The eccentricities of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale (1878-1958), would have died with him had he not been father to the celebrated Mitford sisters Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah. His eldest daughter, Nancy Mitford wrote two celebrated novels, The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949), in his lifetime thinly disguising Lord Redesdale as the pugnacious, blustering Uncle Matthew. This humorous, monstrous caricature was confirmed and denied in later memoirs by Jessica (Hons and Rebels, 1960), Diana (A Life of Contrasts, 1977) and Deborah (Wait for Me! 2010).
Lord Redesdale’s upbringing was rather typical for the younger son of a peer. He was prone to tempers and illness. Unlike his other three brothers, he was schooled at Radley instead of Eton. He failed his entrance exams to Sandhurst and was packed off to Ceylon to work on a tea plantation before serving as a private in the Second Boer War where he lost a lung. Lord Redesdale married Sydney Bowles in 1904 and managed her father’s magazine The Lady for a decade with little enthusiasm. In an episode that foreshadows Uncle Matthew, he brought a pet mongoose to The Lady’s office and let it loose on the rats in the cellar.
Lord Redesdale enlisted in the Northumberland Fusiliers when World War I was declared and was mentioned in dispatches at the Second Battle of Ypres where his older brother was killed. Invalided out of service in 1916, he inherited the title 2nd Baron Redesdale; a legacy rich in land but not revenue. The Redesdales built Swinbrook house just outside the eponymous village in Oxfordshire and this was the house celebrated in the writings of their daughters who referred to them affectionately as ‘Muv’ and ‘Farve’.
Nancy Mitford introduces Uncle Matthew thus in The Pursuit of Love: ‘My Uncle Mathew had four magnificent bloodhounds with which he used to hunt his children’. Like the entrenching tool with which Uncle Matthew had ‘whacked to death eight Germans’, there is truth to Lord Redesdale’s child hunts as well as his being ferociously anti-social and firm in the belief that ‘abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends’. It wasn’t uncommon for Lord Redesdale/Uncle Matthew to call one of his daughters’ beaux a ‘damn sewer’ and refuse them entry to Swinbrook. He loathed Huns, pseuds, moderns and intellectuals.
Arguably Nancy Mitford did Lord and Lady Redesdale a service by making them much-loved characters in a book because the decade before The Pursuit of Love was published was no laughing matter for the family. Diana had left her husband Bryan Guinness in 1932 and was mistress of Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. They married in Germany in 1936 with Hitler and Goebbels in attendance. Her sister Unity had moved to Germany and become a messianic worshipper of Hitler. Communist Jessica, the ‘red sheep of the family’, had eloped with a cousin Esmond Romilly and emigrated to the US in 1939.
Lord and Lady Redesdale sided with their Fascist-sympathising daughters and accompanied them to Germany in 1938 to meet Hitler and attend the Nuremberg rally. When war was declared, Unity shot herself in the head. She would return to Britain where she was cared for by Lady Redesdale until her death in 1948. In 1940 Sir Oswald and Lady Mosley were interred as enemy aliens; the latter denounced as a very dangerous woman by her sister Nancy. The family schisms deepened when Lord and Lady Redesdale became estranged in 1943; he recanting all support for the Nazi regime. Their only son Tom, who also held an account with Henry Poole & Co, was killed in action in Burma in 1945.
While Lady Redesdale went to live at Inch Kenneth, on an island in the Inner Hebrides, Lord Redesdale chose to live at Redesdale Cottage in Northumberland with a proprietorial parlour maid Margaret Wright. As Mary Lovell writes in The Mitford Girls (2001), ‘David had little to occupy him, or distract him from his unhappiness. He could not longer see well enough to shoot or fish, he could not skate, and he no longer cared to go to the House of Lords. His surviving children were dispersed far away from him and may have been discouraged from visiting because of Mrs Wright’.
Lord Redesdale died in 1958 three days after an 80th birthday visit from his wife and daughters Lady Mosley and Deborah who was now Duchess of Devonshire. His ashes were buried at Swinbrook. After his death, Nancy Mitford said Lord Redesdale ‘loved the books about him’ and she revived Uncle Matthew at his most amusingly obtuse in one of her best novels Don’t Tell Alfred (1960). In Wait for Me, the Duchess of Devonshire wrote ‘People still ask me “Was your father really like Uncle Matthew?” In many ways he was. Nancy made him sound terrifying but there was nearly, but not always, a comic undercurrent not apparent to outsiders. I adored him. He was an original, with a total disregard of the banal and the boring’.