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Carla Kaplan on ‘The Mitfords’

Posted on Dec 28, 2007
Mitfords cover

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.


book cover


The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters


By Charlotte Mosley


Harper, 864 pages


Buy the book

book cover


Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters


By Carla Kaplan


Anchor, 912 pages


Buy the book



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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By souljaEXVOTO, December 29, 2007 at 4:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I welcome this introduction to the Mitfords and do not begrudge anyone scanning this site the opportunity to click here or not click here; in this case a subject I’m a bit embarrassed for not having known more about sooner. And I think it’s very timely because for example, the recent Christmas family gathering: How many of us found ourselves sitting across the table from unapologetic oblivious Fox watching Republicans?  Did we talk or not talk politics? Did we wonder how it came to be that we share blood?

I applaud your choice of inclusion also for the timely reminder of the pace we expect nowadays, and the dying art of beautiful, thoughtful letters.

I just hate that big hunk of bloody red meat advertisement that always makes me skip quickly to the bottom of the page so my eye doesn’t wander back to that god awful image thus ruining an otherwise pleasant reading experience. (Even if it is about war and carnage). God lose that already!

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By rangertommy, December 28, 2007 at 8:55 am Link to this comment

Sounds like an interesting book, but why is it the headliner for TruthDig?  Not seein’ the connection, folks.  Love your site otherwise, but I sure don’t visit it for this kind of stuff.

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By Expat, December 28, 2007 at 4:39 am Link to this comment

I heard the original interview.  I wonder what it is doing here in Truthdig at this time in our existence.  Does truthdig want to become an English Literature or history site? 

I find levity as I need it in my everyday life.  I follow this site, somewhat dubiously at times, because of the issues, not because I want to know about a family, unless it is relevant to these critical times: Clearly, this is not relevant to anything concerning this most important time in American History.  WTF?

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