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The Sisters: Saga of the Mitford Family, by Mary S. Lovell

with 25 comments

Let me just start with this:


Okay. Backing up. I didn’t really know anything at all about the Mitford sisters before reading this, save that one of them wrote The American Way of Death critiquing the funeral industry, which I read from for a class on Death and Mourning a few years ago. All I knew was that in the few instances I heard them brought up in conversation in academic circles or amongst older people, they always kind of chuckled nervously and said something like “ahhh those wild Mitfords…” and then declined to say more, as though it would take too long to explain. Now I sort of understand their reaction! But I have the opposite one, and want to talk about them ALL THE TIME.

The six Mitford sisters (and their brother, who figures much less prominently in this book) were born to aristocratic parents in England and came of age during the interwar years. They lived in a haunted house and invented their own language as children which they selectively continued to speak to each other in through their old age. Enough to get you hooked on them right there, isn’t it? But what made them so notorious–indeed, what would most frequently make newspaper headlines–was the way their family was affected by the competing ideologies of fascism and communism.

Nancy, the eldest sister, was a socialist but not quite as involved in politics as her sisters. She was closely associated with the Bright Young People scene out of Oxford, and authored such well-known books as The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.

Diana married Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of Fascists, and was a personal friend of Hitler’s. She was at first a very popular and respected socialite in London, but when British public opinion turned away from fascism she and her husband were separated from their children and jailed for something like three or four years.

Unity–oh, where to begin with Unity?–was, in a cruel twist of fate, conceived in a place called Swastika, Canada, named Unity Valkyrie of all things and, perhaps inevitably with a name like that, became obsessed with Hitler and Nazism. Sort of the way many of us became obsessed with our favorite musicians or movie stars when we were younger. But in this case, she actually moved to Germany as a teenager and started stalking him, hanging around his favorite restaurants trying to catch his eye. And after doing this for months, maybe years, she succeeded, and over the years they became extremely close. It seems that their relationship was never sexual, but nevertheless, it was obvious to everyone that Unity was entirely devoted and in love with him. She made it her personal mission to make sure that Britain and Germany were allied when a second world war became inevitable. When Britain declared war on Germany, she shot herself in the head. And lived. For a while…though she was never the same.

Jessica, A.K.A. Decca, ran off and eloped with her “red cousin” Esmond, Winston Churchill’s nephew by marriage, when she was sixteen (I think?) to Spain to fight on the front lines, but didn’t end up doing quite that. She later moved to the U.S. where she became a journalist, civil rights activist, and member of the communist party (she wrote the aforementioned The American Way of Death, among other things).

Deborah, or “Debo”, married Lord Andrew Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, and became duchess.

And Pam, well…Pam became a mostly non-political but severely anti-semitic farmer, by far the least conspicuous of the sisters. Their brother Tom was also fascist, but argued with Unity over the anti-semitism of Nazism, and died fighting in Japan. Their parents became increasingly divided as well, as their mother Sydney tended to support her fascist daughters and Hitler and their father was anti-German.

The Mitford sisters were all very famous in their day for their rash behavior and absolute enthusiasm for their disparate causes. Many of them were published authors, too, and aired public grievances against each other on a regular basis. Some of them, in various, ever-changing combinations, would remain “not on speakers” with each other for decades. When they were “on speakers” they wrote each other often, and Lovell utilizes their letters to each other wonderfully throughout the book. I had never read a group biography before and was a bit dubious about it’s being pulled off, but Lovell did an excellent job, I thought, of spending just the right amount of time on each family member and moving between them with ease. It was a totally infectious read, not only because of the secret marriages! and imprisonments! and teenage runaways! and public betrayals of kin!–though those things were wonderful to read about of course–but because of the Mitfords’ strong, passionate personalities. Every one of them was so fierce and unstoppable, somehow, a quality both admirable and terrifying, given the politics that most of them shared! Also, they knew all the famous literary and political figures of their day and it’s always an interesting surprise when one enters the fray. It’s just amazing the way the history of their family is simultaneously the history of so many 20th century socio-political forces.

Ugh. What do you think? Have I managed to communicate what I find so intriguing about this family? Did you know much about them before? Would be great material for a movie, I say…

I see also that Lovell has written a biography of Amelia Earhart, which is SO going on my wishlist!

Written by Emily Jane

November 24, 2010 at 4:48 am

25 Responses

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  1. I just bought a copy of this at a thrift store over the weekend. I don’t much about the Mitford’s, but keep seeing their names bandied about on other blogs and am curious. You did certainly manage to intrigue me with your review and I will now be reading this sooner rather than later!


    November 24, 2010 at 5:20 am

  2. That must have taken you ages to type so thankyou, I found that very interesting. I think I’ll be picking this one up.


    November 24, 2010 at 10:14 am

    • It actually ran right through my fingers pretty quickly! Hope you do, and that you enjoy it.

      Emily Jane

      November 25, 2010 at 1:53 am

  3. I knew almost nothing about the Mitford Sisters either but wow. What a story!! This does sound very interesting.


    November 24, 2010 at 3:03 pm

  4. My bookclub read this one earlier this year and I also got hooked. I bought straight away a book with their letters and added Nancy’s book to the wishlist.

    I know they’re a house-hold name in the UK, but I’d never heard of them until then. Didn’t you had feeling Lovell was a bit too supportive of Di and Unity? She kept justifying everything they did, even if there clearly was no justification. That was my only problem with an otherwise addictive book.

    The Mitfords might be a great theme for the One, Two, Theme! Challenge.


    November 24, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    • I mean, yeah, I thought her point was an important one: that it’s so easy to use hindsight to say “ugh, what monsters” when actually they were human like the rest of us (which is really much worse, isn’t it?) and perhaps they didn’t know the worst of what was to go on yet and all that. But she did spend too much time hammering it home and yeah, she only ever said “and here’s where we really must stop feeling forgiving toward Unity” at the part where she took that apartment from the Jewish couple “going abroad”, when that statement obviously should have come a lot earlier.

      A book of their letters! Enticing. You’re right about this being a great theme for that challenge…hmm!

      Emily Jane

      November 25, 2010 at 2:01 am

  5. Unity: SO CRAZY, right? So crazy.

    I haven’t read this but did spend a whole afternoon sucked into the Wikipedia entries about the Mitford family after finishing Nancy’s Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (very enjoyable, btw). I’m sure a book like Lovell’s would include even more juicy tidbits. Totally understand the fascination, and think you’re spot on about their intense personalities.


    November 24, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    • YEAh. Unity. Wow.

      Reading about Nancy definitely has me interested in her novels, so I’m glad to hear you enjoyed them! And that you understand the fascination 🙂

      Emily Jane

      November 25, 2010 at 2:04 am

  6. I really love this book! It is one of my favourite books, it is amazing. I recommend reading the books by Nancy Mitford and the Diana biography by Anne de Courcy.


    November 25, 2010 at 10:03 am

  7. Btw. I just added your blog to my blogroll 🙂


    November 25, 2010 at 10:07 am

  8. I meant to read the letters between the sisters ,one of them lives nearby in chatsworth house the duchess of devonshire a truely interesting family and amazing how much history the sisters have been involved with ,all the best stu


    November 25, 2010 at 2:36 pm

  9. I want to read this one — I tried reading that massive volume of their letters, but the cutesy sister slang was so difficult, and I knew so little about them as people, that I couldn’t finish it. I think if I tried a biography, it would help me enjoy the letters more (and I do love reading other people’s letters).


    November 27, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    • I think it would too–I can see why it would probably be difficult to jump straight to the letters!

      Emily Jane

      November 27, 2010 at 6:11 pm

  10. Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate among my faves of all time…I’m delighted they hold up in this generation of readers. Emily–can I re-blog for Miriam’s well (

    Miriam Sagan

    December 27, 2010 at 2:49 am

    • I can’t wait to try some of Nancy Mtiford’s novels after reading this book. Of course you can re-blog, Miriam! I will e-mail you the text of this post 🙂

      Emily Jane

      December 27, 2010 at 5:55 pm

  11. […] The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, by Mary S. Lovell […]

  12. I loved the book and your clever synopsis. One very minor point it was Jessica who was o known as Decca. You have Decca aka Decca. A small matter not to be labored.
    I have loved the Mitford Sisters for ever and today have written a blog on Chatsworth and the Dowager Duchess – and I have added you to my blog roll.


    March 21, 2011 at 3:00 am

    • Thanks Judith! Correction will be made 🙂 Can’t wait to check out your blog!

      Emily Jane

      March 21, 2011 at 3:41 am

  13. […] I am quite sure that Deborah is my favorite of the sisters but if you want some more information on this fascinating family, without traipsing to the library to pick up a book go to Booked All Week […]

  14. […] Like many others, I have remained fascinated with her into adulthood. Mary S. Lovell, who wrote the book about the Mitfords that I loved so much, is a skilled biographer and I was thrilled to find that she chose Earhart as […]

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