Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters


This biography by Laura Thompson tells about the lives of the Mitford family with a primary focus on the six daughters. The parents were David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and his wife Sidney, née Bowles. The daughters were Nancy (b. 1904), Pam (b. 1907), Diana (b. 1910), Unity (b. 1914), Jessica (b. 1917), and Deborah (b. 1920). Tom, the only son, was born in 1909, between Pam and Diana. 

I don't know when I became aware of the Mitford girls, but it was since I started blogging. See this post on the Mitford sisters at Clothes in Books, where Moira also mentions this book. But even when I started the book I did not know much more than that Nancy was an author, Diana married Oswald Mosley, and Unity was obsessed with Hitler.

I was pulled in two directions while reading this book. Laura Thompson's writing is very entertaining and I learned a lot from the book. But towards the end I thought that something was missing and I was not satisfied. 

I will start with the good. To begin with, it was a pleasure reading this book. The first part was fairly straightforward and I was glad the author began with the background of the parents and covered the older children's childhood and David's part in World War I. I definitely came away from the book knowing much more about the Mitfords than I knew before, and also picked up more about events and attitudes in the UK before and during World War II. I had been aware that there was support for Germany and Hitler in that country prior to the war, but did not realize quite how much. 

But in later parts of the book, I noticed Laura Thompson included too much of her own opinions and biases towards the sisters, which affected her coverage of the family.  She pulled a lot from Nancy's novels, which were based on the family but not a true picture of what actually happened. The impression I got from reading this biography were that all of Nancy's novels were based on members of the family, but I am not sure if that is true. She exaggerated and embellished a lot in the fictional portrayals of members of the family. Nancy's novels were referred to so frequently that sometimes it was not clear whether Thompson was writing about the real person or the depiction of that person in a novel. 

A lot of the book is more about the myths about the Mitfords that sprang from Nancy's fiction books based on the family. Since I was looking for facts, that did not work well for me. I suspect that the enjoyment of this book could depend on how much familiarity the reader already has with the Mitfords and that part of history. 

I felt like Laura Thompson's biography emphasized Nancy, Diana, and Unity and did not include much about Pam, Jessica, or Deborah. She also bounced around a lot between the sisters and went back and forth in time which got very confusing. 

To summarize, Laura Thompson's writing is very readable and entertaining, but I felt I missed a lot of the story. I wanted more. I liked this book as much for what I learned about events and behavior in the UK leading up to and during the war as for the story of the sisters. 

I started reading The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell a few days after I finished The Six. I wanted to see how that biographer approached the story, whether it has more information than the other book, and how the two differed in their take on the sisters. That book was first published in 2001, 14 years earlier than Thompson's biography, and is 200 pages longer.


Publisher:   Picador, 2017 (orig. publ. 2015)
Length:       388 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Nonfiction, Biography
Source:      Purchased in 2022.


Jerry House said...

In discussing the Mitfords, it's hard to keep biases out of the conversation.

Lark said...

I've heard of the more famous Mitford sisters, but I never knew there were six daughters in that family. Sounds like this biography was good, but maybe could have been better?

Cath said...

Fascinating! It seems odd to concentrate so much on Nancy's books. If memory serves Mary Lovell did not do that, instead she spent a lot of the middle of her book focussing on Unity and her connection to Hitler. That suited me as I was interested in that but it may not have suited others. I'll grab this if I see it anywhere but won't order it especially I think. Another good perspective on their lives came from Deborah Mitford's book, Wait for Me. In fact I think that was the first book I read about the sisters.

Margot Kinberg said...

This sounds like a bit of a mixed bag, Tracy, although I'm glad you found things to like. And for me, writing style does matter; it can draw me in or pull me right out. You have a point, too, I think, about how important bias can be. It's hard for an author to stay neutral about historical figures or events (or issues, for that matter), but sometimes it's important.

TracyK said...

Jerry, that is a good point, and very true. To me it seemed like the author adored her subjects in this book and was too admiring (especially of the two sisters she interviewed, Diana and Deborah). I think I should have read Nancy S. Lovell's biography first, which seems (so far) to have a more even tone.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Strangely the book that has stayed with me was Jessica Mitford's THE AMERICAN WAY OF DEATH although I am wondering now it that is another Mitford. I will have to look it up. It exposed various failings of the funeral business

TracyK said...

Lark, I am hoping to learn more about the less well known Mitford sisters in the Mary S. Lovell biography. And then I will try some other biographies of the individual sisters and / or some of their own writing. I was surprised to learn that so many of them wrote books. I knew Nancy Mitford had written novels, but not that she wrote so many and also nonfiction. I have lots more to learn about them.

TracyK said...

Cath, I think that is a good approach. Try it out if you can do so, maybe a library book or a used copy. This isn't a bad book at all, and I should have known about her style of writing since I read her Agatha Christie biography, which had the same characteristics. And I should have started with Lovell's book. On the other hand, at least I did start and I am enjoying learning more about the family and the time they lived in.

TracyK said...

Margot, that is a good way of describing it, a mixed bag. It has a lot to offer, but it was too confusing, and not a good starting place for me for this topic. If I had known more going in, I probably would have appreciated it more. And yes, style does matter to my enjoyment of a book.

TracyK said...

Patti, Jessica Mitford was a Mitford sister, and I was surprised myself to see that she had written The American Way of Death. Although I know I knew that before, it had just slipped my mind. So now she is another one I want to know more about. She kind of escaped the family, although kept in touch via letters.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Tracy, I do know that there is a historical novel that has just been published The Mitford Affair by Marie Benedict about the Mitford Sisters. I haven't read Marie Benedict but she is a popular author who wrote The Personal Librarian which was a bestseller and got critical praise as well and Publisher's Weekly gives The Mitford Affair a good review.

TracyK said...

Thanks for telling me about that book, Kathy, I will check it out. I have heard of Marie Benedict, and it sounds like it would be interesting. There is a mystery series by Jessica Fellowes about all the sisters (I think), and I am going to try the first one in that series too.

Susan D said...

I first heard of them when I read Jessica's memoir, Hons and Rebels a very long time ago, followed by A Fine Old Conflict.

In the 2000s, there were then a spate of Mitford books, including Decca, the Letters of Jessica Mitford (2006) and Letters Between Six Sisters, wonderfully collected and edited by Charlotte Mosley (yes, a Mosley). Plus Debo's Wait for Me (mentioned above).

I think these 5 books can tell you so much about them, and their complex relationships. Decca's and Debo's memoirs naturally lean towards their own views of how things were panning out.

One thing that stands out is that between them, these six women were linked (directly or with one degree of separation) to an astonishing array of movers and shakers in the western world of the 20th century.

TracyK said...

Susan D, That is a very good list of Mitford-related works. All of which I would be interested in reading. Thanks very much for recommending them.

I had already planned to get Letters between Six Sisters, although over 800 pages is daunting. But I know I would enjoy it and it doesn't matter how long I take to read it. I also think the letters of Jessica Mitford would be very interesting.

I did notice how many interesting people they knew, even in Laura Thompson's book, and more have come up in Lovell's book. Plus one review of Thompson's book named many people who did not get mentioned in that biography.

Todd Mason said...

A perplexing history, no matter how approached.

TracyK said...

That is true, Todd, but very interesting.

CLM said...

I chose this for my book group a few months ago and no one seemed to like it, which irked me. I found it very readable and interesting. To know something about the Mitford sisters seems desirable to me.

TracyK said...

Constance, I certainly agree it is good to know something about the Mitfords, they are a varied lot. I not only learned tons about the Mitfords, I learned much about the UK during the war. I was surprised that the overall rating for this book was relatively low on Goodreads. However, whether people liked the book or not, it seems like the book would lead to a lot of good discussion in a book group. What were the complaints?

At least Thompson's book is a decent length for a book club, whereas Mary Lovell's biography that I am reading now is 550 pages. I am liking it a lot but not too far in yet.

Judith said...

Hi Tracy,
I have to say this--Brava for this review!! Or reviews! I enjoyed, and was educated by this post. I just finished The Mitford Affair, a historical novel by Marie Benedict, mostly about Nancy, Diana, and Unity Mitford. It was not as well done as Marie Benedict's historical novel about Clementine Churchill, which came out in January 2020.
I read The Mitford Affair to sort of "get my feet wet" with the family before pursuing the biographies. I'm most interested in Nancy. I could not believe how "fascist-leaning" their parents were. It simply mystifies me.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Judith. When I first heard of Marie Benedict's book I was undecided about reading a fictionalized account. But now that I have read Thompson's biography of the sisters and some reviews, I think it will definitely be worthwhile to read. I am also interested in Marie Benedict's novel about Clementine Churchill, and if I knew about that one, I had forgotten. So I guess I will be trying her writing sometime soon.

I was also very surprised to learn how much the Mitford parents leaned toward Hitler and Germany. Nancy is very interesting but I would also like to learn more about Jessica.