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

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Let me just start with this:

I HAD SO MUCH FUN READING THIS BOOK. MITFORD SISTERS=MY NEWEST MICRO-OBSESSION. I can not get enough.

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