The six daughters of the 2nd Lord Redesdale were born between 1904 and 1920, and their lives whether short or long have come to emulate much of the twentieth century''s brightest and darkest periods. Laura Thompson''s joint biography of the sisters focuses on their lives as...
The six daughters of the 2nd Lord Redesdale were born between 1904 and 1920, and their lives whether short or long have come to emulate much of the twentieth century''s brightest and darkest periods. Laura Thompson''s joint biography of the sisters focuses on their lives as part of one family that was sometimes loving, often in conflict, and always eccentric. The timeframe runs roughly from the marriage of their parents (but including some necessary preliminary background) to the death of their widowed mother in 1963, with an Afterwards summarizing the sisters'' later years.
The Mitford Girls in order of birth were Nancy, a highly successful novelist and historian; Pamela, who quietly suffered the aftereffects of polio and possibly some learning disabilities, leading a quiet rural life for the most part; glamorous Diana, who made a glittering Society wedding at 18 and then left her husband for Sir Oswald Mosley and Fascism; Unity, so enamored of Hitler and Nazism that she became notorious in her early twenties, then died from the after effects of a botched suicide attempt in 1948; Jessica the Communist, a rebel who abandoned her parents and sisters and eventually became a notable muckraking journalist in the United States; and Deborah, who married a man who became Duke of Devonshire, making her the chatelaine of one of the grandest private houses in England.
The six girls, along with their beloved only brother Tom (who was killed at the end of World War II) had an aristocratic but eccentric upbringing. Their father inherited a sizeable estate but lost nearly all of it to bad management and bad luck, while their mother was notably detached from her husband and children even by Edwardian standards. Uneducated except for governesses and some short periods in private schools here and there, they fed their sharp minds in an excellent family library and picked up more knowledge through travel and from their large circle of friends. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s the Mitfords seemed to know everyone who was anyone, not only in British Society but in the government (Winston Churchill''s wife was Lord Redesdale''s cousin). Through Sir Oswald Mosley Diana made contact with Hitler and other German leaders, while Unity basically stalked the Fuhrer and inveigled her way into his inner circle. Jessica''s writing career made her well known throughout Europe and the US, and Deborah''s husband''s connections allowed her to claim John F. Kennedy, among others, as a relative.
Thompson does a good job depicting not just the glitter and humor in the sisters'' lives but the sadnesses as well. There was a long line of abandoned husbands and lovers, some children who were miscarried or died in childhood. Infamy as well as fame stalked the Mitfords. Diana spent years in prison as a possible security risk during World War II, and Jessica was shadowed by the FBI for years during the 1950s. Family arguments and political differences meant Jessica and Diana never met or spoke for decades. I felt that Thompson was a little too eager to explain away or downplay some of the less amusing aspects of the sisters'' lives: Diana''s comment in her autobiography that while the Holocaust was terrible the Jews did partly bring it on themselves, Unity''s approving tour of Dachau and her statement "I want everyone to know I am a Jew-hater," or Jessica''s remaining an active Communist Party member long after the horrors of Stalinism had become impossible to ignore. I enjoyed Thompson''s chatty tone and parenthetical asides, though Americans who aren''t Anglophiles or otherwise close followers of British news and culture might not understand some of her allusions.
Another joint biography of the Mitford sisters which has more detail, especially on the period after their parents'' deaths, is Mary Lovell''s "The Sisters". Selina Hasting''s "Nancy Mitford" and David Pryce-Jones'' biography "Unity Mitford" are also illuminating, as are Jessica Mitford''s memoirs "Hons and Rebels" (US title "Daughters and Rebels") and "A Fine Old Conflict", Deborah Duchess of Devonshire''s "Wait For Me" and Diana
Mosley''s "A Life of Contrasts." There are also several books of letters to and from the sisters edited by Diana''s daughter-in-law Charlotte Mosley as well as "Decca," a collection of Jessica''s letters edited by Peter Y. Sussman.