Young women today are spoiled for choice in role models. The philanthropic can look to Jane Addams or Ethel Kennedy, the civic-minded may find heroes in Michelle Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton (or perhaps Leslie Knope), and aspiring scientists can get into Rosalind Franklin, Marie Curie, or even Hedy Lamarr. And with every passing day, more and more exemplary women are making names for themselves and will no doubt inspire future generations of passionate and brilliant ladies.
Decca Mitford is my role model. She never led troops to battle or discovered an element, and yet her virtues were more than the sum of her accomplishments. Decca subverted the expected trajectory of well-born British ladies at every turn and had fun doing so.
Decca, a childhood nickname for Jessica that stuck into adulthood, was born in 1917, the sixth of seven children. The Mitfords lived a rather isolated country life, and the six sisters (in order, Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Decca, and Deborah) created their own languages, mythologies, and nicknames. Certainly, the girls had a more fulfilling intellectual life than was to be expected for a baron’s daughters than in any previous time. The older sisters had had the opportunity to receive formal education, but that privilege was stopped by Unity’s expulsion from school, for both gleefully breaking every rule and being generally creepy (she would bring her pet rat to socials and let it crawl on her shoulder) and other’s disinterest.
It was this denial of education that led to Decca’s first act of subversion. Rather than seethe with frustration, she amassed her life’s savings (bearing in mind that she was only 12 years old), and sent it to Drummonds, the family’s bank. The money was to become her “running away fund,” which would prove very important 7 years later.
The Mitford sisters are perhaps best known for the fascism of two. While many upper-crust Britons supported a polite sort of fascism, Unity would only accept it in its purest Germanic form. Diana and Unity had attended the 1933 Nuremburg Rally and been charmed by the charismatic leader. At age 20, Unity convinced her mother to let her study in Germany and set about trying to meet her hero, Adolf Hitler. Unity soon learned the habits of the Fuhrer and waited at his favorite cafe day after day.
Unity was the model of the Aryan woman. Tall, blond, and handsome, she was conceived in the Canadian town of Swastika and claimed Valkyrie as her middle name. She was also violently anti-Semitic and took pleasure in occupying the apartment of a dispossessed Jewish couple (legend has it that she toured the flat and planned window treatments while the couple packed, weeping). Her Nazi loyalties only became a liability for her family when it became known that she had authored an anti-Semitic open letter in a German newspaper, with the postscript, “please publish my name in full, I want everyone to know I am a Jew hater.” She loved Germany and her home nation equally and often begged Hitler to broker a peace with England. On September 3rd, 1939, upon hearing the Germany had declared on Great Britain, she shot herself in the head in the English Garden of Munich.
Somehow, Unity survived this suicide attempt and, after stays in hospitals in Germany and Switzerland, was transported back to England. Contemporaries made much of the fact a Nazi was allowed entry into the country, while millions were trapped in Germany with little chance of escape. Unity’s return figures directly into the arguments of conspiracy theorists who claim that Hitler had a British son, one born to Unity during her convalescence.
Unity facilitated an acquaintance between Diana and Hitler. Diana, considered friends and admirers to be the most beautiful woman of her time, married Oswald Mosley, the founder and head of the British Union of Fascists, a party that aped many characteristics of the Nazis (members wore brown shirts and adopted a militaristic style). Despite membership once listing in the tens of thousand and support from high-ranking members of British society, the BU waned in popularity with the start of World War II and was eventually banned in 1940. Diana and Oswald were held in Holloway Prison during the war for their German sympathies. Even after their release, Diana never recanted her personal affection for Hitler.
With such sisters, no one would be surprised if Decca had harbored Nazi sympathies. Instead, her moral compass pointed to the Left. She decorated her side of the bedroom she shared with Unity with pictures of Lenin and carved a hammer and sickle into her window, while on the other side of the room, Unity did the same with pictures of Hitler and swastikas. Continuously frustrated by the restrictions of country life, she longed to take part in the philosophical clashes that characterized the inter-war period. Like many, she looked to Spain and the Popular Front. While she had continued to contribute to her “running-away fund,” she did not have the means to change her life until she met Esmond Romilly in 1937. Her second cousin, and the nephew of Winston Churchill, Romilly was as passionate a non-conformist as one could be, while still receiving dinner invitations. Within days of their first introduction, Decca and Esmond withdrew the balance of the running-away fund and eloped to Spain, planning to make a living reporting on the battles there.
Upon hearing of their daughter’s elopement, the Mitfords were outraged and sent a battleship to collect her. Even though Decca was 19, she still needed permission from her parents to marry, and they were resolute in their denial. Ultimately, Decca was able to use her new pregnancy as leverage. A daughter who eloped was preferable to a daughter who got knocked up outside of wedlock. Reluctantly, the Mitfords consented to the marriage, but Farve (the pet name for the Baron Redesdale) wrote Decca out of his will.
After returning from Spain, Decca and Esmond were delightfully impoverished, living in a small flat in Southeast London. They relied on the charity and benevolence of their connections and began to formulate the form of socialism that would define their later life. Their disdain for private property manifested itself in a habit to pocket everything that wasn’t boarded down. Invitations to parties were opportunities to obtain extra matches, chocolates, and towels. A daughter was born to the couple and they named her Julia, after a favorite 16th century poem.
Decca delivered Julia in their apartment in Rotherhithe and Esmond refused all offers of help from the Mitfords family, over their strong ideological differences. Unfortunately, Julia died in a measles epidemic only four months into her life. What is perhaps most tragic about Julia’s death is that local clinic had told Decca there was no need to inoculate the baby, for most women who lived in the area had already recovered from measles contracted in their childhood and would pass on that immunity to their children through breastfeeding. Decca had never had the measles as a child and soon both she and Julia were sick. Decca recovered, but Julia did not.
After Decca’s recovery and Julia’s funeral, the Romillys escaped the oppressive London mileau. They needed to leave both to recover emotionally from the death of their child and to escape from the whispers of the dinner party circuit. The word on the street was that the couple’s insistence on a bohemian lifestyle was the cause of the baby’s death.
Esmond and Decca spent a several months in Corsica, mourning and drowning their pain with cheap wine and socialism. Despite the pacifism he championed in his earlier life, Esmond grew increasingly frustrated with the inaction of Great Britain in the face of the rising threat of Nazism. Ultimately, the couple decided that the only place for them would be the United States
To Be Continued