What do French Bulldogs, fascism and Downton Abbey have in common? The answer is the Mitford Sisters – women who were among Britain’s most stylish and controversial fanciers of French Bulldogs (and all other things ‘au courant’).
The six sisters, Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity and Jessica (usually called Decca) were famous for being stylish, rich, eccentric and exceptionally witty. As young people, the sisters were best known for being among London’s “Bright Young Things” – a pejorative nickname given to a group of rich, hedonistic young aristocrats in Britain during the 1920’s who led a ‘bohemian’ lifestyle that included drugs, heavy drinking, excessively elaborate parties and promiscuous sex. Spending a great deal of time in Paris, they were exposed to the stylish “Bouldogues Francais” being paraded by the continent’s own stylish set.
Sisters Unity and Diana become reviled and notorious during the 1930s for for their close personal friendships with Adolf Hitler, and their championing of fascism. In 1938, Unity was attacked by a crowd in London for wearing a swastika on her shirt. Her devotion to Hitler and to Fascism was not simply an affectation – when Britain declared war on Germany, Unity attempted suicide.
Nancy, the eldest Mitford sister, became an acclaimed novelist and biographer – amazing in itself, considering her father did not approve of ‘formal’ schooling for girls, and Nancy’s formal education consistently entirely of a few months at a primary day school, and a year’s boarding at an upper lady’s college that was essentially a ‘debutante training center’.
Nancy appears to have owned several French Bulldogs over the years, including a brindle pied bitch, Lottie, a brindle dog, Dominic, and another pied bitch named Millie.
From the Biography “Nancy Mitford”, by Selina Hastings:
“She had acquired a couple of French Bulldogs, Lottie and Millie, on whom she doted: they were allowed to sleep, wheezing, under the eiderdown on her bed. It became a common sight to the neighbours, Nancy in a pair of slacks walking briskly along the tow-path with the pair of stout little dogs trotting along after her”.
Nancy made French Bulldogs a central plot in her 1940 novel, “Pigeon Pie”, in which an aristocratic and slightly ditzy heroine has her French Bulldog dog-napped, before going on to crack a German spy ring.
The popular BBC television show “Upstairs Downstairs” was said to have borrowed heavily from stories about the lives of the Mitford sisters, but their most famous influence has undoubtedly been on Sir Julian Fellowes, who credits them as being the inspiration for “Downton Abbey” (there are decided shades of sarcastic, prickly, intelligent Nancy Mitford in Mary Crawford, who was infamous for being as equally unkind as Lady Mary is to Edith to her own younger sisters).
The death this week at age 94 of Deborah Mitford, the last surviving sister, is truly the end of an era.