Saturday, February 27, 2010

Review: The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, ed. by Charlotte Mosley

Pages: 834 (with index)
Original date of publication: 2007
My edition: 2008 (HarperCollins)
Why I decided to read: it’s been on my TBR list for ages, and I’ve always been
fascinated by the Mitford sisters
How I acquired my copy: bought secondhand, January 2010

I’ve long been fascinated with the Mitford family, six sisters and a brother whose lives spanned the 20th century. This collection of letters strictly focuses on the sisters: Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah. In a nutshell, this is who they were:

Nancy (1904-1973): The writer/ reader. Author of The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, and several other novels and biographies. Married Peter Rudd; worked for the London bookseller Heywood Hill and lived for a time in Paris in the 1950s.

Pamela (1907-1994): Married for a time to the physicist Derek Jackson (she was the second of his six wives).

Diana (1910-2003): married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the BUF (British Union of Fascists) in the 1930s. Spent some time in prison during the war.

Unity (1914-1948): Hitler-adoring fascist, who spent some time in Germany before and during WWII. Attempted suicide; lived the rest of her life with their mother, Lady Redesdale.

Jessica (1917-1996): the communist, who eloped with Esmond Romilly and later moved to the United States with husband number two, Robert Truhaft.. Author of a couple of autobiographies, especially Hons and Rebels.

Deborah (1920-): Married Andrew Cavendish in 1941, and later became the Duchess of Devonshire. After the death of Andrew’s father, and the heavy death taxes that were imposed, the Cavendishes turned Chatsworth House into a famous tourist attraction.

The Mitford sisters exchanged over12,000 letters over roughly 75 years of correspondence. Although the sisters were completely different from one another and lived all over the world, they kept up a lively correspondence over the years (only 5% of the total of existing letters appear in this 800-page compilation). The short biographies I give of the sisters above don’t do them justice; each of the sisters’ voices are so lively and vibrant. For much of their lives, the Mitfords frequently made the headlines in newspapers, and it’s easy to see why people were so fascinated with them, despite the controversy that followed them. I don’t necessarily agree with the sisters and the choices they made, but I was nonetheless interested to read their story from their POV.

Although the language they used amongst one another confused me a bit at first, I found the girls’ letters extremely easy to read after a while. The footnotes got to be a bit much at times, especially when the editor kept mentioning who famous people were married to (really, do we need to be reminded that Lyndon B. Johnson was married to Lady Bird?), and explaining things like what Boggle is (or do the British not play it?). But on the whole, the footnotes were helpful and informative, especially when the girls began writing in “Honnish.” There’s a strong pro-Diana bias in this book, mostly because the author is her daughter-in-law; and I though the author was a bit too interested in her own connection to this famous family.

One thing I was especially interested in was how much the Mitfords read. Nancy especially was a big reader, and she talked a lot about what she read in her letters (she read a lot of memoirs, with a lot of fiction thrown in). Jessica (“Decca”) jokingly says in one letter that she’s a “slow” reader” for having finished Gone With the Wind in just a week! Deborah seems to be the least literary of the sisters; apparently, however, she pretended not to be a reader when she really was one! My favorite quote from her: “I have got to page 652 in C [by Maurice Baring] & there are only 741, what shall I do when it’s finished, I really never will read any more beastly books they are only an extra complication to one’s pathetic life.” (letter to Nancy, 7 May 1944).

The book is good for both people who know a lot about the Mitfords, and for newcomers; in each section of the book, the editor gives an introduction, the better to understand the events that the sisters mention in their letters. The book is also accompanied by a large collection of black and white photographs, depicting the sisters, their brother Tom, parents, and various other important people, at various stages in their lives. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the sisters or the time period. I really enjoyed two of Nancy Mitford’s books, and Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels. I think it might be time to read The Blessing, or Don’t Tell Alfred.

1 comment:

Hannah Stoneham said...

thank you for reviewing this - I have been thinking about reading it for ages as the Mitfords were certainly pretty interesting. Have you read the collective biography - I think by Mary S Lovell? that pulls things together very well and was my first Mitford read. thanks for sharing, Hannah


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