The Mitfords

From left to right: Jessica Mitford (1917-1996), Nancy Mitford (1904-1973), Diana Mitford (1910-2003), Unity Mitford (1914-1948), and Pamela Mitford (1907-1994); photo taken in 1935.

Deborah Mitford (1920-present); photo taken in 1940.

A few years ago, I learned that JK Rowling probably modeled the characters Bellatrix Lestrange, Narcissa Malfoy, and Andromeda Tonks after three sisters from an aristocratic British family with fascist sympathies: Unity Mitford, Diana Mitford, and Jessica Mitford. The family was described by a contemporary as “nature’s fascists.”

Unity Mitford, the likely inspiration for Bellatrix, was in love with Hitler (who often used her to make Eva Braun jealous), and attempted to kill herself via a gunshot to the head when Britain declared war on Germany. However, she did not die until 1948.

Diana Mitford, the likely inspiration for Narcissa, married Bryan Walter Guinness in 1929, and left him in 1932 for Oswald Mosley–the head of the British Fascist Party. She and Mosley were married in 1936. Diana remained an unrelenting Fascist and anti-Semite until her death in 2003. Interestingly, Diana and Oswald spent most of their post-war life in a wealthy community outside of Paris, and their neighbors were none other than the Duke and Duchess of Windsor: the former King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.

Diana and Unity giving the Nazi salute

Jessica Mitford, the likely inspiration for Andromeda and lone Communist of her family, ran away from home in her teens to fight in the Spanish Civil War. She married her Communist second cousin, Esmond Romilly, at the age of 19; Unity once informed Jessica in a letter that, while she would not hesitate to kill Jessica’s Communist husband for the sake of Nazism, she hoped they could still be friends. Jessica and Esmond moved to America in 1939. He died two years later on his way back from a bombing raid over Germany. In 1943, Jessica married Jewish Hungarian civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft. She spent the rest of her life as a writer, investigative journalist, and activist. She died in 1996.

Jessica during the Willie McGee campaign

In 2002 JK Rowling stated that “My most influential writer, without a doubt, is Jessica Mitford. When my great-aunt gave me Hons and Rebels when I was 14, she instantly became my heroine. She ran away from home to fight in the Spanish Civil War, taking with her a camera that she had charged to her father’s account. I wished I’d had the nerve to do something like that. I love the way she never outgrew some of her adolescent traits, remaining true to her politics–she she was a self-taught socialist–throughout her life. I think I’ve read everything she wrote. I even called my daughter after her.”

As for the three other Mitford sisters–Nancy, Deborah, and Pamela–Nancy was a prolific writer, close friend of Evelyn Waugh, and the first to cash in on (so to speak) the public fascination with her family. Deborah, the only living Mitford sister, is the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and has written a dozen non-fiction works. Pamela was, perhaps, the most low-key of the sisters; she married and divorced millionaire scientist Derek Jackson, and spent the later years of her life with Italian horsewoman, Giuditta Tommasi.

Though I only really focused on Jessica, Unity, and Diana and their politics, Pamela was purported to be a massive anti-Semite, and it is likely that the same can be said for Deborah (who once dined with Hitler along with Unity and their mother). There was also a Mitford brother, Thomas, who died in 1945 while stationed in Burma.

The six sisters kept in constant contact via letters, with the exception of Jessica and Diana, whose political views caused a permanent rift between them. They all had nicknames for each other, and Unity’s was “Bobo.” This created situations in which she would conclude letters to her sisters with lines like “All my best love to the boys! Heil Hitler, Love, Bobo.”

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