The Mitford Girls – Mary S. Lovell (2001) – A Real Life Review

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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.

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 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.

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 The Mitford Girls was published by Abacus in 2001.

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100 Essential Books – The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne (2006)

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Irish author John Boyne has been one of the best finds for me in recent years.  My introduction to his work is my 2017 Reviewsrevues Book of the Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and this year both “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” and his latest “A Ladder To The Sky” have been five star reads.

 This is the book which made his name and although I have had it on my shelves for some years had never got round to reading it, despite my partner telling me it was one of the best books he has ever read.  I have seen the 2008 film adaptation and it’s taken me quite a while to get over it!

 This may very well be one of the saddest books ever.   I knew what was going to happen because of the film and yet I consciously chose to read the ending in the public place of on the bus, thinking I would be less likely to break down in tears but it was a close run thing!

 Boyne adopts an impassive narrative style making his writing reminiscent of a fairy tale or something within the oral tradition with its matter of fact sentences and fair amount of repetition for emphasis (for both the listener and the main character).  This is a book which would read aloud extremely well.  (Philip Ridley also did this very successfully with his much lighter tale “Krindlekrax”- a huge favourite of mine).  This oral feel is powerful and draws the reader in but also provides some emotional distance from the action which may initially protect from some of the horror but it also carefully and cleverly informs the plot making it all very believable.  The narrator sees everything from nine year old Bruno’s point of view but allows us to read between the lines with ever-mounting trepidation. 

 Like Pierrot in “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” Bruno is forced to relocate to a home very different from what he has been used to.  For Bruno this means with his family but away from his beloved grandparents left behind in Berlin.  In this new place which he pieces together is called “Out-With” there is no one to play with and instead of the view of Berlin from his bedroom window he sees groups of men and boys in pyjamas behind a wire fence.  His decision to go exploring to combat his loneliness cannot end well.

 Also like Pierrot in the later novel at times Bruno’s interpretation of events feels insufferable but perhaps more comprehensible because of the lack of communication with his family, which allows such a distorted picture of his environment to be developed.  His view of the world is formed solely through his ignorance, there is not much that he gets right and that is a powerful thing to take from this novel.

 Despite John Boyne’s development as a writer in the 9 years between this and the unofficial companion piece of “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” this eclipses it in terms of power and importance.  It is a book which works well in the Children’s, YA and Adult sections of the bookshop.  Frankly, everyone should read it.  The film version, although good lacks the power of Boyne’s words and style.

 Of those novels I have read which gives a child’s perspective of wartime only “The Book Thief” is better and that is arguably my all-time favourite novel.  John Boyne continues his ascent as one of my all-time favourite authors.

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 The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas was first published in 2006.  I read the 2008 Definitions paperback version.

100 Essential Reads- Alone In Berlin – Hans Fallada (Penguin 2009)

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This is an important book.  When Penguin first published this translation of a 1947 German novel in 2009 it was issued in their Modern Classics imprint.  Unlike Morrisey’s autobiography which was published as a Classic edition this is appropriate as it is a work of chilling genius.

Just the story of the author presented in the afterword of the book makes for fascinating reading.  In 1911 eighteen year old Rudolf Ditzen killed a friend in a “duel” which was actually a disguised suicide pact, engineered between the two because of their struggles with their sexuality.  Ditzen survived, was tried for murder and committed to an asylum.  There followed years of on and off incarceration in prisons and asylums for various misdemeanours.  He began writing, taking the nom-de-plume Hans Fallada, a combination of two characters from the Tales of the Brothers Grimm.  He married twice, had alcohol and drug addictions and maintained an ambivalent relationship with Nazi Germany where he remained during the war years, moving back to Soviet controlled Berlin after the war where he produced this savage indictment of life in Third Reich Berlin and died before publication.  This is real life and not the plot of his novel!

“Alone In Berlin” has a fascinating history itself.  It was not translated into English until this 2009 version by Michael Hoffman where it was first released in the USA under the title “Every Man Dies Alone”.  This is closer to the German title (“Jeder Stribt Fur Sich Allein).  The British publication went with a direct translation of the 1967 French version “Seul Dans Berlin”.  Its release has been staggered through the decades around the world.  It was published in Russian (1948), Polish (1950), Romania (1951), Czech (1954) and even Alabanian (1975) some decades before the English version arrived.  It would be fascinating to find out more about why this extraordinary work took so long to appear.  Penguin obviously had faith in it as they published it as a “Modern Classic”.  Since its arrival in 2009 it has sold well.

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Hans Fallada

“Alone In Berlin” is based upon the real-life case of Otto and Elise Hempel,  a quiet-living couple who staged their own resistance to the Nazi regime by writing postcards, attacking the Fuhrer and the Government and leaving them in public places.  In the novel this action is given to Otto and Anna Quangel, previously supporters of the regime who are spurred into action when their son is killed in 1940.

This is a world where everyone is truly “alone” – nobody can be trusted.  People are rewarded for bringing any “subversive” action to the authority’s attention and greed and spite are often the motive for whole families being wiped out.  We first meet the Quangels in their apartment block where a Jewish lady resides in fear of her life from the neighbours around her.  This is an existence that is cruel and harsh, where everyone struggles, where it is easier to be evil than kind and where good deeds ultimately seem to have little practical worth.

Fallada does not appeal to our sympathies.  It is quite unlikely that we would be particularly enamoured by Quangel, a sombre foreman at a coffin factory with his harsh-bird like features, although we are rooting for him all the way.  The female characters fare a little better than the males: Anna, grieving for her son and supporting the husband she barely speaks to; Trudel, the fiancée of the dead son and Eva, the postwoman who delivers the fateful telegram to the Quangels, who is one of the few characters to challenge the regime and still manage to escape the fearful solitude of life in Berlin.

This novel is gripping and chilling and at times reads like farce.  A trial is almost “Alice In Wonderland”- like in its twisted logic and sheer injustice but this is not played for laughs.  All of these events were everyday occurrences in Nazi Germany.  It is a tale of individual resistance as impressive as one of my all time favourite novels, “The Book Thief” but made the more resonant by Fallada living through the years.  It is on a par with Gunter Grass’ 1959 German classic “The Tin Drum”.  (This is a novel which blew me sideways when I read it as a teenager but I haven’t read it since- I must re-read this in 2016).  In case we forget what life is like under a totalitarian regime based on mistrust and supremacy this is essential reading.

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“Alone In Berlin” was published in the UK by Penguin Books in 2009.