Thursday List: The Mitford Sisters





Which one is the great beauty? l-r:Unity, Diana, Nancy



This week the last of the famous Mitford sisters died: Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, known as Debo.

The proprietor of Clothes in Books is an unreconstructed old leftie, but has an inexplicable and wide-ranging interest in the aristocratic Mitford Sisters, and has read just about everything by or about them, so feels uniquely qualified to create lists about them, and use that as an excuse to air her opinions one more time. (There was a brother, Tom, but he was very much overshadowed by his sisters). First, a list of the sisters in order of (very much) personal preference:






1) Given my political views, it is unsurprising that Jessica (also known as Decca) is my favourite of the women. She was a Communist, who ran away to the Spanish Civil War with her boyfriend and later husband Esmond Romilly. They then emigrated to the USA.  She was widowed in the Second World War and then married a left-wing lawyer (who briefly employed Hilary Rodham Clinton as an intern). The two of them worked tirelessly for human rights causes all their lives.

Key books by Jessica Mitford:

The American Way of Death (and a later Revisited version of the book) – an investigation into the funeral industry

The American Way of Birth – exactly what it sounds like, a similar investigation into maternity care

Hons and Rebels (first volume of her autobiography, roundly condemned by her sisters as lies, contains many of the key anecdotes about the family’s upbringing in the Oxfordshire countryside)



Well-dressed in the 30s - clothes for a London trip



2) Nancy Mitford was the oldest: she wrote a handful of novels that will live forever, a few less good ones, some very good history texts, and a lot of journalism.

The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, and Don’t Tell Alfred are wonderful books (with many entries on the blog: click on the labels below). Her books featured on my recent list of books about young women, the ones for endless re-reading. I also wrote about Love in a Cold Climate in the Guardian newspaper, for a feature on comfort reads.

3) Pam Mitford – quiet and mysterious, the country girl who didn’t want to write, or to have extreme political views (though her husband Derek Jackson did), or to become famous, or to conquer London. She liked farming and country pursuits. She was much loved by poet John Betjeman, and is thought to have been one of the inspirations for his poems about such women.

4) Deborah Duchess of Devonshire. Jessica said the girls all grew up lounging around waiting for Mr Right to turn up ‘or in Debo’s case, the Duke of Right.’ She always wanted to be a duchess, though at the time she married Andrew Cavendish there wouldn’t have been much of a prospect as he was a younger son – his brother the heir died in the Second World War. She came to writing late in life, with some books about Chatsworth House – the great country mansion which she and her husband ran as a business – and then her letters to Patrick Leigh Fermor, and a book of memoirs.



5) Unity Mitford was an out-and-out Nazi supporter, but she was so strange, and sounds so mad, that it is hard to blame her as much as Diana. She tried to commit suicide when Great Britain declared war on Germany: she shot herself, but lived on, much damaged, for several years more.

Diana dressed casually for a party, with friend



6) Diana Mitford, who became Diana Mosley, has featured on the blog recently, and this is part of what I said about her:

Her politics were detestable and deluded: she was a friend of Hitler, and she was married to fascist leader Oswald Mosley and supported his political views totally. But once you get that out of the way, there is still something left. She was a woman of principle and great loyalty, she found it easy to make and keep good friends despite everything (‘everything’ including imprisonment during the WW2 and the whiff – strongly denied - of potential treason). For someone claiming such strange views she had friends of all kinds – including many whom her husband’s desired political system would have condemned as degenerate, or Jewish, or both.

There is a way in which she doesn’t add up…
She was simultaneously quite transparent and quite incomprehensible – those who knew her say she had great personal warmth and charm, but some of us (without the advantage of knowing her personally) wonder about the ice in her heart.

She was famously beautiful. She was also a very good writer – her biography of the Duchess of Windsor is hilarious, very readable, and illuminating and revealing: she knew the Duchess well. Her pen portraits of friends were also very good.

Nicholas Mosley was her stepson – he wrote the novel Impossible Objects, one of the best books on the blog last year.


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The simple search engine on Clothes in Books seems quite overwhelmed by the amount of Mitfordiana - not everything shows up - so here are some links:


One of the original inspirations for this blog was Jassy’s criticism of short wedding dresses, and consideration for ‘your poor old dead legs’, in this entry on Pursuit of Love.

Other blog entries about the sisters include ones about the great closing lines of The Pursuit of Love; about who was the beauty of the family; about what Cedric wore to the ball (original research! 2 pics below for 2 costumes); 



why Rupert Everett should play Lady Montdore; and how the sisters’ lives influenced Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. And much much more – Peter Quennell falling in love with Diana....  





....favourite book and large jewels in the Making of a Marchioness, the Xmas presents entry (Fanny's fur hat to the right) - and still this is just skimming the surface. 

The Mitfords must be mentioned more around here than anyone else, to the great disdain of my good friend Col of Col’s Criminal Library – which is undoubtedly a Mitford-free zone.

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Other Mitford books: Mary Lovell wrote The Mitford Girls about all the sisters, which is a great general introduction, and Laura Thompson (biographer also of Agatha Christie) wrote an enjoyable, quirky book about Nancy, Life in a Cold Climate. Lisa Hilton's The Horror of Love is specifically about Nancy's affair with Gaston Palewski ('Fabrice'). 

There are several other books about the individual sisters, and various collections of their letters. The collection of letters between Evelyn Waugh and Nancy, often consulted and referred to here on the blog, is one of the great literary achievements of the 20th century, and if I had to live with one book for the rest of my life I would probably choose that one.

Now that Deborah has died, the writers and biographers will be keen to produce more books, the last words on the sisters. And perhaps more about some of the more intriguing aspects of Debo’s life… I suspect there’s a lot there to be revealed. (What WAS that about JFK?)



Comments

  1. Moira, saw the news this morning when my online-Guardian feed popped up in my inbox. Sad news but his hasn't changed my mind on reading about any or all of them I'm afraid. Will you be off to the funeral with Prince Charles?

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    1. I was going to warn you! I hope you read far enough down to see your name-check near the bottom of the post. Strangely my invite hasn't arrived yet - I'll keep checking.

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    2. Oops slacking today - missed the connection cheers.
      Did you ever get the Peter Sussman book I tipped you off about - good reviews for it! Loosen those purse strings and crush that embargo...helpful link attached http://www.amazon.co.uk/Decca-The-Letters-Jessica-Mitford/dp/0753822296/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1411643259&sr=8-1&keywords=peter+sussman+mitford

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    3. No, I confidently expected that you wouldn't see the ref unless I pointed it out. And yes, I have got the book and read it - it was excellent, just doesn't make a blog entry. I love reading collected letters, I find them fascinating.

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    4. I did wonder whether you blogged about everything you read. I have my answer now, though I do wonder if Pronzini-Willcox will be making an appearance.
      Glad the Mitford letters were right up your street. I chuckled when I saw the length of the book 760-odd pages! I imagine letters read faster though.

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    5. Letters are terrible! I finish a section, and think 'I'll just read one more, I'll just find out what happened about that issue' and the next thing I know it's 3am and I've finished the book.... I'n not sure if I should be thanking your or not for the tipoff in fact...
      Pronzini is most definitely lined up.

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  2. Three cheers for us unreconstructed "old" lefties, although I'd take issue with the word "old." I keep telling my friends here to call us "seniors," although that doesn't fit the sentence structure here.

    I can well understand the fascination with the Mitfords. From afar, I have paid some attention to them, although it's miniscule compared to this blog's.

    I've read about Jessica's life in Europe, going to Spain and then over here, where her spouse and she did a lot of social good, each in their own way.

    In trying to figure out why so many of the sisters were right-wingers, it seems that their parents were of that political stripe, so it was really Jessica who was the real rebel and who completely overhauled her thinking and split with her heritage.

    I wonder if she and the reactionary sisters ever spoke to each other, or if they did, how that went. Even thinking about it gives me a headache.

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    1. Jessica was definitely the rebel. Her parents seem to have held the normal low-key right-wing views of their section of society, but then to have been influenced by Unity and Diana to become Nazi supporters, which is an unusual way to go I think. Jessica had very edgy relations with her sisters, and would have nothing to do with Diana at all.

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  3. Isn't this image superb? http://thearchitecturalist.tumblr.com/post/98330396153
    End of an era. I loved the obituary in the Telegraph with this anecdote: "She was famous for having chanted as a child, in moments of distress: “One day he’ll come along, the Duke I love.”" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11118801/Dowager-Duchess-of-Devonshire-obituary.html)

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    1. That picture is amazing. I believe she was good at shooting, as well as hunting. What an unimaginable life...

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  4. Moira - What a fascinating post about such an interesting family! And what especially gets my attention is that they were all so very different. Their politics, their temperaments, their lifestyles and so on were all so very different. Unusual kind of family, and I can see how they would keep your interest.

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    1. Thanks Margot. They must have seemed quite a normal family in their early days - some strange mixture of nature and nurture and genetics made them all so different.

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  5. Moira: Have watched some T.V. episodes on Chatsworth. She does not get the credit she deserves.

    Do you think the sisters became outspoken and very literate and famous because of their unconventional upbringing? They seem unique as a family of women in British society of their youth for gaining such fame. Their brother, sent to Eton, seemed to have the spirit knocked out of him, possibly by his education?

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    1. I don't think their upbringing was that odd compared with other young women of their time and society. They were chaperoned, but had freedom. They were home-educated, but that turned out well. The daughters seem to have been a constant surprise to their parents. Jessica (when under threat as a communist during the McCarthy era) says that she told her mother she might end up in jail, and her mother said 'ah well dear, I'm quite used to visiting my children in prison.'

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  6. End of an era in so many ways - thanks for the memories Moira! :)

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it Sergio - when you think of the years covered by the sisters, the range of events and changes they saw is awe-inspiring. May we all live so long....

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  7. These women are very interesting, and I am sure I would enjoy reading various books by and about them... if I could find the time. Glen did buy the book about Diana by Anne de Courcy. So at least we have one in the house. (He has not read it yet.)

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    1. Start with that one, Tracy, and see if you are intrigued.... but maybe better not! I have a shelf and a half of books by and about them...

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  8. I'd like to read Jessica Mitford's memoir if I can find it. Her books on the American Way of Death and other muckraking books can be found.
    Even the newish one containing her letters would be interesting.

    Although it may be fascinating, I don't want to read about fascists. I know enough to last a lifetime, although I'd like to see Jessica's letters, published only 8 years ago..

    If anyone ever wants to write about Edward and why he really abdicated, just say so. My mother, who was Jewish, read a lot of history and was fascinated with this. She thought that it was really because he was too close to the Nazis in Germany and so was his spouse. She showed me some history books with him wearing a German uniform.

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    1. Definitely stick to Jessica, Kathy, she will be much more to your taste. As I mention in a reply above, for the rest of their lives she would not forgive Diana for her political views, and would have nothing to do with her. Jessica's second husband was Jewish, and she would mention that in relation to Diana, but I am sure she would have found her political views totally repugnant anyway.

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  9. Moira, this is all very fascinating. I knew about the Mitford sisters but I didn't know there were so many of them or that four of them were published writers. I found Unity Mitford's pro-Nazi background particularly interesting.

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    1. It's all so odd and so unusual - I started reading about them years ago, and got completely drawn in. Partly because although we lived in the same country, nothing could be further from my own background, in all kinds of ways.

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  10. Jessica has always been my favourite Mitford too; I've just been having another look at "Hons and Rebels" (first read in my teens) and find it as funny and fascinating as ever, about both family and politics. (Teenage Jessica accuses her mother of being an Enemy of the Working Class and finds her "genuinely stung"; "I'm not an enemy of the working class! I think some of them are perfectly sweet!")

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    1. Yes, it's a charming book isn't it - and although so very specific to a time and place and social stratum, I think it can still resonate with everyone. The boredom of life, the parents who don't understand, the annoying comments from Mum...

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  11. Always been interested in them. As a child on the Isle of Mull I dreamed of owning an island just off it, Inch Kenneth, which I later learnt had been their Highland holiday home. The nearest mainland town, Oban - where I now live - was where Unity died, in the old hospital. Apparently she gifted her Nazi armband to an old farmer on Mull my father knew, although he never told my father anything about it - maybe he burnt it! Her name's rather ironic. But my favourite is the controversial, beautiful, Diana.

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    1. Oh that's so interesting - I remember reading a lot about the house on Inch Kenneth, and always imagining it as a cosy cottage. Then I saw a picture of it - not small, not cosy, definitely upmarket. I think the mother must have been a very interesting character too....

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  12. I wonder what factors led Jessica to separate from the pack, even as a teenager. What influenced her to reject the family's right-wing views?

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    1. I don't know - I think there was a tiny element of just being different from everyone else, but it was obviously more than that. She writes so passionately about human rights & civil rights, but when she talks about herself she takes a light tone, so it's hard to tell what set her off.

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