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May 3, 2011

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family

Even if the six daughters, born between 1904 and 1920, of the charming, eccentric David, Lord Redesdale, and his wife Sydney had been quite ordinary women, the span of their lives - encompassing the most traumatic century in Britain's history - and the status to which they were born, would have have made their story a fascinating one. But Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Decca and Debo, were, and are, far from ordinary.

The Mitfords' unconventional childhood and adolescence, growing up in a rambling country manor, deprived of formal education and at the mercy of their father's titanic rages and obsessions, has long been immortalised in Nancy's masterly comedies of aristocratic manners, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. The girls' lives were the stuff of headlines. Nancy, the merciless tease turned brilliant, subversive novelist; Diana, the most beautiful woman of her generation, reviled for her abandonment of her gilded marriage and hated and imprisoned for her love of Oswald Mosely; rebellious Decca, who eloped at nineteen to the Spanish Civil War with Churchill's communist nephew and went on to become a ground-breaking civil rights campaigner; sweet Debo who became Duchess of Devonshire and chatelaine of Chatsworth; even feminine, domesticated Pamela, known as 'Woman', was enough of a Mitford to have John Betjman at her feet and her Raeburn stove painted blue to match her eyes. And at their dark heart, beloved but unstable Unity, in love with Hitler and obsessed with Nazism, who shot herself as war was declared.

In The Mitford Girls, Mary Lovell's extensive research traces the development of each of these remarkable women from the nursery to maturity, recording the terrible losses they suffered and the rifts that opened between them; uncovering often uncomfortable details of their politics and personalities and revealing the truth to be more complicated, but no less extraordinary than Nancy's fiction.

This is not a review, as I sadly have not read the book yet but it came via Paperbackswap and I cannot wait to get to it. I read Bess of Hardwick by the same author and I enjoyed it so much that Bess became a sort of heroine of mine. And what a life these Mitford sisters have had! Many of us may have heard of them, as I have, but I never truly knew who they were and what they stood for. And one of those sisters, Diana, was anti-semitic but don't let that horrific fact deter you from the total story. And will we ever have the total story? It seems like I will have a lot to learn about these girls who had style and presence, who had outspoken views on politics.

In my quest for google-like knowledge, I found this charming little spot on NY Times which dictates some letters between Nancy Mitford and a dear friend, Evelyn Waugh. How quaint! Yet, underneath the talk of books and general gossip, there were air raids nightly thanks to World War II. Jessica was a communist, Diana was a gorgeous woman who cheated and was universally disliked, even by her sisters, Debo was a Duchess of Devonshire, Pamela was another anti-semite, Nancy was a popular writer and Unity idolized Hitler.

Interestingly enough, Chatsworth House was the scene of my first blog headers. Chatsworth has origins with Bess of Hardwick, Pride and Prejudice, and Deborah (a Mitford girl) Duchess of Devonshire.