Mary S. Lovell’s sixth publication reads like a labour of love. Her subjects are a biographer’s dream. She must have been inundated with material for this thoroughly researched work. The big decision must have been just what to include and what to leave out as the Mitford sisters have generated so much print over the decades.
It would be a big enough job for a biographer to focus on one of the sisters but Lovell here tackles all six, not entirely forgetting brother Tom, the third of the seven children. Read any account of British history of the period and at least one Mitford is likely to appear, even if on the sidelines, particularly anything which examines the upper classes of the first half of the twentieth century. In fiction too, their influence can be felt as inspiration for characters in many novels as well as directly influencing English Literature through Nancy’s highly regarded novels published from the mid 1930s to early 1960s.
I didn’t know a huge amount about them and was never sure who was who. (I haven’t read any of Nancy’s novels but intend to). Six attractive high society girls (their father was Baron Redesdale) who between them spanned the whole range of political beliefs. Nancy (1904-73) became a novelist known for her autobiographically based novels and waspish humour; Pamela (1907-94) was the most sedate of the bunch who lived a more rural-based life; Diana (1910- 2003) who became one of the country’s most notorious women when she fell in love with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascists; Unity (1914-48) who arose stronger feelings in the popular press through her friendship with Hitler; Jessica (1917-96) who, at the other end of the spectrum, became a radical Communist and Deborah (1920-2014) who became the Duchess of Devonshire and regenerated Chatsworth House.
The Mitford Sisters
Admittedly, it does take a while to get the girls sorted out one from another in their younger days but things become certainly clarified in the years leading up to World War II. It is extraordinary that these six girls came from the same privileged family. Lovell’s approach is largely non-judgemental which can seem a little odd but is probably the best way to deal with six such disparate characters. In fact there are seven as we must count their mother Sydney (1840-1963) who manages to keep things together but must have been driven mad by the unpredictable antics of her daughters.
It has been 17 years since this book’s publication and now none of the sisters are with us (Diana and Deborah were both alive in 2001) maybe a new updated edition would make this work seem complete. Since writing this the author has focused upon another major family of the period and relatives of the Mitfords- “The Churchills” (2011). Her latest work (2017) focuses on the high society who frolicked at Cannes in 1920-60.
Reading this fascinating biography has given me a taste for the fiction of this period – I must read Nancy Mitford and work my way once again through Evelyn Waugh at the very least. This, however, is a tale of a family which is stranger than fiction and Mary S. Lovell does a great job at bringing these women to life.
The Mitford Girls was published by Abacus in 2001.