Our book club last month took a different turn as we discussed our first non-fiction piece. While perusing the internet I found this article on Book Riot that was about the Mitfords, a wealthy English family whose six daughters were all published authors, and knew immediately that I wanted to read the biography by Mary S. Lovell that was mentioned. Most of the sisters were entering young adulthood around the time of WWII, and since we have a WWII buff in our little group, that made it an even easier choice. I enjoyed our foray into the real world and look forward to adding in the occasional non-fiction title in future.
(In case you are confused, the book listed in the article (The Mitford Girls) is the British publication. The one above is the US publication and the one we read. Best I could tell from my research (i.e., Wikipedia), they are the same book except for the title and cover.)
Title: The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family
Author: Mary S. Lovell
Format I Read: Paperback
Synopsis: The Mitfords were an aristocratic English family with a long history of peerage in the United Kingdom. In the early 1900s, David and Sydney Freeman-Miford, the Baron and Baroness Redesdale, began their family which would include six daughters and one son (Nancy, Tom, Pam, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah). Their daughters would go on to become well-known in English society and around the world. Their lives, loves, and scandals were the headlines of the times. Lovell details their youth, coming of age, adulthood, and beyond, presenting a thoughtful journey through the Mitford world.
Thoughts: Clocking in at over 500 pages, this book truly is a saga. It follows the whole Mitford family chronologically, even including snapshots of David and Sydney as children on to their eventual courtship and marriage. There is one chapter dedicated to the “nursery years” when the children were growing up allowing you to see some of the formative times with their parents and in their childhood homes. Their childhoods (and adulthoods, really) are truly storybook tales to be told. Much of the difference comes not from the passing of time but from the difference of being part of the aristocracy. Large country manor houses, extravagant apartments in London, a constant stream of nannies, and the ubiquitous coming out parties and subsequent social seasons are all utterly foreign and make for compelling reading.
Everyone was given a nickname, as I guess members of the aristocracy are prone to do. (FYI, I mostly base this conclusion on watching Jeeves and Wooster.) Some were set in stone and were the only ways in which these people were referred to throughout most of their lives: Jessica was Decca, Deborah was Debo, Pam was Woman. Some had multiple nicknames, and it was at times difficult to know who was who. As the book goes on, it becomes easier to distinguish among the large cast of characters that make up not only the family, but those that move within the family circle and the eventual spouses and children of the sisters.
One thing was very clear to me throughout the entire book, all the Mitford sisters, despite their shortcomings, were very intelligent. David and Sydney did not believe in formal education for women outside the home, but inside the home Sydney made sure the girls had quality tutors and even instituted a schooling system that had to be followed. Snippets of their letters, books, and articles are printed throughout and they easily show the reason that all six were published in some form or another. They all write with a bright, clever wit that is entertaining and engaging.
As much as they were similar in their intellect, what each choose to do with that intellect is extremely different from the others. Over time, and because of their actions, the sisters were definitely pigeonholed as specific characters. This quote from The Times journalist Ben Macintyre is the perfect example of their entirely accurate labels, “Diana the Fascist; Jessica the Communist; Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess; and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur”.
At a time of great political unrest in Europe, some of the sisters chose sides. Diana fell in love with the leader of the Fascist party in Britain and was a strong supporter at home and abroad for him and their political movement. Unity was a staunch fascist and did indeed love Hitler. She moved to Germany to be close to him, and after some time, they became very close friends. Their relationship, though platonic by all accounts, was nonetheless love. It continued for many years, even into the war itself. Their story was captivating, and the book is worth reading for that piece alone.
Decca, on the other hand, declared herself a communist and ran away from home with her communist boyfriend. They ended up in the US, and she eventually became a leading member of the Communist Party in America. After the McCarthy era, she could no longer declare herself communist but continued to work and write along the same lines as before. She became a well-known author of non-fiction books, and she also penned an autobiography, Hons and Rebels, giving her (almost certainly biased) account of growing up a Mitford.
Nancy published multiple best selling novels, rightly earning her the title of the “novelist”. Her books drew very heavily on her family, friends, and acquaintances as thinly veiled inspiration for her characters. This got her into trouble more than once and caused short-lived and long lasting rifts between her and the other sisters. Pam was the “country girl” of the group who lived a quiet, unassuming life unlike any of her other sisters. She managed farms, married late, doted on her nieces and nephews, and retired to Switzerland. Somehow she and Debo didn’t inherit the drama gene that plagued the other four girls. Debo married a Duke making her a Duchess. They were very well liked, and over time, they turned their meager estate into a huge financial success, creating jobs and helping others along the way.
Lovell seemed fairly unbiased in her descriptions of the sisters; however, I do believe she favored Decca above the rest telling more of her story in a distinctly sympathetic light. Maybe it was because as they got older, Decca remained the most active in her publishing and publicity so there was more about her to report in those later years. Pam gets the least amount of attention, I would assume because she had the least amount of publicity, but without doing my own research, I cannot say that with certainty. My favorite sister was Debo. She also wrote an autobiography which I would love to read one day. Her letters to her sisters were always funny and warm with a charming wit about them. I think reading her story would be interesting. Decca’s autobiography was hotly contested by her family with members saying she misrepresented people and made up her own endings to family stories. It would probably still be a very interesting read as Decca was a passionate and vibrant person, but I think it best taken with a grain of salt.
Overall, this was book was interesting and at times enthralling. The Mitford family is definitely one for the history books and their story begs to be told. The sisters were all fascinating people from an equally fascinating period of time. It was a bit long and in places seemed to rely too heavily on quotes. I think the author could have summarized some sections more succinctly. Despite that, if you have the inclination and some free hours, this is worth your reading time.