The Mitford Sisters

Does every reader go through a Mitford phase?  There is a heady combination of ‘upper classishness’, political extremism, rebellion and style in their lives and writing.   Unity is in love with Hitler, Diana marries Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and Jessica is off with her young lover to fight the fascists in Spain – and look, there on the side, it’s the beautiful Jessica writing her brilliant novels.

If you haven’t yet had your Mitford phase, then here are three Mitford recommendations from me: The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell, Hons & Rebels by Jessica Mitford and Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford.

The Mitford Sisters – memoir, novel, biography and letters

Lovell’s The Mitford Girls is a definitive biography of all the sisters and particularly good on the impact of the arrival of the Second World War on the sisters.    Jessica ‘Decca’ Mitfords’ Hons & Rebels is autobiography, a brilliant companion piece to The Mitford Girls.   She tells of how the sisters came to diverge politically, her self-taught socialism and talks very movingly of her complicated relationship with Unity.  What also shines from Hons & Rebels is Decca’s adoration of Esmond, her young husband.

Even our best friends…. had for us an almost two-dimensional quality, for more and more we only really minded about each other.   Perhaps most young lovers share in common to some degree this feeling of oneness, of having “eyes only for each other”; certainly literature of all countries and ages in full of such references.  In our case, we had more reason than most to feel bound to one another in a way that excluded people around us.  Estrangement for our families, the circumstances of our marriage, our constant wanderings about, the death of a baby, all had conspired to wed us into a self-sufficient unit, a conspiracy of two against the world.

The only area of my life which I could not share with Esmond was my attachment to Boud [Unity].  Perversely, and although I hated everything she stood for, she was easily my favourite sister, which was something I could never have admitted in those days, above all to Esmond.

I cherish The Pursuit of Love and Love In A Cold Climate, but I have chosen Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green for the final novel in this trio of books on a Mitford theme.    Wigs on the Green is a merciless satire, telling the story of the rich and aristocratic Eugenia Malians and her ardent support of Captain Jack and the Union Jackshirts.  Based on her sisters’ Unity and Diana’s admiration of Fascism, and Diana’s relationship and marriage to Oswald Mosley, the book (understandably!) caused a rift between the sisters and was out of print for many years as a consequence.

Why do a keep on buying books of letters?  Last week I bought the Letters of Sylvia Plath inspired by a reading at the Southbank Centre. It is a very large book. The letters are brilliant. I will never read them. Same with The Mitfords – Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley. I own it.  It might be really good.  I will never know…

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