28th Nov 2012
In Praise Of: The Mitford Sisters
Their stories sound like works of fiction; Nancy was a writer and socialite, Pam reared hens, Diana the beauty left her first husband for Oswald Mosley, Unity (born in the Alaskan town of Swastika) was in love with Hitler, Jessica was a communist who later became a fighter for civil rights and whose journalism exposed the corruption of the American funeral system and Deborah became a Duchess.
There are so many books written about and by the Mitford sisters, and reading about them soon can become an obsession. I devoured their biography The Mitford Girls by Mary S Lovell (whose later work on Bess of Hardwick is also a treat) and would recommend that as a good starting point.
The sisters knew practically anyone of importance from 1930-60, from the Kennedy’s to Christian Dior, so even as a social history this book is fascinating, easy to read, and fun, although the parts that describe Diana and Unity’s politics may be a little hard to digest.
I’d also recommend reading Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley, which cover all six of the Mitford women’s letters to each other until Diana’s death in 2003. The letters are incredibly witty, laugh out loud funny in places, and so very sad in others, especially in describing the attempted suicide and later death of Unity – the family clinging together to support a sister whose actions could seem so utterly unsupportable is touching to say the least.
You will find yourself speaking like an upper class dahling afterward though, so beware!
If the letters suit your taste, you could also try The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, again edited by Charlotte Mosley, which show further incites into the life of an upper class socialite, especially living on the continent. Nancy’s books, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate being her most famous and best, are again witty and brilliant, if a trifle silly in places.
Deborah Devonshire, the youngest Mitford who ended up living as a Duchess in Chatsworth, was also a great letter writer, and her volume of letters between herself and Patrick Leigh Fermor, show upper class life in the 1960s off to a treat, from stag hunting to the restoration of Chatsworth house. Deborah has also written several volumes of memoir, the latest of which, Wait For Me, was published in 2010.
My favourite Mitford is obviously Jessica the Communist. Her memoir of her highly eccentric upbringing, Hons and Rebels, is a real treat. It is however her expose of the American funeral industry that I love her most for, The American Way of Death, first published in 1963 and updated just before her death in 1996, showed how the expense of funerals was completely unnecessary.
Although the descriptions of embalming might not be for the squeamish, or recently bereaved, this is a fantastic piece of investigative journalism brilliantly written, and a classic.
The Mitfords might have dominated the headlines with their antics, but their legacy is a fascinating one that any book lover should relish. If you are looking for a new obsession, I highly recommend them!
Have you read any of these high class exploits? Which are your favourite, and which are next on your wishlist?
Image via Wikipedia