Carla Kaplan on ‘The Mitfords’
Posted on Dec 28, 2007
By Carla Kaplan
As we might expect from such a volatile, opinionated and stubborn group, the sisters are continually getting on and off “speakers” and “stayers” with one another (except for Jessica and Diana, whose political differences put them on “non-speakers” for life). Despite their need for one another (no one else, after all, really got what it was like to be a Mitford sister), they were often, in Nancy’s words, “not very sisterly.” They betrayed each other, lied to each other, deceived each other, mocked each other, complained about each other, spied on one another and often despised each other. Their challenge—and they rose to it often nobly and always instructively—was to try to accept one another, with their differences intact. “Nothing I can say wd changer your view of things & ditto the other way around if you see what I mean,” Deborah wrote to Jessica. Since their identities were so mutually and collectively formed, rifts and silences between them were devastating. “Don’t we all sound horrible. ... Perhaps we are, but we do at least all love each other,” Diana wrote.
Throughout their lives, they continued to “long for” one another as they did for no one else. “I long for you. Every time I look at the bookcases I think of you. ... I do simply so long for you sometimes, you can’t think,” Nancy would write. “I long for ALL sister ALL the time,” Deborah noted. The sisters lived on a very large world stage. But it was their approval of one another that each of them usually craved. “I always think while I’m writing you how terrifically you despise my life,” Deborah wrote to Jessica. “For some reason I longed for, but feared, your reaction more than anyone’s, even the reviewers. So I was most awfully glad to get your letter,” Jessica wrote to Nancy.
It is not merely approval these women crave from one another, but correspondence itself. One gets the sense that what these women long for when they long for one another (which is very often) is not so much an actual physical presence of their sisters (though some of the sisters did very much enjoy one another’s company, especially for brief visits) as it was the very particular experience letters provide: a shared sensibility and an intimate—but controlled—“girl talk.” “What would one do without your letters,” Deborah writes to Diana, “it would be a grey waste.” “Oh Debo your letters literally do make my life,” Diana writes to her. There is a sustenance and comfort to be had from letters which is unlike anything else and, as we see across these sisters’ long lifetimes, which phone calls (which demand immediate reciprocation), e-mails and text messages can never replicate (no wonder that Jessica willed $5,000 to her postman). In a letter from 1975, Deborah writes to Nancy about the special quality of letters and anticipates this very book and its author’s efforts. “I usually keep Valuable Envelopes if the letters are two page affairs, like yours of yesterday with the unmasking news. Otherwise I’d pity the monkey’s orphan (Brill person of about the year 2000 who will make a thrilling, silly book on the Last Correspondence Between People using Pen & Paper) who would have to put the thing together.” This “thrilling, silly book” is one of the last great surviving groups of letters, and the sisters knew what an invaluable archive it was. Nancy wrote Diana in 1963, “Throw nothing away ... a correspondance suive of a whole family, so rare nowadays, would be gold for your heirs.”
Selecting, dating, ordering, editing, cutting and annotating the more than 12,000 letters the sisters wrote to one another was truly a labor of love on Mosley’s part. Because this collection contains only 5 percent of their correspondence and those which are included here are rarely complete (excisions, cuts and excerptions go, unfortunately, unmarked), the view we get of the sisters’ lives and relations with one another is necessarily partial. But because the sisters are allowed to speak in their own voices, with minimal editorial intrusion, however “fragmentary” (Mosley’s term) an account this may be, it also feels authentic. For those unfamiliar with the Mitfords, this collection provides an excellent introduction (thanks, in part, to helpful interchapter overviews, footnotes (American readers, in particular, will occasionally want footnotes to the footnotes), a family tree, many photographs, an index of nicknames, a comprehensive index but, surprisingly, no bibliography). For the many Mitford fans who already feel they know the sisters, “The Mitfords” may offer several surprises.
This volume offers an unusually inside look at British aristocracy, especially its often-noted aversion to both emotional expression and physical labor. The sisters are astoundingly inept domestically and they simply revel in their own inability to do laundry, wash dishes or iron:
“Darling, housework. I make my bed & wash up a coffee cup & then I go to bed & sleep the sleep of utter exhaustion until dinner time. What does it mean & how can people manage? I never attempt the Hoover or lighting the stove or any of the moderately tough things,” Nancy writes.
American readers, in particular, may be surprised to see the low opinion many of the sisters had of European “high culture.” The Duchess of Devonshire, for example, dismisses opera as a bunch of “fat screamers,” hopes that she can avoid reading the classics her sister Nancy recommends to her (“Oh Proust,” she writes, “shall I try now or is it too late? I do hope it’s too late”) but is enough of an Elvis fan to make two trips to Graceland. “Oh Graceland,” she writes, “The excitement was intense, please picture. ... A sweet but hopeless black girl in a woolly hat was our guide but the audios made her not necessary. They were perfect, Priscilla Presley talking, & sometimes Elvis plus music, allowed one the right amount of time in each room. The furniture was too lovely, white ‘custom made’ sofas all along a wall, down 3 steps & a white piano on a shag carpet so deep it went 1/2way up its legs. The Jungle Room had outsize chairs whose arms were carved crocodiles’ heads, enormous, & a vast round one which no one could sit in because of its depth. Green carpet 2 inches long, (thick) & the same on the ceiling. Do admit. Alas no upstairs. ... Then across the (very main) road to see his aeroplane—enormous, with a huge bed in it. By then we were whacked & only got to one shop & the idiotic Morticia never told us there were 2 more so we missed the sequin tee shirts & such like, maddening.”
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