title: The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family [support an independent bookseller and purchase at Strand]
author: Mary S. Lovell
source: New York Public Library
“Of course, the whole point of muck-raking, apart from all the jokes, is to try to do something to about what you’ve been writing about. You may not be able to change the world but at least you can embarrass the guilty.” ~Jessica “Decca” Mitford (p. 481)
The Mitfords are a fascinating family.
I came to this book via an NPR list of recommended titles, and when I read the blurb, I was intrigued. A little bit about each of the girls (and Tom):
Nancy Mitford (as photographed by Cecil Beaton!!!): eldest of the seven (!!!) children; author of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate; friends with Evelyn Waugh (!!!); spent most of her adult life in love with Gaston Palewski, who though he enjoyed her attention, still maintained romantic relationships with many other (sometimes married) women.
Pamela Mitford: arrived after Nancy; nicknamed “Woman”; probably the least controversial of the bunch; preferred farming to scandal
Diana Mitford: next after Tom; infamous for her first marriage to Bryan Guinness, and then relationship with and later marriage to Sir Oswald Mosely, noted Fascist; spent the better part of World War II in a jail cell for social ties to Hitler
Unity Mitford: so enamored with Nazi politics, she learned German, moved to Germany, and found a way not only to meet Hitler, but to become his close friend; shot herself (and survived) when Germany and England declared war.
Jessica “Decca” Mitford: politically very different than Diana and Unity in that she was a Communist for years; eloped to Spain with Esmond Romilly (a Churchill descendant); later moved to the US and, after Esmond’s death, married Bob Treuhaft and worked in support of the Communist Party and civil rights; wrote The American Way of Death, an indictment of the funeral industry’s exploitative practices.
Deborah “Debo” Mitford: youngest; was growing up in the midst of all the controversy stirred up by her elder sisters; married Andrew Cavendish and became the Duchess of Devonshire and an accomplished businesswoman.
Mary S. Lovell does a wonderful job of trying to avoid redundancy, to not only to consolidate all of the source material on the Mitfords that has accumulated over the years but really present each of the sister’s perspective in a non-judgmental way (which is no small task when discussing the polarizing opinions and decisions of Diana and Unity!!!). I was particularly struck by the delicacy in which she handled Unity’s developing relationship with Hitler and Diana’s imprisonment during WWII. She presented the facts, expressed how the family reacted, and let the reader have their own reactions.
The entire biography was superbly well-researched, yet felt completely accessible considering that I had zero prior knowledge of the Mitford sisters (having been born post 1980). One thing that makes this bio stand out was the access she had to the remaining Mitford sisters. Near the end of the biography, Lovell discusses the other biographies written about various members of the Mitford family, each with varying degrees of access to the sisters themselves. Lovell, because of her access, was able to really speak to how the sisters themselves felt and reacted during different points of the family history, What I appreciated though was that, for her access, she really tried to present the women as the complex human beings that they were, faults as well as triumphs.
1. The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford
2. Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford
3. Nancy Mitford by Harold Acton
4. The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
5. Wait for Me! by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire