Commentary Magazine


Unity Mitford, by David Pryce-Jones

A British Aristocrat

Unity Mitford: An Enquiry into Her Life and the Frivolity of Evil.
by David Pryce-Jones.
Dial Press/James Wade. 292 pp. $9.95.

One of the most interesting things about David Pryce-Jones’s book on Unity Mitford is the extraordinary row that it provoked. Mr. Pryce-Jones had the idea that it would be intriguing to interview all the surviving people who had known Unity Valkyrie Mitford, the tall blonde daughter of an English lord, who had a strange sexless love affair with Hitler, and who shot herself with her silver revolver (carried for this very eventuality) when the war which she dreaded broke out between England and Germany. Certainly, one would have thought, a book that had to be written; and sufficient time has passed to make the events described seem bizarre rather than disturbing. But far from it. All hell broke loose. The English press from the intellectual Times Literary Supplement to the popular dailies was filled with recriminations for weeks. It is a matter of some importance to inquire why.

First let us survey the dramatis personae. The Mitford girls, daughters of Lord and Lady Redesdale (“Farve” and “Muv”), seemed to be prime representatives of the Bright Young Things who glittered in the 30′s. Beneath the high spirits, ready laughter, and private language, there was something about the Mitfords that differentiated them from their friends: a determination to do something extraordinary in the world, and achieve fame, or at least notoriety. Nancy became a famous novelist. Jessica became a Communist, and ran off to Spain with Esmond Romilly, another upper-class young rebel. Later, Jessica married a Jewish American Communist lawyer, Bob Treuhaft, thus putting herself completely beyond the pale. Deborah declared in childhood that she would marry a Duke, and so she did; she became the Duchess of Devonshire. Diana, the most celebrated for her beauty (and they were all beautiful), sought power of a political kind. She married Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British fascist movement, who hoped to emulate Mussolini and Hitler by becoming the dictator of Britain. Diana was interned with Mosley during the war, and the couple now live in France, still hoping for the call to rescue England from decline. Unity, the most awkward and ill-adjusted of the girls (sometimes even appearing ugly), set her sights on the greatest leader of all, Hitler. She became a fanatical fascist and Jew-hater. She saw herself, probably, as the future empress of a combined Nordic empire of England and Germany under Hitler.

This grandiose dream was too much even for a Mitford, and Unity died in disappointment and disgrace. Yet she achieved some of her aims. She was continuously in the headlines for a few years. She was the intimate friend of Hitler and the top-ranking Nazis, especially Goebbels and Streicher. She swept around Europe in a frenzy of excitement and felt herself to be at the center of world events. It was a logical extension of the whirl of the Bright Young Things, which was portrayed in all its fevered gaiety and self-destructive restlessness by Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies. It was a way of continuing the whirl at a time when others, no longer so young or so bright, were settling down into bourgeois respectability.

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It was also a way of continuing the sense of aristocratic superiority which is one of the important things about the Mitfords. David Pryce-Jones has some interesting things to say about this. He points out that at this time the English aristocracy was at last beginning to fall away from the center of power, and to decline into a mere picturesque round of debutante balls, esoteric slang, and inbred snobbery, of no great significance to the outside world. But there were some who were too high-spirited to acquiesce in such a loss of significance. They looked around for some cause which would bring them back to the center. The Mitfords were of the highest aristocracy—the kind who are reluctant to send their children to boarding schools because of the vulgar bourgeois elements they would have to mix with in such places. Consequently, the daughters (and in extreme instances even the sons) of such families tend to be brought up by tutors, whom they sometimes despise and tease cruelly. They learn nothing except what they want to learn, and may turn out as savages (like Unity Mitford), or, just occasionally, as original spirits (like Bertrand Russell, or, in her minor way, Nancy Mitford).

Even the savages, however, have the aristocratic confidence which carries all before them, once they find something they really want to do. When Unity decided to be a fascist, there was no nonsense about joining the ranks and working her way up—she joined at the top. But after a short while, the British fascist party seemed provincial and limited. What she wanted was the real top, and this meant going to Berlin and joining the intimate circle of Hitler himself. This she accomplished with a typical combination of schoolgirl cheek and upper-class insouciance by haunting the Osteria Bavaria, the restaurant frequented by Hitler, until Hitler took notice of her and invited her to his table.

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As a savage, Unity was unsurpassable. She was the bane of the unfortunate succession of governesses who were hired by Lord and Lady Redesdale to attempt to teach her. One of them, Miss Hussey, had a great fear of snakes. Unity found this out, and acted accordingly. She left her pet grass snake, Enid, wrapped around the toilet chain. When Miss Hussey locked herself in, “there was shortly an ear-splitting shriek followed by a thud. The unconscious woman was ultimately released with the aid of crowbars.” This story is told in Hons and Rebels, Jessica Mitford’s account of the Mitford childhood years, and might be thought an amusing childhood prank, if one could avoid associating it with later instances of heartlessness to social inferiors, regarded as fair game. (When David Pryce-Jones, pursuing indefatigably his policy of interviewing personally everyone associated with Unity, asked Miss Hussey about the snake incident, she professed to have no recollection of it, and said that she had got on well with Unity. This seems a typical instance of repression of what Samuel Johnson called “the humiliations of being an usher.”) When Unity was a debutante, she so scorned the round of haute-bourgeoisie pair-rituals that she used to take her pet rat along and release it among the dancing couples. Before this, she had been sent finally to a school for young ladies, but such was her contemptuous disregard for the school rules that she was expelled after little more than a year (the headmistress, Miss Boys, refusing to be overawed by a personal visit from Lord Redesdale on the matter). The only school subject in which Unity ever condescended to show an interest was art, for which she had considerable talent.

Yet a curious effect of belonging to the aristocracy was that it granted freedom from some of the usual upper-middle-class snobberies. It was more acceptable to hobnob with gamekeepers than with the tiresome aspiring bourgeoisie. This may explain why it was possible for Unity to associate with, and even develop a passion for, a vulgarian like Hitler. She could even become an intimate friend of Streicher, a man of sickening grossness of behavior and speech, without ever losing her own impeccable aristocratic air. This is the camaraderie of the highest and the lowest which has always given top aristocrats (Julius Caesar, for example) the gift of the “common touch.” Here perhaps, David Pryce-Jones’s acute analysis needs to be supplemented a little. He sees the Mitfords as uncomfortably aware of their lack of rapport with the lower ranks of society, and as reaching out in various desperate ways to bridge the gap. But perhaps what they were doing was to reinstate, in terms relevant to the confusion of modern society, the old alliance of the top and the bottom against the middle. Unlike guilty middle-class intellectuals like George Orwell (who tried to adopt a working-class accent), Unity (and Jessica) could form friendships with the lower class without sacrificing one scrap of their own upper-class individuality. Hitler, indeed, gloried in Unity’s aristocratic aura, which he regarded as a great asset to his circle, though it probably prevented any overt sexual relationship between them, since as one of Mr. Pryce-Jones’s interviewees put it, “Hitler only felt comfortable with someone of his own class, such as Eva Braun.”

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How, then, is one to regard Unity Mitford? As an upper-class madcap, seeking an outlet for her bubbling arrogance and self-importance in a world she did not understand? As a butterfly of an almost extinct species, burned in the candle flame of greedily sought publicity? One might be content with such characterizations, were it not for one thing: the major disturbance caused by David Pryce-Jones’s book. This suggests that Unity Mitford is, after all, a figure of some significance in the study of English social life, and especially its upper class, which, though in decline, still has a certain part to play.

The row was many-sided, and involved many different people with different points to make. Sir Oswald Mosley himself made a visit of some weeks to London from his retreat in Orsay, France, in order to direct operations against Pryce-Jones. His attempts to prevent the publication of the book failed, but Pryce-Jones did agree to some minor adjustments of the text. The campaign against the book continued, however, and culminated in a television confrontation between Mosley and Pryce-Jones.

The chief points at issue in this exchange were these:

  1. Did Pryce-Jones misreport his interviewees, so presenting a distorted picture of Unity, who was really a very lovable person, though the victim of a tragic delusion?
  2. Was it cruel to write about Unity at all, in view of the distress this would cause to her surviving family? Would it not have been better to have left her alone as a topic of some pathos but no significance?
  3. Did Pryce-Jones misrepresent Sir Oswald Mosley and his movement as anti-Semitic, when in fact Mosley had only opposed some Jews who had used their influence to drag England into war with Germany?
  4. Specifically, did Pryce-Jones misquote a telegram sent by Mosley to Streicher, thus making the message appear an expression of discipleship to Nazism instead of a formal message of thanks?

On the apparently damaging charge that Pryce-Jones had falsified his interviews, he was definitively cleared by a competent and detailed investigation carried out by the “Insight” team of the Sunday Times, who presented one of their well-known reports. This report showed that Pryce-Jones’s interviews, as published, were in accordance with the notes he made at the time of the interviews; that he had submitted the written-up interviews to all his interviewees for criticism or comment, and had incorporated any objections in the final version; and that the present retractions of some of the interviewees were made on vague or questionable grounds (for example, one interviewee said, “If I had known that Pryce-Jones was a Jew [actually he is half-Jewish], I wouldn’t have given him an interview”).

On the question of Mosley’s telegram to Streicher, a long correspondence took place in the columns of several periodicals. Mosley’s main point was that Pryce-Jones had misquoted the telegram as thanking Streicher for his “advice,” while in fact it had only thanked Streicher for his “message.” To this Pryce-Jones replied that some sources did indeed support the word “advice,” but that in any case the telegram as a whole, with or without the word “advice,” goes far beyond a formal acknowledgment, and is an unequivocal endorsement of Nazism and anti-Semitism. The reader may judge for himself from the text of the telegram:

To Herr Streicher. The Stuermer. Nuremberg. Please accept my very best thanks for your kind telegram which greeted my speech in Leicester. It was received while I was away from London. I value your advice [message] greatly in the midst of our hard struggle. The power of Jewish corruption must be destroyed in all countries before peace and justice can be successfully achieved in Europe. Our struggle to this end is hard, but our victory is certain.

It is little wonder that Mosley did his best to counteract the effect of Pryce-Jones’s citation of this telegram, for it was most damaging to Mosley’s attempted comeback to respectability, which up to this point, with the aid of Robert Skidelsky’s whitewashing biography which appeared in 1975, was proving quite successful. Alastair Forbes, whose own review of Pryce-Jones’s book in the Times Literary Supplement was unfavorable, nevertheless wrote about Mosley’s defense of his telegram:

I regarded it then as now “shameful” for any Englishman to send any gratuitous communication whatsoever, a fortiori one so sycophantic and racist as Mosley’s toadying telegram, to the Jew-baiting criminal Streicher, and I was sorry to see him contriving to secure in the media so much free publicity for himself out of the publication of Mr. Pryce-Jones’s really not very significant book about the poor, silly young sister-in-law whom he so ruthlessly dismissed in his television chat with the author. . . .

Here we find the not uncommon attitude of condemning Mosley while at the same time dismissing the importance of Unity Mitford.

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Mosley himself, despite his long exile from British politics, cannot be regarded as an insignificant figure, and Pryce-Jones’s exposé is therefore most opportune. Fascism is beginning to raise its head again in Britain, in the form of the National Front, the successor movement to Mosley’s more explicitly-named British Union of Fascists. Though the National Front is at present directing its racist propaganda more against colored immigrants than against Jews for tactical reasons, its anti-Semitism is by no means dormant. For example, it is associated with the publication of a pamphlet and a book about the “myth” or “hoax” of the Holocaust, arguing that the massacre of six million Jews never took place.

While the movement is still very small, its voting figures in recent local elections and by-elections for Parliament have shown a disturbing increase. Mosley’s own ceaseless propaganda for the myth that the war against Germany was waged on behalf of the Jews and not for British interests may be laying the seeds of mischief. He pretends, for example, that the physical clashes which took place in the 30′s between his followers and the Jews of the East End of London were the result of unprovoked aggression on the part of the Jews. In his television encounter with Pryce-Jones, Mosley disclaimed anti-Semitism, while at the same time asserting the myth of “Jewish power” influential enough to bring about a world war. In addition, Mosley’s wife Diana, who, as Diana Mitford, shared Unity’s enthusiasm for Hitler, has just published her own book of autobiography, in which she argues that the Jews were partly to blame for the Holocaust, since they should have arranged an exodus of Jews from Europe before the war. This not only ignores the fact that no country was willing to receive Jews in any numbers, but assumes the vast power, wealth, and influence of “world Jewry,” which alone could have made such an operation possible. Such impudent pronouncements as those of Mosley and his wife have served, it is to be hoped, to destroy their pretensions to respectability.

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If nothing else, then, it was worthwhile to raise the question of Unity Mitford, if only to bring out into the open the hypocrisies of the Mosleys and forestall their attempts to creep back into decent public life. Yet the final question remains whether Unity herself was a figure of any significance, or just an unbalanced girl best left to rest in her grave.

The clue that disposes one to think that Unity is after all a figure of some significance is the defensive, almost hysterical, tone of those who took the line that she was not. This seemed to indicate that the exposure of Unity had touched a raw nerve. If Pryce-Jones’s book was so trivial, why did they get so upset? The conclusion presented itself that Unity was in some way representative of the English upper class. Her anti-Semitism, though bizarre in its manner of expression, was a faithful image of upper-class anti-Semitism, even though its faithfulness was that of a caricature, which by exaggeration brings out the essential features.

Perhaps the most startling example of the defensive, hysterical reaction was the review by Lord Lambton, published in the Spectator. Lord Lambton argued that it was disgraceful to disinter the story of “a reckless young girl,” thus needlessly distressing her family. He then attacked the publisher of the book, Lord Weidenfeld:

. . . his full-time occupation of genuflecting and sycophanting to every notable, and visiting notable, in England, swirling daily through the drawing rooms of London in a series of palais glides, whispering obsequiously, leaves him breathless for such a mundane task [as reading]. Rather does he deal with books as a butcher with joints of meat: his sole consideration the clearance of his stocks.

For anyone familiar with anti-Semitic treatments of society Jews in the English novel, this description is full of echoes. Lord Lambton attempted to counteract this impression by giving a tribute to what he called “the Jewish establishment” and its “dignity and moderation” in the face of the “terrible sufferings” of “the Jewish race” in the last war—a “dignity and moderation,” which, he declared, had been betrayed by Lord Weidenfeld’s action in publishing Pryce-Jones’s book. Here is a passionate reaction indeed to what Lord Lambton called a “shoddy, inaccurate, dull little book.” And the “Jewish establishment” to which Lord Lambton refers so respectfully sounds a little too reminiscent of the Elders of Zion. Who are these “dignified and moderate” members of the “Jewish establishment”?

One commentator who did not take the prevailing attitude that Unity Mitford was a person of minimal importance was C. P. Snow, who recalled in the Financial Times that, in the 30′s, her much-publicized activities had not seemed at all trivial. “Far too many people of some significance were drifting ’round the Unity Mitford-Munich-Nuremberg circuit,” he wrote. And, Lord Snow commented, if Hitler had won, the role of these people in postwar England is not hard to guess.

And in fact, too much of the evidence provided by Pryce-Jones shows that Unity Mitford was not quite so freakish and unrepresentative as she has been made out to be. In the copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion belonging to the Mitford family, Pryce-Jones found marginal comments made by Lady Redesdale (the lovable “Muv”): “Too true!” “I always said so!” A previous Lord Redesdale, Unity’s grandfather, had been the great friend and supporter of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the anti-Semitic theorist who was the official philosopher of Nazism. Unity’s other grandfather, Commander Bowles, was also an anti-Semitic author. In a travel book he jeered at the Jews at the Wailing Wall: “I don’t see what the Jews have got to wail about. If they have been expelled from Jerusalem, they are the rulers of London, Paris, and Berlin. If they are no longer governors of Palestine, they are the tyrants of Europe.” Is it possible to state with confidence that if the notebooks, diaries, and publications of other aristocratic families were to be examined with the same care that Pryce-Jones has devoted to the Mitfords, a very different picture would emerge?

When Unity embraced the doctrine of a worldwide conspiracy by the Jews against humanity, then, it was no alien, foreign doctrine she was espousing, but part of the air she breathed. True, there was something eccentric about the flamboyance of her allegiance to anti-Semitism. There was an element of play-acting about it, a childish desire to take sides and have the excitement of being a partisan. The Nazi salutes, the swastika necklace, the gauntlets, boots, and black shirt—all these were un-English and vulgar, and adopted mainly to shock her relations. But the basic ideas were so commonplace that the chief objection of other upper-class Englishmen might have been that Unity was bringing serious ideas into contempt by her unladylike behavior. There were many at that time who believed quite seriously in the Elders of Zion and their plot to take over the world—it was only Hitler’s methods, which they saw as crude and unlikely to succeed, with which they disagreed, preferring instead the old aristocratic arts of negotiation, wheedling, and concession, as well as the occasional judicious use of violence.

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It is these people Mr. Pryce-Jones is telling us about in his excellent study, in which he approaches his subject in the spirit of a dedicated field-working anthropologist. His book is not just about Unity Mitford. It is about the class to which she belonged, and that is why it aroused such passions.

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