Sunday, 12 October 2014

Book #24 The Mitford Girls by Mary S Lovell

The Mitford Girls

I read The Mitford Girls a biography by Mary S Lovell on the back of their collection of letters between each other just because I wanted "more" and I found myself disapproving of it from the off.
To understand why requires a prior knowledge of the sisters for context which a reader has if they've read their letters first but not if they read this first.

Most important of these is when this book was conceived and written because at the time four of the six sisters (Unity, Nancy, Pam and Decca) were dead leaving only Diana and Debo alive. Both agreed to cooperate with the book although letters indicate they found the interest in their family tedious. Reading this made me wholeheartedly believe that they cooperated with it in "exchange" for certain things and that the author of the book agreed to their terms.

Though Debo remained in contact with Decca following her elopement and emigration, Diana did not as their polar opposite politics drove them apart. Debo remained angry with Decca over issues she had with her autobiography, namely that some anecdotes were outright lies and the portrayal of their mother was excessively negative. Diana shared this view and had written to newspapers to object to Decca's memoir, in later life a flurry of letters critical of Decca was exchanged.

What I felt most about this book is that it was The Mitford Girls according to Diana and Debo as opposed to an objective all seeing eye of the author.  Their mother Sydney is championed as a wonderful mother whose views on education (she did not allow her daughters to go to school) were not as backward as they had seemed. The governesses she employed were of a first rate kind espousing the highly thought of at the time PNEU system. The book is gushing about her both at the beginning and the end.

Contrast this view to Diana's own autobiography in which she more or less confirms Decca's assessment; Sydney is described as "disinterested" and that she learned more in 6 months at her French finishing school then she learned at home in six years and it doesn't add up well.

Decca it is repeatedly implied was a liar, a fantasist, a thief, and a bad mother. Yet, when it becomes clear that Diana herself spent very little time with her older sons, Jonathan and Desmond leaving them home alone with a Nanny whilst she jaunted off all over Europe, this is dismissed as typical for women of that class in that era, and that she "simply adored her sons".

Given that Evelyn Waugh was in love with Diana - I did end up wondering if he took some inspiration from her divorce from Bryan Guinness for A Handful Of Dust. Diana cheated on him, but Bryan had to 'commit an indiscretion' in order that Diana could be the one to file for divorce so as not to ruin her own reputation. Pretty much exactly what happens to the characters in Waugh's novel.

This book is also massively critical of Decca's first husband Esmond, who admittedly does come across as a bit of an idiot in Decca's own autobiography.

A pivotal moment concerns Unity. Esmond writes a letter to his in laws threatening to expose her, and this threat is dismissed by the author of this book in a footnote as "some nonsense invented by Decca" 

Yet when Lovell writes the story of Unity's friendship with Hitler she shillyshallys around the 'did they or didn't they?' question. First Unity is just a starstruck fan, and Hitler in any case wouldn't have slept with her because she wasn't German, then they are clearly more than just good friends with pet names and gifts and spending alone time together, then Unity 'is probably in a relationship with a friend of Tom's' then Hitler is paying her bills, then Diana is saying they were just friends, but if Hitler had asked her she would have said yes....At one point, Lord Redesdale is described as liking Hitler much better than the spouses of his daughters 'the man Mosley, the boy Romilly and the bore Rodd' thereby equating Hitler among them. the hovering around the question suggesting then dismissing, suggesting again then dismissing again, seems to be trying to point the reader at the hints between the lines.  Though it does not concretely state she was his mistress, it implies it to a great degree in my view, perhaps as though Lovell uncovered something in her research yet didn't want to offend the family; though others might not see it the same way.

Stylistically too, the author does something infuriating, and starts to almost think of herself as one of them, adopting the nicknames they gave others in a way that seems presumptuous, Nancy's husband Peter Rodd for example is referred to throughout as Prod, their own name for him. I think what I'm trying to say is that it lacks the professional distance one expects from a biography.

As a result I felt that this biography was a jaundiced one, and really, that readers are much better served by reading the sisters in their own words through their letters and their own autobiographies
There is also not a lot of "new" detail in this book except that both Decca and Diana had abortions something nobody really needed to know.

I still savoured it though, the Mitfords being my new obsession, and I still, thankfully have plenty more to read.


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