A few years ago, I read The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell – mostly because The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford are two of my most re-read books. I wrote this about it when I read it:
This has to be one of the most enjoyable biographies I have read for a long time. Although it’s not a short book, it makes easy reading, written as it is in Mary Lovell’s delightful style that is strongly reminiscent of Nancy Mitford’s books. If you know her books, you’ll love it for the insight into her life behind the books, particularly the girls’ fascinating childhood; if you don’t you’ll be intrigued by the ups and downs of the family fortunes and their friendships with notable figures from Hitler to the Kennedys. This book is not just a biography of a famous and remarkable family, it is also a panoramic view of the history of the last century. Whatever happened, a Mitford was there – the war (both in Germany and Britain), the Communist movement, and so much more.Reading biography is almost as much an art as writing one, in the way each reader relates personally to the characters with whom they become intellectually involved, and in the reading of this book it is easy to become very involved indeed and, unlike many biographies, it does not seem to fade away towards the end; Mary Lovell’s writing retains our interest right until the close.
So, at Easter this year I commenced reading The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley, while I was on holiday. A word of advice: for goodness’ sake read the paperback. I started this in March; I finished it yesterday. The only other book that’s taken me that long to read is The Golden Notebook – but that’s another story… Anyway, the problem is that the hardback Mitford letters is so heavy that my usual reading-places – the bath and the bus – are out, so I got through it reading about ten letters a night in bed. But I have to say, it’s been worth the slog! Sometimes reading editions of letters is about as exciting as reading a shopping list, so I’ve been trying to work out why this one kept me interested. Well, as the review above notes, they did know everyone, which is interesting in itself. More, though, it’s their acerbic wit – no qualms about being rude, about others or to each other. I loved their names for everyone (the Queen Mother is Cake, because of a comment she made about a cake); and the little anecdotes they tell each other, very amusingly (such as Roy Hattersely’s teeth falling out in the middle of lunch).
The book is highly entertaining; but it’s more than that. For one thing, as an only child I just don’t understand sibling relationships, so for me it was an interesting insight into the wildly differing relationships they had with each other. The letters are also very telling in their frank, sensible way of discussing marriage, children, society dinners and the trials of old age – the latter being particularly moving, especially as the sisters die. Another intriguing aspect was their concern – particularly Deborah, Diana and Jessica – for their public face – the books they wrote and that were written about them, and their desire to protect the memory of their parents and sister Unity.
The letters are sensitively edited (Charlotte Moseley is Diana Mitford’s daughter-in-law), with footnotes explaining in-jokes or obscure references, and the volume is also indexed, which must have been a labour of love. It’s well worth reading – it just shouldn’t take three months to do so!
Hi, Serena, Just discovered your great blog via this post, which evokes so many questions and opinions for this mad Mitford fan:
*The sisters are like Zelig, aren’t they, in their mid-20th-century omnipresence?
*Don’t you find “Pursuit of Love” so much more engaging than the sequel?
*Have you read Nancy’s correspondence with Waugh? Outdoing each other in acerbity (but also affection, too). I even tracked down her treatise on class in “Noblesse Oblige,” the book that gave us U and Non-U. Disappointingly dry, I’m afraid.
*I’m floored by the dispassionate frankness with which Mitford kin — like Diana’s daughter-in-law, Charlotte, and also Charlotte’s half-brother-in-law, Diana’s son Jonathan Guinness — chronicled the sisters’ lives.
*The sisters are pretty open themselves about it all! Jessica Mitford’s “Hons and Rebels” is insightful on class and its attitudes, but also a hilarious portrait with echoes of “Pursuit.” I’m sure I’m not alone in confusing her real (or slightly embellished?) Farve stories with Nancy’s fictional “Uncle Matthew.”
*More great Mitford nicknames: Woman for sister Pamela, Bobo for Unity, and Honks for Diana. “Farve,” their father, was also the Old Sub-Human. And Diana Mosley flippantly called the disgraced Duke of Windsor — her friend — “the Dook.”
I write about the Mitfords as often as I can get away with it on my blog, AngloFiles.com, so visit and tell me what you think!
Hi Mandy, I’m always glad to find another Mitfords fan! My parents gave me a beautiful Folio Society edition of The Pursuit of Love when I was 14 and I’ve been hooked ever since. As you say, it’s amazing how they knew absolutely everyone, and also how much time they all spent writing – books, letters etc – it’s wonderful that we have such a record of their lives and times. I’ve not read Nancy’s letters to Waugh – I must do, I can imagine that would be fascinating (and I’ve always been interested in Waugh, too). I love their nicknames – but I still think that Cake for the Queen Mother is the best! Thanks for your comments, it’s good to hear what you think, and I’ll certainly have a look at your blog.