Sisterhood

It’s been a while since I mentioned the Mitford Sisters in any meaningful way. I was intending, last year, to make them the subject of my first solo stand-up show at the Edinburgh Fringe, but the recession altered my plans, and by the time I was making plans to go up this year, Secret Dancing had eclipsed them somewhat. This is not to say I mightn’t one day expand the 20-minute Mitfords set I worked up for Robin Ince’s School For Gifted Children back in 2008, when I was in the first flush of my Mitfords obsession. (It’s still available as a podcast, number 65a on iTunes, recorded at a Collings & Herrin gig in Brighton.) I made some overtures at Radio 4 about getting a documentary off the ground about my unprecedented love for five dead aristocrats and one alive one – working title: I ♥ The Mitford Sisters – but it came to nothing. Then the news that a Mitfords-based sitcom was already in development put me off further. (I was even drafted in as a possible co-writer/script editor on this project by the production company who had it in development, but nothing came of that either. I thought it was a brilliant idea, but I couldn’t really see BBC3 commissioning a sitcom set in the 1930s.)

Anyway, the imminent publication, and current promotion of Deborah Cavendish née Devonshire née Mitford’s belated memoir Wait For Me has put the sisters back in the spotlight. Debo is 90 and entirely with it; a game old girl. At the height of my obsession, I felt it was my sole purpose to meet her before she died. That was why I wanted to make a documentary about the Mitfords: to afford myself the excuse, and the official hook. Maybe I should reignite my own passion, and put that quest back on the agenda.

By the way, this may have gone by the time you look, it being Wikipedia, but as you may be able to see above, I have been added to the Mitford Sisters entry. It doesn’t exactly read like vandalism, but a citation is definitely needed. Perhaps somebody could cite this blog entry. I was asked on Twitter, as I am routinely asked, which is the best book about the Mitford Sisters to start with. So I have decided to republish my own Mitfords reading guide, which I wrote last year, and still stands.

1. The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters
Edited by Charlotte Mosley

The first Mitfords book I read (when it first came out in paperback in 2008), and the one that started the Mitfords ball rolling. This is why I recommend it to any other virgin: the letters span a century, from Nancy’s earliest efforts as a gel to the final fax sent by Diana to Debo just before she died in 2003. The symbols used to mark the sender of each letter – swastika (Unity), moon (Diana), spoons (Pam, the least-known, unpublished Mitford), hammer and sickle (Jessica), quill (Nancy), crown (future Duchess of Devonshire, Debo) – are what sucked me in. It just struck me that the Mitfords really were extraordinarily interesting, and all so different. You really get their voices this way, too. Mosley, who is related to the Mitford line by marriage, is the estate’s de facto official archivist and gives good biographical detail before each chapter. If you’re not in love with them by the time second youngest Jessica gets hold of the notepaper, you never will be.

2. The Mitford Girls
Mary S Lovell

By far the best straightforward biography of the whole lot of them. If the letters have pulled you in and you have no wish to get out, this is the best all-round book.

3. Unity Mitford: A Quest
David Pryce-Jones

You may wish now to home in on your favourites. I put this relentless, almost forensic biography of Unity (the Hitler groupie who shot herself in the head when war broke out and died in 1948, a sad shell of a woman) at the top of the pile because it’s packed with so much detail – too much, at times – you get a pretty complete picture of the most misunderstood of all the Sisters. The original secondhand edition I have of this features of photograph of Diana on the cover – surely one of the greatest publishing cock-ups of the century!

4. Diana Mosley
Anne de Courcy

Much harder to like than, say, Decca or Debo, Diana’s story is nonetheless fascinating and well told by de Courcy – you’ll be amazed at the way a woman so intelligent and vivacious allowed herself to be absorbed into the life and work of her second husband Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. She was so devoted to him. On her deathbed she refused to condemn Hitler. Imagine being her son, Max.

5. Love From Nancy: The Letters Of Nancy Mitford
Edited by Charlotte Mosley

Because Nancy was the most famous Sister, a bestselling novelist at 30 despite never have been to school, it’s a joy to see her acid tongue and way with words develop from girlhood. She was a right bitch, at times – or a tease, if you prefer – and apparently always ended her letters at the bottom of a page. The footnotes are sometimes longer than the letters.

6. Decca: The Letters Of Jessica Mitford
Edited by Peter Y. Sussman

My favourite Mitford, in that her politics are closest to mine, and what a natural wit. The “red sheep”, she exiled herself from the family, eloping with second cousin Esmond Romilly to the Spanish Civil War, then living in a slum in Rotherhithe, and ending up in America, running a cocktail bar in Florida, joining the Communist party, and turning herself into an investigative journalist. (She married the civil rights activist Robert Treuhaft after Romilly was killed in the war.) Unlike the others, she did a day’s work.

7. Hons And Rebels
Jessica Mitford

A must. No-holds-barred memoir of the sisters’ early years, brilliantly told by Decca. There’s a follow-up, too, A Fine Old Conflict. Hons and Rebels is the most quoted in all the other books, as Decca’s quips are so spare and unsparing.

8. The House Of Mitford
Jonathan Guinness with Catherine Guinness

Test your Mitford obsession: you’ve read one book about the family, but can’t stop yourself buying another one when you happen upon it in a bookshop in Dublin, even though it may affect the weight of your luggage on the flight home. The Guinnesses are also related to the Mitfords (he’s the son of Diana and her first husband, Bryan Guinness, whom she cruelly and publicly cuckolded, without much complaint from the stout heir). More here on the earlier Mitford relatives.

9. Rules Of The Game/Beyond The Pale
Nicholas Mosley

Gripping, and entirely personal, account of the life of Oswald Mosley, by his son. The first book covers his first marriage to the tragic Cynthia, the second his marriage to Diana Mitford, their dalliances with the Nazis (they were secretly married at the house of Josef Goebbels, naturally), their internment at the start of the war, and their attempt to lead a normal life after that. Mosley is a larger than life character – you couldn’t make him up – and infuriating, but Nicholas’s honesty from the son’s point of view gives the writing real heart. Highly recommended, if you can handle all the jackbooting.

10. Noblesse Oblige
Edited by Nancy Mitford

You’ll have to seek this one out in secondhand shops, but look how beautiful the original Penguin editions is! A slim curio, it’s a collection of essays from 1956 about class, of which Nancy’s own on “U and Non-U” is the keystone.

Then there’s the fictional work of Nancy, most famously the post-war Love In A Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, which are handsomely packaged. She basically recycled her home life and created vicious but amusing social satire, on a par with her friend Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (which, of course, she didn’t rate much), it’s all Bright Young Things and the shifting sands of social progress. Frankly, a working knowledge of the Mitfords’ background is really handy for seeing where she’s coming from.

And The Pursuit Of Laughter by Diana Mosley, by which point we’re into non-essentials for completist fools only. A collection of Fascist Spice’s writings. I bought this in hardback and have yet to read it. Debo, the youngest and still alive, has also written many books about Chatsworth House, but I admit I have not read them. It’s always good to have something in reserve when you have gone nuts.

Over the past two years I have invested in all the books listed here, and more, new and secondhand, depending on whether or not they’re in print. There really isn’t enough I can learn about the Sisters. And once you’re into the mindset and the period, you can move sideways to confidants James Lees-Milne and Evelyn Waugh. I have tried to contact Charlotte Mosley via her publishers, HarperPerennial, but have heard nothing back*. I just want to tell her how her Letters changed my life! (And let them know how much publicity I have been doing for this book, unpaid.)

*They continued to ignore me after two emails. Well done, that press office!

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5 thoughts on “Sisterhood

  1. Just to say thanks – I read your original posting of these books and it set me off into the whole world of the Mitfords, Waugh and the Bright Young Things, which had eluded me until that point. I just finished Paula Byrne’s book about Evelyn Waugh in which at least one Mitford sister gets a passing reference, but I suspect I’m more focused on the era as a whole rather than the single family so I don’t know whether it’s up your street. But it’s a good read if you’ve not seen it.

    • Thanks, Andrew. Read the extract from Debo’s book in the Sunday Times at the weekend which reignited an old interest in the Mitfords and now you’ve provided this perfect reading list for me to get my teeth into. It’s like being back at school. But fun. And with a cooler teacher.

  2. I got into the Mitford story the year Diana died – I remember reading her obituary while waiting for a train at the Gare du Lyon and then going straight home and buying Mary S Lovell’s book. Anyway, went off them for a few years, having read everything I could lay my hands on (and, I must admit, mimicking them both sartorially and verbally) until my friend gave me this:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Letters-Nancy-Mitford-Evelyn-Waugh/dp/0340638052

    which has fired up my interest all over again. It’s so brilliantly edited that you really do get a sense of a conversation, whereas I found other Letters books a little bit hard to follow.

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