As is well known, I love the Mitford Sisters. (This picture, of course, only shows five of them.) So many people now ask me which Mitford Sisters book is the best place to start, and having blogged about it at length twice, I thought I’d do a public service and put them in some kind of useful order on a permanent blog page easily accessed without trawling the archives. Start from the top and work down, is my advice.
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 The symbols used to mark the sender of each letter – swastika (Unity), moon (Diana), spoons (Pam, the least-known, unpublished Mitford), hammer and sickle (Jessica), quill (Nancy), crown (future Duchess of Devonshire, Debo) – are what sucked me in.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 Jesscia gets hold of the notepaper, you never will be.
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.
Unity Mitford: A Quest
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!
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.
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.
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.
Hons And Rebels
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.
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.
Rules Of The Game/Beyond The Pale
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.
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.
Wait For Me!
Newest Mitford memoir, from the last of the gang to die, Debo. Charmingly written, and sheds fresh light on their growing-up years, cutting through a lot of the mythology surrounding the parents. However, you’re going to have to wade through a lot of daily life at Chatsworth in the latter chapters. An amazing woman – I actually harboured the hope of meeting her – but it gets a little repetitive when it’s all about state visits and big banquets.
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.
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 has also written other 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 couple of 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 once tried to contact Charlotte Mosley via her publishers, HarperPerennial, but heard nothing back*. I just wanted 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 were still ignoring me when I first wrote this is 2008 after two emails. Well done, that press office!
I hope this answers any questions from the back. Read the one at the top of you’ll soon be using the Mitford catchphrase, “Do admit.”
I have read nearly all of these (having also started with the letters) but am now inspired to seek out the rest. For the record, Decca is mah favourite Mitford sister and her book on the American funeral industry is ace.
Ooh, interesting! Love the Mitfords. I would start with the Lovell then the letters, but maybe that’s just because that’s the way round I did it.
I’d also put The Pursuit of Love, Decca and Hons and Rebels much higher up. (In fact, I wrote my own guide a couple of years ago: http://keris.typepad.com/books/2009/08/reading-the-mitfords.html)
I was sent The Pursuit of Laughter for review a few years ago and couldn’t get through it — the whitewashing of her fascist background stuck in my craw.
I am looking forward to reading Wait For Me, though I’ve read Debo’s Counting My Chickens and her letters with Patrick Leigh Fermour, but this sounds more comprehensive.
Have you read The American Way of Death? It’s been recommend to me, but I’m a bit afraid of the gory details.
Hi Andrew don’t know if you would be interested in this event coming up at Chesterfield Library on 23rd June at 2.30pm
Deborah Devonshire will be talking to Simon Seligman about her recent memoir “Wait for Me!”
A rare opportunity to hear the youngest of the Mitford sisters discuss her life, family and Chatsworth.
Tickets £5.00 including refreshments from Chesterfield Library Help Desk 01629 533400.
I teach a module where I contrast the lives of the Mitford Sisters particularly Diana & Unity with the Frank sisters, Anne & Margot. My students find it fascinating at the diversity of their lives and how one person’s ideology can result in the downfall of another. I’ve had an offer to develop this into a screenplay that I’m working on called ‘Eight sisters’.
That’s fascinating stuff, Elizabeth, although I confess: I know less about the Frank sisters. I need to come and do your course!
You most likely know this already but I saw it and thought of you:
The Swan Inn in Oxfordshire is owned by the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who is the last surviving Mitford sister. Have you been there?
I haven’t, no. Sounds lovely.
I know that you visited the west coast of Scotland in your youth, but have you ever visited/heard of the island of Inch Kenneth, final home of Unity Mitford?
Apart from being an illustrator I also do a bit of work for Historic Scotland, which means I get to go to some fantastic, out of the way places up here.
Inch Kenneth is next on my list!
I’ll get you a souvenir (perhaps I shouldn’t have written that down).
All Mitford Sisters fans know of Inch Kenneth. (Somebody I know actually texted me from there once. I was jealous.) Enjoy your visit.
Hi Andrew – I read Letters Between Six Sisters after listening to you talk about it on the podcast and have since become a fully signed up Mitford fangirl.
Decca is the best of course and I stumbled across copies of Fine Old Conflict and An American Way of Death and Makings of a Muckraker in second hand book shops which I was pretty pleased with.
Currently ploughing my way through the Unity Mitford book – agree that the detail is a bit much – have no idea who anyone is and the dates seem to leap about as does whether we are in Pryce jones narrative or direct quotations. i can’t decide whether to take a lot of it with a pinch of salt as the other Mitfords (cept Decca) were so against the book – it does seem a bit rich that Hitler was merrily telling her everything in the hope she’d pass it back to Chamberlain but there you go.
I’d be interested to know what you thought about the Diana bias in the House of Mitford. I let out some rather outraged squacks of protest partic towards the end – I know it was written by her son and grandaughter but really!
Anyway – i really just wanted to say thanks for introducing me to the Mitfords and providing my husband with guaranteed easy birthday gifts for years to come – so long as the mitford industry keeps rolling : )
Andrew, what first drew you in to the Mitford world? Are they iconic Brits? (If you’ve already blogged about this could you direct me to that post?)
I haven’t blogged about it specifically. But I mentioned in ‘Admit One’ that it was a combination of a TV documentary and the Letters Between Six Sisters books that drew me to them. I was dimly aware of “the Mitford sisters” as a phenomenon. They were quite the sensation in the 1930s. As aristocratic girls they “came out” at coming-out balls, a faintly ludicrous ritual whereby the ruling classes introduce their daughters into society so as to advertise their marital availability to the right buyer. Because Nancy became a published novelist in her twenties (her first book, Highland Fling, was published in 1931), it drew a spotlight onto her siblings. When Unity became “Hitler’s girl” and Diana married British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley in 1936, their combined fate as media fodder was enshrined. I came to the legend late, but their iconic status remains undimmed. If anything, it’s burnished by time. The more they seem to represent a bygone age, the most fascinating they become.
I really recommend the diaries of James Lees Milne. He is an excellent diarist, gives you a great overview of the period of time when the Mitfords flourished and he interacts with them socially enough to give you what is missing from their correspondence and memoirs, which is how others saw them. I got interested in reading his diaries when Diana referenced them in a letter. He’s mentioned as a good friend by Diana, Nancy and Debo but his diaries make clear that he disapproved of Diana and was cautious about being seen with her and he thought Nancy was a real witch (with a B) but that Debo was a very close friend. Her kindness to him in the last years of his life were clearly a lifesaver. I warn you that you will expand your Mit-Mania to Milne-Mania if you read his diaries, but you really won’t regret it.
The photo in your masthead reminded again of what a handsome family they were.
Had no idea there were so many books. I read “The House of Mitford” years ago. Need to read more.
Hello, I’ve just become obsessed with the sisters after reading The Mitford Girls. It’s a long shot, but I’m trying to get hold of a 1980 BBC film called Nancy: A portrait by her sisters. I can’t find it! There’s loads of footage of the remaining sisters (from the time) on it. Just wondering if you’ve seen or heard of it??
I saw this amazing film at the BFI last year and blogged about it.
Coming into this conversation very late: but was wondering if there is significant / any footage of the Mitford sisters from their young days in either of these films? I’m working on a fashion project and particularly interested in their style. I can find loads of photos but can’t fine ANY actual footage of them from their younger days! Thanks
Hey- coming into this conversation very late… but did you ever manage to get hold of this film??
It’s on youtube now – search for ‘Nancy Mitford: A Portrait by Her Sisters ‘. Sadly I can’t find ‘Jessica Mitford: The Honorable Rebel’ anywhere. I would love to see that.
OK, I surrender. “The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters” has arrived. Of this stuff cures my compulsion to rob banks, it will well be worth the money spent on the Letters. Which of the six sisters robbed banks? I need pointers. All six? You don’t say?!
Does anybody have a copy of Unity Mitfords. I recently acquired an original copy of the official program for the 1937 Party Rally in September. with the name of Unity Walkure Mitford written on the inside of the covet ? I am trying to authenticate the signature.L Donaldson
I have Unity Mitford: A Quest in a very unfortunate ‘Sven Hassel’ like ripped cover. I felt a bit suspect carrying that on the tube. I love Luke Haines’ take on the Mitfords. A mighty strange bunch, all flowing through the 20th century on different paths.
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