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.
Like many people my knowledge of the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign has been based upon what I have seen in the ITV drama series “Victoria”. There were still things that I was unsure about, namely, how the line of succession played out so that she came to the throne in the first place. For my second book in the Russian Roulette Reading Challenge at Sandown Library I pulled out of the hat “a book with a green cover” and I chose Alison Plowden’s non-fiction work because a) it had a green cover and b) I wanted to know more about the young Victoria.
Plowden’s book was written in 1981 although I read a paperback reprint from The History Press which was published in 2016. It falls firmly into the category of popular history, there are no references to get you leafing through to the back of the book, a shorter bibliography than one might imagine and an author’s note which credits especially two biographies, one from 1972 and one from back in 1964. Plowden has synthesized this information into her very readable work which suited my purposes but may frustrate the more serious historian.
It does read like a novel, especially with its characters that we know from the TV series here being fleshed out and it was a little surprising to find that the ITV drama does not deviate too far from the facts as presented here.
The characters who feature strongly in Victoria’s early years and are brought to life well by Plowden are her mother, the Duchess of Kent, whose relationship with her daughter became strained during the teenage years largely because of the influence of Sir John Conroy, who placed himself and his family close to Victoria and her mother and who the Princess came to hate. Victoria had the most time for her beloved governess Baroness Lehzen and for Dash her dog. The book ends with Victoria’s marriage to Albert but the most fascinating relationship here (as it was in the early episodes of the ITV series) is the one between the young Queen and Prime Minister and mentor Lord Melbourne with Victoria demonstrating anti-Tory tendencies in her desire to keep him in power.
I still haven’t totally got the succession to the throne bit as her grandfather had so many children that it all gets a little confusing and I could have really done with a family tree appendix to sort this all out in my head. Inexplicably, the edition I read devoted two pages at the back to completely the wrong tree, that of the House of Tudor, which has no relevance whatsoever to Victoria’s time. That is a bad mistake from The History Press that I hope was put right in subsequent editions.
Alison Plowden was best known for her non-fiction on the Tudor period so that suggests that the family tree here was intended for another of her publications. She wrote around 25 books mainly on female historical figures. She died in 2007.
Young Victoria was first published in 1981. I read the 2016 History Press edition. The History Press have republished a number of her books.
I have gaps in my historical knowledge. It’s likely that most of us educated in England would admit that. At school I studied certain periods of history (some more than once). I went on to study History at college but the eras largely overlapped with what I had done at school, leaving gaps of time about which I knew very little. And I’ll admit that my knowledge of Scottish, Welsh and Irish history is even sparser. This 500 page book is written for a young audience (although not that young, given the demands it makes on the reader, so probably early/mid-teens). It seemed to offer an ideal overview of British and Irish history. The general editor is Professor Kenneth O Morgan and it has been put together by five authors with distinguished historical backgrounds. It spans from the time when the land mass which became Britain and Ireland was still joined to looking ahead to what the new Millennium might bring. The text is generously broken up with pictures, photos, maps and diagrams.
On reading it I can confirm that it provided me with a good overview and showed me how our history fits together. Obviously, given its scope and audience it’s all rather fleeting. I can’t claim to be that more knowledgeable about the periods I knew less about (Medieval and The Georgians, for example), but what is impressive is the range of subjects covered both within the text and through the illustrations. Photos, portraits, diagrams and maps are used very effectively and they do enrich the text and can often give little snippets of information not included elsewhere. At the back there is a list of the English Royal Line Of Succession and Scottish Kings & Queens (I was largely unfamiliar with this particular list) and UK Prime Ministers up to, because of the publication of the book, John Major. Obviously, this type of book dates easily but twenty-one years on it does not seem jarring. Here, the vast scope and range of the book is to its benefit.
The index looks pretty comprehensive and this would most likely provide most readers’ introduction to the text. I’ve read it from cover to cover, but probably most would dip in and out. This is going to last me a little while, until once again I start chiding myself about how little I know about the country in which I live and then I’ll no doubt seek out something similar.
The Young Oxford History Of Britain and Ireland was published by the Oxford University Press in 1996.
After the great success of Marr’s 2007 publication “A History Of Modern Britain” (my third favourite book when I read it in 2009) and its accompanying TV series, Marr decided to go with a prequel of sorts as this book tells the story of Britain from 1900 with Victoria still on the throne until the end of World War II. Another TV series was made, but this is, as Marr points out, not the book of the TV series but very much a history in its own right.
It was a great period of change from the “imperial island, with essentially aristocratic values” to the victorious, but almost broken nation of VE Day, but Marr guides us through, providing a history largely taken from the stories of individuals concerned who provide the starting points for Marr’s retelling of events. This makes his work very readable. The interest level is also kept up by his tendency to jump from one subject to another, but for me, this style of writing does have the effect of not having things stick in my mind as much as I hoped they would.
Given the scale of the time-span this can be little more than a general reader and Marr has whetted my appetite to find out more. I’m nitpicking here but a bibliography would have been very useful, although some of the important references can be gleaned from the notes. If there is a main character in this piece of non-fiction then that is surely Winston Churchill, whose influence comes and goes until he is elected the wartime Prime Minister and becomes lauded as the man who led the nation to victory. He comes across here as more fascinating than I was expecting, with a lot of career ups and downs and I’m keen to read more. The other “characters” who stuck in my head, played just a minor role, and these were the Mitford sisters, whose different obsessions could also be seen as a symbol of the troubled times in the between the war years. Luckily, I have an unread copy of Mary S Lovell’s biography of the Mitfords on my shelves so have an opportunity to find out more.
This is another very good work from Marr. If I’m not as enthusiastic it might be because I have now got used to his style which seemed so refreshing in the previous book, but he’s certainly given me a lot to ponder on.
The Making Of Modern Britain was published in the UK by Pan in 2009