In the mid twentieth century, a family of six sisters and one brother managed to achieve both fame and notority with not just literary endeavours but also how they thought and acted politically. Born into an English family of privilege, the Mitford girls were raised by a father that was opinionated, a mother that was frugal, and each of the six were groomed to be 'ladies' -- that is, attractive, skilled at social graces, good mothers, and to be mostly ornamental.
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What really happened was something else indeed. Three of them would go on to write books, one was described as the 'most hated woman in Britain' during WWII, one would marry a duke-to-be, one was described as a girlfriend of Hitler, one was an ardent communist and would be blacklisted in 1950's America. Each one was very unique, and would make a mark on those around her, whether for good or ill.
I had known of some of the Mitford girls, as they were known, most especially Nancy, the eldest, who would write the popular novels, Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, as well as several biographies. She would eventually marry, but it was a relationship that was lukewarm at best, and would eventually take up residence in France, becoming a "lady writer." She was clever, quick-witted, and managed to survive the twentieth century with much aplomp.
And then there is Diana. Certainly she was the most striking of the sisters, a classic beauty that with her blue eyes and blonde hair made her the epitome of the English Rose. She would marry brilliantly as well, to an heir to the Guiness fortune, and apparently settle down into a life of being a society wife and mother. What happened next shocked British society and would send the Mitford family reeling into the tabloid press. Diana met Oswald Mosley, a determined Fascist who thought that England needed to be run by a strict right-wing government. Her family was shocked, especially when Diana divorced her wealthy husband and married Mosley, working and campaigning for him in several bits for political power in the years leading up to WWII. And by being a fascist, Diana also got to know Hitler, who was charmed by the Mitfords, and invited them frequently to Germany. All of this publicity would find Diana and her husband imprisioned -- without a trial or specific charges -- during WWII, forcibly separated from their children and each other. Her experiences in Holloway make for very disturbing reading, as the conditions are best described as minimal.
Another sister, Unity, would embrace the tenets of Fascism with fervour. While she was not as beautiful as Diana, she was very pretty, and soon was a darling of the press. It also, it seems, that she was a darling of Hitler as well, and the two of them developed a close relationship. Just how close was constantly blared over the headlines, and it was speculated that she might even marry the dictator. But when war was declared in 1939, Unity's hopes for peace in Europe were shattered, and she attempted to take her own life in a Berlin park. She survived, but with severe injuries and would never recover her mental stability. Of all the sisters, she is certainly the most tragic.
Of the six, the most quiet was the second eldest, Pam, who would marry, live quietly, and become a bulwark of strength to the rest of the family. She would help Diana while she was in prison, try to help Unity after her suicide attempt, try to reconcile Jessica to the rest of the family, and live what some of us would call the most 'normal' of the six lives.
Jessica, or as she was called Decca, was the slashing rebel of her sisters. Instead of the ultra-right politics that her sisters took on, Decca embraced communism. And she was very vocal and outspoken about it all too, which would cause a pernament rift within the family. She also eloped with a cousin, a nephew of Winston Churchill, and went to America just before WWII started. She would remain an outspoken communist for the rest of her life and endured the terrible blacklisting and persecution during the fifties and sixties. She also became an excellent writer as well, with nonfiction that covered the gamut of the rituals of death in America, and an autobiography, Hons and Rebels, as well as several nonfiction works.
The youngest of the children, Deborah, or Little D, was pretty and striking, rather overshadowed by her elder sisters, and one of the 'good' girls. She would fall in love with a younger son of a duke, Andrew Cavendish, and had a loving and successful marriage with him. But as it seems with all of the Mitfords, life would take an unusual turn. Andrew's elder brother died in combat in WWII, and it fell to Debo and her Duke to manage the massive Devonshire estates. It was a daunting task in a time when rising taxes, crushing death duties and economic changes were destroying the 'great house' culture that had been the center of aristocratic living for centuries. But she rose to the task, not just raising a family, but also finding a way to keep the grand estates of Chatsworth (the inspiration for Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice) up and running. Along the way she also wrote quite a few books, and is still helping to run Chatsworth and the Devonshire family to this day.
I found this to be a fascinating tale. Mary S. Lovell's research is exact and exhaustive, but she manages to take all of these different lives and weave them together into a story of a family that was unusual for the times. Today, especially, the lives of Diana, Unity and Decca, may seem incomprehensible in what the Nazi and communist regimes have wrought in the world, and in the thousands of lives that were destroyed. Lovell tries to show them without prejudice, and leaves the final decision to the reader, but instead focuses on their private, personal lives without delving too far into the why did they do that?, and is able to create empathy for these women would would face so much tragedy in their lives.
Author Mary S. Lovell has crafted one of the best collective biographies that I've ever read. She takes the time to not just describe each of them, and who they married or where they were born and died, but makes a real effort to place them in the society around them, and their inner thoughts. Her narrative incorporates letters, diaries, the books that they wrote, and interviews with those who knew the Mitfords personally. Lovell's writing style is also excellent, she knows to put just enough details to give information, but doesn't deluge the reader with so much that the story itself bogs down.
Mary S. Lovell has also written a recent biography of Bess of Hardwick, which is also recommended.
The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family
Mary S. Lovell
2001; W.W. Norton
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