There was talk of Sydney going to Girton, the women’s college at Cambridge, and she went to view the college, but for some unknown reason the idea was dropped. Only a handful of women attended university at the end of the nineteenth century; perhaps Sydney did not wish to be regarded as a ‘blue-stocking’. With her tall, slender figure, a cloud of light brown hair, generous sulky mouth, and large blue eyes she was pronounced beautiful, and she thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being a débutante: the dances and balls and parties, riding in the crowded Row with her father, which was ‘like an amusing party taking place every day’, and, especially, meeting new people.
At about this time David hit on a scheme to end their financial problems. With his growing family, their limited income must have been the cause of constant worry to him. Stories of the rich strikes in the Klondike a decade earlier, perhaps bolstered by his spell of active service in South Africa, seem to have persuaded him that gold-mining might be the answer. On hearing that a new goldfield had been discovered in Ontario, he staked several claims to forty acres near the small township of Swastika, in the Great Lakes area. Only small quantities of gold had been found there so far, but a big seam was believed to exist.----Over the next twenty years or so, David would travel to Ontario many times to work the claim. He had already been there alone when, in the spring of 1912, he and Sydney decided to go together and – the biggest treat — they were to sail on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Fortunately, something happened to make this impossible, and their departure was delayed until autumn of the following year.----It is not difficult to see why David remained keen, although the mining project eventually came to nothing. Furthermore, he and Sydney were at their closest in the shack at Swastika through the winter in that inhospitable climate, and it was one of the happiest times of David’s life. It was there that Sydney conceived their fifth child.----The parents, still hoping for a second boy, were disappointed, but soon came round. There was time for another boy. In David’s absence Sydney called her Unity after an actress (Unity Moore) she admired, and then Grandfather Redesdale said that she must have a topically apposite second name so they added Valkyrie, after Wagner’s Norse war-maidens. Almost from the time of her birth she was known in family circles as ‘Bobo’, but with hindsight, Unity Valkyrie’s unusual name, combined with the place of her conception, Swastika, seems almost like an eerie prophecy which the fifth Mitford child had no alternative but to fulfil.
Several letters, written by Nancy to her father in France, survive. She had been learning French after David’s mother told Sydney, ‘There is nothing so inferior as a gentlewoman who has no French.’ In her first attempt at writing to him in French, in April 1916, Nancy tells him of a robin’s nest in their garden, that she had heard a cuckoo, and about her pet goat: ‘Ma chèvre est très bonne, elle aime beaucoup le soleil, et elle mange les chous que je lui donnes’. David’s delightful response is in verse: Unusual things have come to pass A goat gets praised for eating grass! A robin in a tree has built! The coo coo has not changed its lilt! And I have no desire to quench My child’s desire for learning French – Might I ask without being rude, Who pays the bill for Bon Chèvre’s food? Are cabbages for goats war diet? Or are they given to keep her quiet.His letters to his children, written in a tidy script, were always laced with fun, and he obviously took with good humour the numerous nicknames they bestowed on him such as ‘jolly old Farve of Victoria Road’ and ‘Toad’ or ‘Toad-catcher’. In turn he had pet names for his children: he called Nancy ‘my little Blobnose’, or more often ‘Koko’ after the character from Mikado, because he considered that her high cheekbones, dark curly hair and green eyes gave her a slightly oriental look. Sydney was able to meet David on at least one occasion while he was on leave in Paris.
In a televised version of one of Nancy’s books, these child hunts were given a more sinister connotation with the children running terrified through woods while their father, on horseback, thundered after them with a pack of hounds baying. In fact the children loved it – they thought the hound was ‘so clever’.29 In her novel Nancy had referred to ‘four great hounds in full cry after two little girls’ and ‘Uncle Matthew and the rest would follow on horseback’.30 As a result, fiction overlaid fact, and during research for this book I met people who believed, and read articles that stated, that the Mitfords led the lives of the fictional Radletts, and at least one American journalist was convinced that David had ‘hunted’ his poor abused children with dogs. There was never any pressure to conform and the children grew as they wanted. There were no half-measures in their behaviour. ‘We either laughed so uproariously that it drove the grown-ups mad, or else it was a frightful row which ended in one of us bouncing out of the room in floods of tears, banging the door as loud as possible.
David was one of nine children, and Sydney was one of four. Their respective siblings produced, between 1910 and 1927, twenty-one children with the surnames Mitford, Farrer, Kearsey, Bowyer, Bowles and Bailey, and many of these first cousins were to play major parts in the lives of the Mitford children as they grew up and visited each other’s homes. But the network of kinsmen who were to people the lives of the Mitford children were rooted further back in the family tree. Both of David’s parents – ‘Bertie’ Mitford (Bertram, 1st Lord Redesdale) and Lady Clementine Ogilvy – came from large families, and he remained close to many of them and to their numerous offspring.*----In addressing this question, one of Clementine Churchill’s daughters stated that her mother never learned the identity of her natural father though she knew he was not Henry Hozier.14 Bertie Mitford is the most likely suspect, even though the poet and writer Wilfred Scawen Blunt claimed that Natty confessed to him that her two elder daughters were fathered by Captain George ‘Bay’ Middleton, known by his foxhunting contemporaries as ‘the bravest of the brave’, and to history as the dashing lover of the sporting Empress, Elizabeth of Austria.15 This, however, must be set against the fact that Natty told a close friend, just before the birth of Clementine, that the child she was carrying was ‘Lord Redesdale’s’.