these letters - but I shall resist the temptation.

The short letter about Decca's obituaries is a classic of the genre: vicious, bitter, disingenuous, condescending, snobbish (sorry, I let some of those adjectives slip out), but also very, very funny. "Debo" remarks on an article about the sisters in the Daily Express headlined "Sex and Power": "I suppose anyone who is married, & most who aren't, have what is now called Had Sex at some point in their lives. As for Power I don't see how that comes into it. So why are we different from anyone else?" The Duchess's own footnote to the phrase "Had Sex" ex presses a detached aristocratic puzzlement that anyone should be interested at all. "Look at the people walking down Oxford Street, all products of Having Sex."

I have now read this letter several times and it still makes me laugh. I find it astonishing that the Duchess of Devonshire believed that power played no part in her family's story, and that the sisters could ever have been compared to the plebeian hordes scuttling down Oxford Street. "So Why Are We So Different?" would have made a good title for this collection. If there is a common theme to which each sister returns, it is their irritation that the media and the public continue to be obsessed with everything they do.

At the outset I should declare an interest: I have been on the receiving end of the wrath of the Mitfords and, as a result, received my very own Mitford letters. In 2002 Debo, the youngest of the Mitford girls and now the only surviving sister, took exception to an article I had written for the Observer about her sister Unity, which suggested that some of the Mitford myth was not as it seemed. She wrote to the Observer to complain and we began a short correspondence.

As a keen supporter of the Nazi regime, Unity had spent a substantial chunk of the 1930s in Germany worshipping at the feet of the Führer and dreaming of an Anglo-Nazi alliance against the communists and the Jews. Such was her disappointment at the outbreak of war between her two beloved countries that she was reported to have entered the English Garden in Munich and shot herself in the head. Her attempt to commit suicide failed, but she was seriously injured. She was later spirited out of Germany to Switzerland, from where her father arranged for her to be brought home to England. She lived out the rest of her days being cared for by her mother.

The release of MI5 files showed that Guy Liddell, who ran the Security Service during the Second World War was sceptical about the story of the shooting and was furious that MI5 was not allowed to search or interrogate her on her return to Britain at the beginning of 1940. I now have no doubt that Liddell was wrong to doubt the veracity of the suicide attempt, but Debo's reaction was interesting. She is fiercely pro tective of the Mitford family's reputation, keeping a close control of papers and photographs, especially those relating to Unity and the Nazi years. Only the most trusted of Mitford experts and officially sanctioned writers such as Charlotte Mosley (who is connected to the family by marriage) are permitted any contact with the family papers.

This makes the experience of reading these letters deeply frustrating because it is impossible to know what motivated Mosley's decision to leave certain letters out. The collection runs to more than 800 pages, but we are told this amounts to just 5 per cent of the 12,000 letters written by the sisters to each other. There are some tantalising gaps. Why, for example, are there only a handful of letters from early 1940? From the point of view of the historian, these would provide a more than useful resource. The country had just gone to war and two of the sisters had spent a considerable proportion of their adult life in Germany. What did the sisters think of the new situation? We have a mere glimpse, as fewer than ten letters are included from the first seven months of 1940. One of the sisters had recently shot herself and returned to Britain in the most dramatic of circumstances, so it is just possible that the sisters stopped writing out of shock, but this does not seem likely. Charlotte Mosley also makes several references to Lady Redesdale's memoir of Unity, from which she constructs some of Unity's letters in the collection. I only hope she is preparing it for publication as I write.

Reading through these letters from the juvenilia to the last melancholy letters between Deborah and Diana, who died in Paris in the heatwave of 2003, one thing is plain. This book is part of a very sophisticated branding exercise. What's more, the responsibility for the creation of the Mitford brand lies almost entirely with the sisters themselves. Today, that brand is sustained by the last surviving sister, who can't for the life of her make out what all the fuss is about.

This article appears in the 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies