The Mitford sisters: three ‘good reads’

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.

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The Mitford Sisters – memoir, novel, biography and letters

Lovell’s The Mitford’s Girls is a definitive biography of all the sisters and is 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’s 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.

From Hons & Rebels by Jessica Mitford (p209)

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.

So with a focus on their politics, my three companion pieces on the Mitford theme:

  • The Mitford’s Girls – Mary S. Lovell
  • Wigs on the Green – Nancy Mitford
  • Hons & Rebels – Jessica Mitford

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…

Can you recommend something to read?

I am addicted to BBC Radio 4’s A Good Read.   I listen to Harriet Gilbert and guests in back to back episodes, pausing on my commute or interrupting my weekend potter to note down a particular novel, memoir or anthology.    My bedside table strains under the weight of recommended reads.

Piles of books
The current bedside table reading pile

One of Harriet Gilbert’s good reads was Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing.  It might feel a little circular (A Good Read recommends a book from an author reading and recommending other authors) but it got me thinking about the three books that have inspired me to read more widely, which were also a good read in their own right.

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Notes on book recommendations from Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing

For me the hero of the piece is Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree.   It’s the first in a series of anthologies of his writing (and reading) for Believer magazine.   There is only one book in the series where it feels like he has wearied of the venture, but even then I enjoyed his exasperation at spending so much time recommending books when he could be writing ‘real’ literature.  Sadly, I can’t remember which one, and I’m not willing to reread them all to identify the ‘bad’ one.    Anyway, its not The Polysyllabic Spree or Shakespeare Wrote for Money so tuck into those two.  Hornby’s reading is hugely varied and he (generally) only writes about books he has enjoyed so it’s a pleasure to enter his reading world.

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Nick Hornby’s reading list from The Polysyllabic Spree in April 2004

Susan’s Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing is more memoir.  She spends a year reading only the books found in her home and ruminates on her literary influences and preferences.   Of the three books it was from Hill’s memoir that I personally discovered the most new authors as her choices were, on the whole, slightly more obscure works.  Hill recently followed up this memoir with Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, which is more a diary of scattered bookish thoughts than memoir.

And if you think it’s a cheat that two of my three book recommendation companion pieces come from Nick Hornsby, then you should replace one with Andy Miller’s A Year of Reading Dangerously.  The book title is still a complete mystery to me, but similar to Hill, Miller set himself a reading challenge for one year.  His focus is on how reading the great novels from his ‘List of Betterment’ can bring wonder into his dreary life.   Both books end with a definitive list of books to read in a year (or a lifetime).

The key difference is that while Susan Hill is firmly ensconced in the literary world and her memoir is full of sketches and anecdotes of literary figures, Miller’s challenge relates more to mastering the classics and creating a reading habit.   Funny and inspiring, I’ve just added Miller’s book back to my bedside pile to read again soon.

And do these books work?   Yes.  Here are the books I can remember reading based on Hill, Hornby and Miller’s recommendations:

  • A Writer’s Diary – Virginia Woolf
  • The Blue Flower – Penelope Fitzgerald
  • The Wrector’s Daughter – F. M. Mayer
  • Skellig – David Almond
  • The Rights of the Reader – Daniel Penance
  • Poppy Shakespeare – Clare Allen
  • The Diary of a Nobody – George & Wheedon Grossmith
  • Weetzie Bat – Francesca Lia Block
  • Little Children – Tom Perrotta

A Good Read, Book Recommendations