The Mitford sisters reflected the social upheavals of their time - ‘the duchess, the fascist, the communist, the Nazi, the novelist and, er, the other one,’ as Lynn Barber once dubbed them.
Nancy made her name as a novelist, basing many of her characters on her eccentric family. Her first book, Highland Fling, was published in 1931.
20 December 1942: a jobbing writer, Nancy reviewed children’s books for the Observer.
28 December 1945: The Pursuit of Love made Nancy a household name; the Duc de Sauveterre was based on Gaston Pawelski, a French officer with whom she had a long affair.
2 July 1973: Nancy, ‘U-sponsor’, died at her home in Versailles.
The least assuming sister, Pamela stayed out of the headlines (despite several proposals from John Betjeman and a long-term female companion in later life).
6 July 1928: Pamela was briefly engaged to brewing heir Oliver Watney.
8 February 2001: Nancy Banks-Smith wrote of Pamela: ‘She is the Mitford sister nobody mentions. Her name has been blotted from the family bible. This is invariably the sign of a black sheep. Not, however, in Pamela’s case. In a flock of black sheep, Pam was the baa lamb.’
31 January 1929: Diana Mitford wed Irish aristocrat and heir Bryan Guinness at 18; the couple were central to the Bright Young Things of the 1920s.
1 December 1938: In 1932 Diana met fascist leader Oswald Mosley. They married in 1936 at the home of Joseph Goebbels - Adolf Hitler was guest of honour - though it remained secret for two years.
8 November 1940: Diana and Mosley were considered Allied enemies and she was imprisoned at Holloway; they brought libel charges against two tabloids for accusations of special treatment. Released in 1943, they remained under house arrest.
23 November 2000: Diana, unrepentant at 90, told Juliet Nicolson ‘the Jews could have gone somewhere like Uganda: empty and a lovely climate.’
Unity, like Diana, was notorious for her right-wing political views. In the 1930s she travelled to Germany and was close to Hitler.
7 September 1938: Unity was Hitler’s guest of honour at the Nuremberg rally.
Devastated by the outbreak of war in 1939, Unity - then living in Munich - attempted suicide, but survived. She returned to England but her health had suffered and she died in 1948.
4 January 1940: Unity Mitford arrives at Folkestone.
8 December 2002: In a letter to the Observer, sister Deborah described Unity’s return to England and her failing health.
Jessica - ‘Decca’ - allied herself not with fascism but communism, and made her name as a crusading journalist in the United States.
2 March 1937: Jessica eloped to Spain with second cousin Esmond Romilly, Churchill’s nephew. Despite opposition from her family the pair married and moved to America in 1939. Romilly was reported as missing in action in 1941.
13 June 1964: Remarried to Bob Treuhaft, Jessica became a muckraking journalist, exposing the horrors of the American death industry.
5 October 1973: Jessica, the new visiting professor at the State University San Jose, refused to swear a ‘demeaning’ oath of allegiance to California.
25 July 1996: Obituary - Jessica Mitford, she was described as ‘of danger ne’er afraid’.
Deborah was the only one of the Mitford sisters to follow the aristocratic path society expected of her.
27 March 1938: The Observer described her, on the occasion of her coming out ball, as ‘one of the beauties of this generation.’ She married Andrew Cavendish in 1941, becoming the Duchess of Devonshire.
13 September 2010: The Duchess of Devonshire tells the Guardian she ‘can’t imagine’ why the Mitfords hold such fascination.