Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell

In early February I reviewed Laura Thompson's biography of the Mitford sisters, The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters. I had mixed feelings about that book, although I learned a lot about the whole family, including the parents and their brother, Tom. But I felt like I could benefit from another look at the subject. 

To briefly describe the Mitford family:

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. Some of the sisters were very notorious. Diana was a fascist and married Oswald Mosley, who founded and led the British Union of Fascists. Unity was a huge fan of Hitler and visited Germany regularly prior to World War II. Nancy was a successful author of both fiction and nonfiction books. Jessica eloped with Esmond Romilly, a nephew of Winston Churchill, became a Communist, and moved to the US; she was also a successful author, of memoirs and nonfiction. Pam had the most normal life, preferring rural life. Deborah was the youngest, apolitical, and married to Andrew Cavendish, who became the 11th Duke of Devonshire.

In Thompson's book, she spent a lot more time on Diana, Unity, and Nancy. I wanted to know more about Jessica, Pam and Deborah. So I started reading Nancy S. Lovell's biography, The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, published in 2001. It was over 500 pages long and had much more information about all members of the family. Only Tom Mitford got less coverage in Lovell's book; he was killed in action during the Second World War. 

I think the only sister that got less coverage in the Lovell book was Nancy. There was less information about her fiction books, and more about her nonfiction books, which were also very successful. There was also more detail on her relationship with Gaston Palewski, a close associate of Charles de Gaulle during and after World War II.

I was very interested in knowing more about Jessica Mitford, and Lovell's biography covered her life in great detail. Both books were somewhat confusing because they often referred to the sisters by their nicknames. Especially in Lovell's biography, Jessica was referred to as Decca and Deborah was called Debo. But I got used to that after a few chapters. There was also more information about the girls' childhood, which translates into more about the parents early in their marriage.

Several reviews, including the review at The New York Times, are critical of Lovell for apologizing for the attitudes of Unity and Diana towards fascism and Hitler. I did not take her statements that way, but clearly that is the impression conveyed to many readers.

I enjoyed this book a lot, although it took me a long time to read. There were lots of footnotes to either explain or elucidate a passage or cite the source of the information and I did spend a lot of time going back and forth between text and footnotes. 

I was attracted to the story of the sisters partly because they lived through the years leading up to and including World War II. I learned much new information about the UK and other European countries during those years. 

I first learned about the Mitford sisters at Moira's Clothes in Books blog. I recommend this post for more about the sisters and some of the books they wrote.


Publisher:   W. W. Norton & Company, 2003 (orig. publ. 2001)
Length:       529 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      UK, US, France.
Genre:        Biography
Source:       I purchased this book in 2020.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I have read about them off and on over the years.And I remember reading THE AMERICAN WAY OF DEATH, which was incitful and also some of the novels by Nancy, was it?

Kathy's Corner said...

I too have been fascinated by the Mitford Sisters and I wonder about Diana and Unity. What was lacking in them that they fell in love with fascist men and could not see the evil of Nazism? I will read the book to find out. But sadly I suspect it's an age old story. When terrible leaders rise to the top there are millions who are going to follow them.

Cath said...

They're a fascinating family and no mistake. My other favourite book about them is Wait For Me! by Deborah Mitford who gives a really interesting family take on the doings of her more famous sisters.

TracyK said...

Patti, I haven't read anything by Jessica Mitford, but I have read The Pursuit of Love by Nancy. I liked that one and will find more of her novels, I hope.

TracyK said...

Kathy, that is a very good question. Both of their parents were very pro-Hitler until war was declared, and their mother continued to support him even after that. But that was probably true of some other families in the UK. I think the biography does shed some light on that, but it was strange that the sisters grew up with so many varied approaches to life. I wondered how Jessica rejected the values of the rest of her family at such an early age. They are all very interesting.

TracyK said...

Cath, Wait For Me! is on my wish list, and would probably be a good one for me to read soon. Someday I want to read both of Jessica's memoirs but Hons and Rebels seems like it would be too biased, based on what I have read. I am currently reading The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters (very slowly), and enjoying it.

Margot Kinberg said...

Sorry I'm late to this one, Tracy. This sounds like such an interesting perspective on the family. And that's the thing (at least to me) about family sagas; focusing on different family members gives the reader a completely different way of looking at the family.

TracyK said...

I agree, Margot. In this case it is especially useful to see how all the sisters were affected by their parents. And Debo, the youngest, was very much affected by the notoriety of some of her older sisters. Dynamics within a family is always interesting.

CLM said...

I haven't read this one but I assume the author was merely trying to explain Unity and Diana's interest in fascism and Hitler rather than make excuses for them, but clearly the message didn't get through.

I sort of think an author *should* make this attempt if there are beliefs or behavior that seems incomprehensible to a modern audience. The author should have some insight from his or her research (or perhaps an opinion).

I don't recall from the book I read about the sisters whether their lack of formal education was considered a cause of Unity and Diana's dimwitted political views or if they just had the sort of personality that hero-worships strong personalities, regardless of their appropriateness. But look at women who fall for incarcerated killers . . . some people have no common sense.

TracyK said...

Constance, I took the author's statements as explanations rather than excuses, and you put that very well. It did surprise me that Diana continued to stick with her attitudes after the war. The sisters were all interesting and so different from each other.

Although I knew from both biographies that the girls had very little formal education, I am always surprised to read that commented on because for the most part they were obviously very intelligent and many of them wrote novels and nonfiction and were successful.

Bill Selnes said...

TracyK: I have not read the books. I have appreciated your reviews. I do consider the commentary on the sisters lack of formal education elitist and condescending. In my father's generation an education beyond Grade 8 was uncommon in rural Saskatchewan. I consider many of the people I know from his generation, including Dad, intelligent and well read. I think a "formal education" has little to do with a person's political choices and their understanding of the world.

TracyK said...

Bill, I think that the Mitford sisters prove that formal education is not a requirement for intelligence or writing ability. Jessica was the daughter who most protested that she wanted to get formal schooling but it never happened. On the other hand they had governesses and spent some time each day studying and had access to a huge library of books in their childhoods. Their lives and the events of the time were very interesting, I will continue to read about them and some of the books that they have written.