Carla Kaplan on ‘The Mitfords’
Posted on Dec 28, 2007
By Carla Kaplan
Interviewed recently by NPR’s Scott Simon, Deborah Cavendish, the last of Britain’s famous “Mitford Girls,” or “Mad Mitfords,” as they were also known, couldn’t help giggling at her title: “the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire.” “Such a mouthful,” she remarked, as her interviewer tried not to stumble. The Mitford sisters’ ability to laugh at their own lives and encourage others to do likewise is an essential part of their charm. Their delightfully irreverent humor—the “Mitford Tease”—is everywhere evident in Charlotte Mosley’s new volume, “The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters,” just published by HarperCollins. This engaging collection is at once a paean to the dying art of letter writing, a moving chronicle of the complex and contradictory dynamics of family and, most surprisingly (given the Mitfords’ much vaunted girlishness), a compelling account of aging. “Don’t let’s live to be too old, it’s no fun,” one sister writes to another, in what could be this book’s motto.
The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters
By Charlotte Mosley
Harper, 864 pages
Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters
By Carla Kaplan
Anchor, 912 pages
The Mitford sisters were once so notorious that, as Mosley points out, “hardly a week went by during the 1930’s without one of the sisters making headlines.” They were famous for their beauty, their wit, their eccentricities, for being the children of great privilege and wealth, for going in remarkably different directions—a novelist, a chicken expert, a Fascist, a Nazi, a Communist, and a Duchess—for witnessing almost every major historical event of the 20th century (to which they provide a peculiar kind of guided tour here, minus some of the commentary one might expect) and for knowing seemingly everyone (the range of their acquaintance alone imposes an editorial burden, encompassing both Hitler and John F. Kennedy, Evelyn Waugh and Maya Angelou, Katherine Graham and James Forman, Bertrand Russell and Emerald Cunard, Lucian Freud and Julie Andrews, Queen Elizabeth and Jerry Hall). Perhaps they were most famous, however, just for being so famous. Part of this book’s story is what a lifetime of modern celebrity does to women, as well as what it’s like to hanker for that kind of fame.
The Mitford legend begins with the parents, Lord and Lady Redesdale, a quirky couple remarkably unself-conscious about their own eccentricities. Lady Redesdale, for example, refused to send her daughters to school or have them play with nonfamily members because she considered “the company of other children unnecessary and overstimulating.” Nancy, the eldest, became a famous novelist (“The Pursuit of Love” and “Love in a Cold Climate”). Pamela, the second-oldest and the least public, became a poultry expert, and probably a lesbian. Diana married Oswald Mosley, the head of Britain’s Fascist party, and refused ever to denounce her admiration for Hitler. Unity Valkyrie, universally described by the other sisters as courageous, honest, loving and loyal, became a dedicated Nazi, tremblingly passionate about Hitler, and shot herself in the head (but failed to kill herself) when Britain and Germany went to war. Jessica, the second-youngest, ran away at the first opportunity with her second cousin, Esmond Romilly (Winston Churchill’s nephew), joined the American Communist Party and became a civil rights activist and a muckraking journalist (“The American Way of Death” and “Kind and Usual Punishment”). Deborah, the youngest sister and the last survivor, became a very successful businesswoman as a duchess, turning the impossibly immense Chatsworth estate into an attractive tourist destination. As Christopher Hitchens once put it, “the Brontë vicarage at Haworth seems humdrum by comparison.”
It would be an understatement to say that much has been written about the Mitfords. But few accounts provide as wonderfully messy and intimate a story as do letters. Mosley’s book was preceded by her two other collections of Nancy’s correspondence and, more recently, by Peter Sussman’s excellent and long-awaited collection of Jessica’s letters. Here, we have all six of the sisters at once, although Nancy, Diana and Deborah dominate the conversation (Unity’s letters drop off after her shooting, Pamela does not write often, and the bulk of Jessica’s fascinating letters are written to others). Nonetheless, “The Mitfords” takes us both through eight decades and backstage of the familiar Mitford legend. We are able to overhear the sisters’ loathing of their own popularity. “The whole phenomenon was invented by the newspapers. ... The bits I read made me think once again how ghastly all Mitfords sound, though of course in real life ha-ha they are ideal,” Diana writes. “I do wish people would stop writing books [about us],” Deborah laments. “I must say I wish they’d leave us alone.” But at the same time, we also see just how much the sisters did to nurture and construct the very legend they all profess to despise, taking a certain delight in the overexposure that also annoyed them. “I must admit ‘The Mitfords’ would madden ME if I didn’t chance to be one,” Diana writes, making it clear what a point of pride it is to “be one” of the famously maddening sisters. However unhappy the sisters may claim to be as legends, this collection reveals the extent to which that legend was of their own making and, moreover, how living as a legendary Mitford was a delight—and a “bother”—that they all felt only another Mitford could know.
If this is not the best place to turn for an understanding of the Mitford sisters’ puzzling politics—these letters rarely engage such questions—it is an excellent way to understand what it might have been like to be a member of this infamous, hysterically funny, fierce and riven sisterhood; what it was like to be a member of such a remarkable group of women; how their bonds to one another survived; and, most poignantly, how they were finally broken, despite affections for one another which ran deep indeed. Nancy once said that she pitied children without siblings because they didn’t have anybody “to stand between them and life’s cruel circumstances.” Sisters, Jessica retorted, “were the cruel circumstances.” As we can now see, there was a great deal of truth on both sides. Childhood grievances never lessen or die among the sisters, and false accusations and mischaracterizations rankle beyond all rational explanation; this may feel familiar to many of us.
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