The Mitford Girls, The Biography of an Extraordinary Family - Mary S. Lovell
I've never been much of a non-fiction reader in book form. I read newspapers, topical magazines, cereal boxes and tubes of toothpaste, but books tend to be reserved for fiction. Lately I've realised that I remember details from novels years after reading them, whereas other sources of information do nothing for my memory, so I decided that the best way for me to explore new subjects was to read books about them. I know, I'm slow on the uptake.
The Mitford family have been floating across my subconsciousness a lot lately, in that I've been experiencing that odd phenomena where names seem crop up several times in the same week. All I knew about the Mitford family was that Nancy and Jessica were bestselling novelists, that one (the last surviving) turned ninety this year and is the Duchess of Devonshire, and that one of them had a fling with Hitler. And that every one of them was a popular 1920s/30s socialite.
For some time I have been interested in 1920s and '30s society and way of life. The inter-war years on both sides of the pond have been portrayed as being something so glamourous and special, and knowing that the Mitford family were at the centre of that society in Britain for quite some time, it was this I expected to read about.
I was wrong.
A brief overview: The book tracks the lives of the six Mitford daughters. Nancy came first, became the best-known socialite and had a wicked sense of humour. She went on to write famous novels such as The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Next came Pam, the 'unremarkable' Mitford sister. In later life it turned out she was more then remarkable, but quietly so. She was the most rural Mitford. Then, came Diana. She was a Fascist, in the days where Fascism didn't necessarily have the same connotations it does today. The most beautiful of the sisters, she married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. While originally stating the party did not promote racism, the BUF later became affiliated with Nazism and Diana and Mosley were imprisoned throughout the war. It was Pam who brought up their young children during this time.
Unity is perhaps the most infamous of the Mitford sisters. A devoted fascist, she moved to Germany in the 1930s where simply by throwing herself in his way time and time again, she started an intimate friendship with Hitler, and devoted her life to the Nazi party. She believed that Britain and Germany should unite as one power, and when war was declared in 1939, devastated, and still in love with Hitler, she shot herself in the head. She survived, but suffered major brain damage, and was cared for by her mother for the rest of her short life.
Jessica, better known as Decca Mitford, on the other hand, was a staunch communist. She ran away and married her first cousin, Esmond (Churchill's nephew), where they devoted their lives to the American Communist Party. This automatically set her at war with Diana and Unity, and through removing herself from them and being very vocal about her unusual upbringing, the rest of the family too.
Last came Debo, now the Duchess of Devonshire, the lady behind Chatsworth's major regeneration and a great social wit. She was the mediator in the family. There was also a son, Tom, who in the eyes of his parents could do no wrong.
The biography, sourced through direct interviews with the then surviving Diana and Debo, as well as the thousands of letters the sisters and their parents exchanged, is written in a very readable manner; so much so that despite being 600 pages long, I struggled to put the book down so I could sleep at night. The story of the sisters goes at a fair pace, from birth, through their interchanging amazing lives, right through to death. Lovell does not speculate on rumour, particularly surrounding Unity, whose affiliation with Hitler has strolled into myth and legend, but she presents facts without bias and in full detail.
Remarkable and unusual things can, and do, happen to anyone, but I think the reason why this story is as fascinating as it is is because the sisters each had strong, individual personalities, making them very popular amongst their many friends. There are numerous accounts of every one of them holding audiences captive with family anecdotes at parties - even Decca who had a strained relationship with hers. All the sisters were strong-minded and strong willed and despite a sheltered upbringing all went and did exactly what they wanted. This makes their story truly inspiring.
So if you're a fan of Nancy or Jessica's fiction, interested in growth of Nazism and Facism, upper class society in the inter-war years, family relationships, the rocky road of romance, choice vs. destiny, the influence of one's upbringing, or you just want to know more about the famous 'Mitford Industry' then this read is for you.
Sounds an awful lot like a fiction novel, really...
My rating: 5/5
Worth a second read?: Yes
Available from: Amazon (I got mine from Marketplace for 1p)
Published: Abacus 2001, 611 pages
Similar reads: The House of Mitford, Jonathan Guiness (Diana's son); Hons and Rebels, Jessica Mitford; The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, Charlotte Mosley (Diana's daughter-in-law).