Sunday, 22 June 2014

Book #19 The Mitfords : Letters Between Six Sisters ed. Charlotte Mosley

The Mitfords : Letters Between Six Sisters

I will start by saying that I was utterly obsessed by and engrossed in this book. After I, for no apparent reason read the letters between Deborah, Duchess Of Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, I had to know more about both Debo and her sisters.

Most people have very ordinary lives : school, job, house, car, marriage, children. The same cannot be said for the Mitfords who each had extraordinary lives.

Their letters are touching as they often write to each other using their childhood pet names 'Dear Boud', 'Dear Hen', 'Dearest Woman', 'Dear Honks' and so on, on some occasions the letters are mind blowing, particularly the pre-war ones written by Unity.  Though later letters have neither the same energy nor the same level of bonkers they are still excellent from a historical perspective.

Why would anyone be interested in reading a book about 6 sisters you may not have heard of? I'll give a short biography on each, which may explain why this book enthralled me so much.

Nancy :

Though Nancy was a successful writer she was quite bitter and jealous of her younger siblings, largely of their romantic successes in comparison to her own. She had a fake engagement to a gay man, a short lived marriage to a man who only cared about her money and status and an ongoing affair with a Colonel she adored to whom she was merely one of many. She informed on her sister Diana to the British Government during the war, something Diana, who cared for her devotedly towards the end of her life never knew. Of her Debo says "When you take away the books, she had a miserable life really"

Pamela :

Known as Woman, Pamela seldom writes but through the letters of her sisters I built an image of a Miss Trunchbull type character who is large, strides about with dogs in tow, hates children and is obsessed with food.
Diana :

Diana married young to the heir of the Guinness fortune, but, feeling stifled, left him following an affair with Oswald Mosley the fascist, whom she later married (in Goebbels house!) Both massive Nazi sympathizers they were interred at Holloway for the duration of the war as threats to the British nation. Following this, they became pariahs and lived in Ireland and France.    

Unity :

Unity and Diana bonded over their mutual affinity for fascism, and their letters to one another are by far the strangest and most alarming to read. Unity had what was tantamount to a schoolgirl crush on Hitler and her letters about him read like a teenager talking about a member of a boyband. "I heard he was in a cafe so I rushed straight there" When war breaks out Unity shoots herself in the head in Berlin, she doesn't die, but has the mental age of child and is prone to rages. The brunt of caring for her falls to her Mother and Debo whose letters reveal how terrible it was. There is a strong sense that no-one in the family besides Diana and their mother, ever took Unity remotely seriously and Debo comments that she hates how Unity is only ever associated to the 'Hitler thing'.

Jessica :

'Decca' was a Communist but was closest to Unity and never parted ways with Unity the way she did with Diana. There is a sense that this is not only due to what befell Unity but because Diana was the more sincere fascist and therefore the more dangerous. Decca eloped with her cousin and after various relatives were unable to persuade them home, married him. Decca was beset by tragedy, but became a civil rights activist, one photo shows her playing Boggle with Maya Angelou! Her Americanisation caused her to both distance herself and become distanced from her sisters who remained quite traditionally British Upper Class.  Though unable to ever forgive Diana her far right views; and following upset caused over her autobiography, difficulties among all her family relationships, Jessica bonded with Nancy in later life over the shortcomings of their parents and their anger over never receiving a formal education.

Deborah :

Debo had the happiest childhood of all the sisters, but as the youngest was repeatedly impacted by their outlandish deeds, telling Decca in later life that her elopement was one of the worst things that ever happened to her. Their father once commented : "Whenever I hear of a peers daughter in a scandal I already know it's going to be one of you". She married Andrew Cavendish and when his brother died in the war they became Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. She often socialised with the great and the good, and now in her 90s still does. She was also related by marriage to both JFK and Harold Macmillan, all the Mitfords were also related to the Churchills. I read an article by Guy Walters regarding her memoir which heavily criticises her for not condemning either Diana or Unity for their politics. Having read two sets of Debo's letters, Debo both couldn't care less about politics and loved her sisters no matter what and is the most unilaterally loyal of all and to all of them. When asked by Princess Margaret why Oswald Mosley is in attendance at a soiree, Debo is alleged to have replied with : "Well, he IS my brother in law" As they all aged and passed away, Diana became Debo's last link to her childhood, hardly surprising she would not condemn her and hardly fair to ask her to.      
Sometime during the Seventies, there is a resurgence of public interest in the sisters and this leads to a massive falling out, chronicled in letters over both a biography of the departed Unity and a missing scrapbook which Pamela has accused Jessica of stealing. From the Thirties onwards Jessica refused to speak to Diana as their politics drove them apart, in later years, due to rifts, Debo, the most well adjusted of the sisters becomes the hub, and it is sad to watch the letters peter out until only Diana and Debo are alive and then just Debo alone.

This is a fascinating chronicle of a group of women, from a historical perspective, a class perspective and a female perspective and if I haven't whetted your appetite here with my descriptions of them then there's something wrong with you.

Verdict : 10/10 - and the blog is likely to feature a host of Mitford related items over the next year, as I have become slightly obsessed with them.  (Though I was dashed to find no mention of Debo's friend Sybil Cholmondeley anywhere)   

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