Portraits of six sisters, at The Swan Inn
I fell in love with Nancy Mitford when I was about fifteen, before I ever read Jane Austen. Her novel The Pursuit of Love was only the logical next step in a series of English books that had been inexorably shaping me into an Anglophile ever since my mother read A.A. Milne to me in an attempted English accent when I was two, and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard. Nancy exerted a similar charm. The phrase "light, bright, and sparkling" was used by Jane Austen to describe her own Pride and Prejudice, but it personified Nancy, too. "That," I resolved, "is the way I want to write." Since her language, jokes, style and context were utterly alien to a New York teenager of the 1960s, decoding and understanding took considerable study. In the fullness of time, Nancy was inevitably superseded and eclipsed by Austen; but my captivation with the Mitfords, their lives and their writing, has never faded. No, to write like Austen - or Mitford - or anyone else, isn't possible - but it's no bad thing to have such influences.
Me at Nancy's grave
It was about twenty years ago that I finally managed to meet, and actually became friends with, a Mitford - Jessica, who was then in her late 70s. I knew that the Mitfords' very stylized and eccentric literary personas needed to be checked against the reality in the flesh, to be really understood; and that if I was ever to meet a live one, the time was now. So I set out on this quest, ultimately benefiting from a Berkeley library auction for a dinner with Jessica. I ended up meeting her several times, organized a book party at her wish, and thoroughly enjoyed the privilege of friendly relations with her. (Hey, if I could have done the same with Jane Austen, you know I would have!) I wrote up the story of our meeting, and it was published in the talented Lyndsy Spence's first book, The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life, in 2013.
You may well wonder why, with this interest, and with my predilection for hunting out authors' homes in England, I never explored "Mitford country" until now. Well, the truth is that I was deceived by Nancy's and Jessica's own descriptions of their childhood homes, which they invariably depicted as hideously unattractive, barracks-like, cold places without a shred of beauty. Certainly most of the girls got away at the first opportunity, and added to the fact that the houses, Asthall and Swinbrook, were not open to the public, there seemed little point.
Asthall (we only glimpsed the roof, in passing)
Swinbrook, before it was gutted by fire in 2011
But then one of my favorite bloggers, Rachel Fenn of Book Snob, whose taste in books was very much like my own, went on a literary quest, and wrote it up. From this I learned what I might have known before: Nancy and Decca were having a joke. Their old family homes were in the Cotswolds, for God's sake, a region of unsurpassing beauty and charm! So I resolved to go.
I mentioned to my friends at Dove Grey Books what I had in mind, and as quick as an email, friendly member Curzon replied, saying she'd love to go, and would drive me. I accepted this dream offer gratefully, and we agreed that we soon would be "shrieking at Swinbrook," a reference to the Mitfords' frequent and rapturous shrieks. (Jessica demonstrated one for me, and I was disconcerted to find it was actually a decorous little debutante-ish trill of laughter.)
Accordingly, Curzon picked me up at my friend Jean's house in Oxford, and off we went, with a stop to meet another Dove, Carol, at Batsford Arboretum. From there we drove straight into Mitford country, starting at the lovely Cotswold town of Burford, where we had lunch, and did a goodly spot of antique shopping.
Pictures of Burford
Lunch: me, Curzon, Carol
A really excellent Ploughman's plate, and cider
Lilacs, lovely against stone walls
Burford's high street
Beautiful views, sky constantly changing
Old street, posh shops
A delectable Burford antiques shop
If only I could have got these beauties home!
Leaving Burford, we drove through the country lanes (with occasional bursts of rain). We only passed by Asthall (house and grounds closed to public), but we really began to get the feeling of the countryside and its life when we entered Swinbrook. A pretty stone village, surrounded by green fields and a rushing river overhung with cow parsley (Queen Anne's Lace), it seems very little changed by the modern world.
Cloudburst between Burford and Swinbrook
Arriving at the Swan Inn
We checked into the Swan, where we were to spend the night. This lovely old inn was owned by the family, and the Duchess of Devonshire, the last of the sisters, kept a room for her own use. The very pretty, welcoming inn is decorated with pictures of the sisters, at hunt meets, with chickens, and pursuing other characteristic activities.
The Swan, with cow parsley
The River Windrush
The cozy dining room at the Swan, filled with pictures
Debo and her chickens
Nancy, Unity, Decca, Diana, 1933.
The rain had stopped, the sun even came out after awhile, so we spent the afternoon walking through the countryside, starting with exploring Swinbrook Church, where the family worshiped. We marveled over the odd figures of stone carved men of the 17th century Fettiplace family, lying on peculiar shelves. The slightly later set were far more elaborately dressed and decorated than the stiff earlier set. We wondered what the girls, sitting bored in church, thought about them...I don't think they've ever been mentioned in their writings.
Stiff Fettiplace men
Fancier Fettiplace men
Then we went out into the churchyard, where the sun was breaking through. Four of the sisters, Nancy, Unity, Diana and Pamela, are buried there, and the latter three had flowers on them - Nancy's grave alone did not.
Graves of Unity and Diana.
From Swinbrook church we walked across the very picturesque fields, past sheep and cows, to a tiny medieval church, a quiet place with wall paintings dating to the 13th century.
Leaving the church
Carol and Curzon, looking like countrywomen!
Black sheep - I suppose the family would think that would be Jessica...
Curzon and Cows
First glimpse of the medieval church, St. Oswald's, Widford.
Interior. The building dates to the 11th century, though there was an even older church and relics on the site in the 7th century.
The wall paintings are 13th century.
Sunshine lit up the ancient church in its idyllic setting.
Then we walked back to the Swan, to thoroughly examine and rejoice in all the Mitford atmosphere. The rooms were comfort itself; mine, named Asthall, had a view of the river, an old-fashioned bathtub with silver feet, and an extremely comfortable bed. The inn was known for its locally grown food, and I must say I greatly enjoyed my dinner of roast lamb.
...and silver-footed bath!
My view out the window in the morning
The Swan in sunshine
Farewell to the Swan
...and its lilacs.
The next morning was beautifully sunny and it was hard to leave this quiet place that had given rise to six of the most eccentric and talented sisters to be found anywhere. I have read dozens of volumes about them, including very careful reads of the compendious Letters Between Six Sisters and Jessica's vast letters (really enlightening to read back to back; the holes in one are filled in by the other). So how do I feel about the sisters now? Basically, unchanged. I will list them in the order of my liking.
Nancy: My favorite, for her indomitable wit and writing style.
Jessica: Second wittiest, and won my heart by being much more reasonable and less angry than I had expected. Considering some of the family's streaks (more than streaks! Bedrock) of Nazi and Fascist sympathy, I think Jessica has been given something of a raw deal. Although her Communism was an extreme stance, I admire her for turning left and leaving the family in reaction to utterly odious views such as Diana's.
Debo: The sanest and in many ways the most admirable sister.
Pamela: She seems to have made a career of not making an impression on people (also understandable, with such larger-than-life siblings), and as a result, hasn't made much on me.
Unity: No, perhaps surprisingly, I don't despise her for her Nazism. I simply feel very sorry for her. Obviously mentally ill and a tragic figure.
Diana: Absolutely despicable. Never recanted her support for and love of Hitler, the evil Fascism of her husband, or her own hatred of Jews. A monster in my eyes, and always will be.
The Mitford family, when young
Miranda Seymour has written a wonderful article about her own visit to Mitfordland, with more details, which I recommend:
My souvenir of Mitford country. A little Maling lustre bowl, 1930s, called "Peony Rose," from the Burford antique shop, Antiques at the George.