The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
Laura and I have recounted this story a few times, but we both were/are a bit obsessed with the original Kathleen Kennedy, younger sister of JFK. We first learned about her through fiction, The Montmaray Chronicles, and then followed her through biographies and fiction. One name kept coming up throughout, that of her fellow debutante and eventual sister-in-law, Deborah Mitford. And from her, our interest in these six girls took hold.
From the publisher marketing:
The eldest was a razor-sharp novelist of upper-class manners; the second was loved by John Betjeman; the third was a fascist who married Oswald Mosley; the fourth idolized Hitler and shot herself in the head when Britain declared war on Germany; the fifth was a member of the American Communist Party; the sixth became Duchess of Devonshire.
They were the Mitford sisters: Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah. Born into country-house privilege in the early years of the twentieth century, they became prominent as “bright young things” in the high society of interwar London. Then, as the shadows crept over 1930s Europe, the stark–and very public–differences in their outlooks came to symbolize the political polarities of a dangerous decade.
The intertwined stories of their stylish and scandalous lives–recounted in masterly fashion by Laura Thompson–hold up a revelatory mirror to upper-class English life before and after World War II.
Nancy, Pamela, (Tom), Diana, Unity, Jessica, Deborah. Author, anti-Semite, (fascist soldier), fascist, nazi, communist, duchess. Those are the seven Mitford siblings, boiled down to their stereotypes. It is hard to think of a family more different in their ideologies than the Mitfords. This particular biography is at least the third to be published in this century alone and there were certainly others before. The sisters were all prolific writers and many of their letters to each other and friends have survived which is the primary source material used for this book, and others.
While I have not read the others, this one being the most recent and available in the United States, I cannot speak to the structure of the others or how much they fall into what seems to be the main trap in writing about them – almost all of them were prolific authors, not just Nancy, and they frequently wrote semi-autobiographical works of fiction. And most authors writing about them as women, almost certainly also read their fiction, and the line between fact and fiction can definitely be blurred as seems to be the case here.
The organization is roughly chronological but goes into great detail at the beginning about the Mitfords parents which was mildly interesting, but not where the real gossip was at. We follow Nancy as a “Bright young thing” in the twenties, Diana, the goddess through her first marriage to a Guinness (yes, the brewers), boring old Pam gets left out, Unity’s growing affections for Hitler and their mother’s support of such, Jessica’s elopement and harsh criticism of her fascist siblings, and baby Debo’s debutante season and eventual marriage to Andrew, who was not the future Duke of Devonshire at the time.
We get bits and pieces of their relationships with each other through their letters, but we also get a constant comparison of their lives to their fictional alter egos in Nancy’s fiction. It gets a bit trite at certain points, but thankfully, the book isn’t really long enough for it to feel too overdone, just enough to be annoying.
Jessica seems to be the only one ready for the 20th century throughout the whole thing, moving to American and becoming a communist and civil rights activist and she is, by far, the one I would have any interest in meeting for afternoon tea. Unity comes across as an insipid childlike idiot, even before the botched suicide attempt that led to brain damage and you often wonder if she would have found herself part of any cult-of-personality, regardless of when she was alive. Her death came as a relief, quite honestly, mental capabilities what they were, I still have no patience for fascists. Diana, oh Diana. Also a fascist, showed no remorse for her beliefs, and yet because she was beautiful, was reaccepted into society. Nancy, the witty author, I would have wanted to know but would have been bored of quite quickly, she also never really seemed to grow up. And Debo, the baby, managed to restore one of my favorite places in Britain, Chatsworth House, but why? To continue to hold on to the outdated model of landed-gentry? They confound and confuse me, these Mitford sisters.
All in all, it’s an interesting time period and a fascinating look at it through the eyes of six very different women who came of age and were young adults in one of the most tumultuous times in history and that is the very reason that I think the public interest in them endures. They are more like caricatures, ones that we can view history through and comment on accordingly.
(A warning to something that threw me for a loop: There are letters from Hitler included, I believe their inclusion was unnecessary and do not believe it was the right choice of the author to include them).
Rating: 7 out of 10
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