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Desert Island Discs

Jessica Mitford

Denis Jones/Evening Standard/Shutterstock

The Mitford sisters are back in the news thanks to the new BBC adaptation of Nancy’s novel The Pursuit of Love. “It was really autobiographical,” Jessica Mitford told Roy Plomley on Desert Island Discs in 1977. “She guyed up our whole family.” Still, it was a “jolly funny” book.

And no wonder – the Mitfords’ lives offered plenty of great material. There were six sisters in total, each with very different passions. There was Nancy, the novelist; Jessica, the communist; Diana and Unity, the fascists; Deborah, the future Duchess of Devonshire; and Pamela, who wanted to be a horse. “She was the only one of the children who didn’t succeed in fulfilling her childhood ambitions.”

Their political differences were clear from an early age. As teenagers, Unity and I were left to guard our mother’s stall at the village Conservative fête, says Jessica. When no one was looking I pocketed five pounds to send to the communist newspaper, The Daily Worker. “So Unity said, ‘Well, I’m going to take five quid and send it to the fascists.’”

By the age of 19, Jessica had run away to the Spanish Civil War and married her second cousin, a fellow communist called Esmond Romilly, who was Winston Churchill’s nephew. Not long afterwards they emigrated to America, where she got a job as a government typist. It sounded glamorous, but in reality the role had the “very disheartening job description of ‘sub-eligible typist’”.

Needless to say, she didn’t last long, and next she joined the American communist party. “For what?” asks Plomley. “The overthrow of the American government? World revolution? What was the big thing?” The strongest possible prosecution of the war against Hitler, replies Jessica. Though, “of course it would have been nice” to overthrow the government too.

🎵 After the Ball, Florrie Forde

🎵 Sex Appeal Sarah, Douglas Byng

🎵 Louise, Maurice Chevalier

🎵 Die Moorsoldaten, Ernst Busch

🎵 The Red Flag, Centenary Choir

🎵 Lullaby of Broadway, Wini Shaw

🎵 Cheek to Cheek, Fred Astaire

🎵 You’re Gonna Lose Your Gal, Carroll Gibbons

🎁 A supply of gentleman’s relish

📕 Orphan Island by Rose Macaulay

Listen to the full episode here.