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Carla Kaplan on ‘The Mitfords’
Posted on Dec 28, 2007
By Carla Kaplan
The duchess’ very British love of American kitsch is one surprise—particularly in light of Nancy’s hatred of America and all things American (“that land of dire hypocrisy, where ... no birds sing, no flowers smell, no food tastes.” But Deborah herself, or “Debo” as she is known to her sisters, is often surprising. (She is also the volume’s undeclared favorite, and her generosity of spirit, aversion to conflict, and tendency to see politics and extremism as synonymous all find favor with the editor, who happens to be the daughter-in-law of the ideologically unrepentant Diana Mosley.) While not known as a writer, Debo turns out to be almost as funny a correspondent as Nancy, Diana or Jessica, with an equally cunning eye (and ear) for telling detail. For example, from the family’s island, Inch Kenneth, to Diana in Holloway Prison (where Diana was interned during World War II because of her pro-Fascist views), for example, Deborah writes:
Muv [mother] says one can write to you at last, Oh I do so long to see your cell. I haven’t seen you or your pigs [the sisters’ term for children] for such ages that I’ve almost forgotten what you look like what with one thing and another. ...
I can’t think of anything fascinating, nothing much occurs here. Farve [father] is either in fits of gloom or terrific spirits, apparently for no reason. I hope he won’t live here alone in the winter because gloom is usually the form & what it must be like here then I can’t imagine. Lividry sets in when my goat eats his creepers etc exactly like it always did, he is an eccentric old fellow.
When we were climbing around the caves here the other day I heard the most terrifying sound just like a hermit tearing calico, it so horrified me that we haven’t been round there since. It has become the stock joke & thing to be frightened of, oh the horror.”
The sisters’ small delights are often most endearing, such as their willingness, even as distinguished middle-aged women, to make ridiculous “Boudledidge” faces and be photographed doing so (Mosley includes two absolute gems, one of Deborah and Jessica at Chatsworth and a later photo-booth one of Jessica alone), their love of sounds and nicknames (each sister had a plethora), their fondness for animals (from chickens, dogs and sheep to stray owls, backyard hedgehogs and turtles, and the miniature horses which Nancy called “insects”), and their frequent self-awareness of the many ironies of their own class and national privilege— what Deborah calls “being a pariah.”
They are most alarming, on the other hand, in their responses, or rather their relative non-responses, to what we would term the larger and more serious events of life: children’s deaths, husbands’ infidelities, Nazism, concentration camps and so on, things about which, here at least, they have remarkably little to say. Unity’s impassioned descriptions of Hitler (which take up altogether too much space in the beginning of the book) read like those of a teeny-bopper, wild for one of the Beatles: “Such a terribly exciting thing happened yesterday. I saw Hitler. It was all so thrilling I can still hardly believe it. If only Putzi had been there!” And again: “The Führer was heavenly, in his best mood, & very gay. There was a choice of two soups & he tossed a coin to see which one he would have, & he was so sweet doing it. He asked after you [Diana], & I told him you were coming soon. He talked a lot about Jews, which was lovely.” One wonders if she ever understood what was at stake. Diana, on the other hand, who clearly did understand, evinces a lifelong anti-Semitism, racism and denial of political realities—as late as 1975 she ranted about “Jews who are stopping him [Mosley] from getting a university appointment” and claimed that “most of the violence” involving British Fascists in the war came from “Jews attacking Kit’s people in dark lanes etc.”—which remains as hard to understand as her own confident claim to “hate unfairness,” or her sisters’ clear sense that, personally at least, that statement rang true. This is a volume filled with such questions and contradictions. Mosley lets them stand. In 1996, after Jessica’s death, Deborah wrote: “Reading the obits. of Decca, the Mitford Girls are described, variously, as Famous Notorious Talented Glamorous Turbulent Unpredictable Celebrated Infamous Rebellious Colourful & Idiosyncratic. So, take your choice.” And at its best, this book encourages us to do just that.
“The Mitfords” gets more compelling as it goes along and as the sisters, in the second half especially, become more and more complex (making the simplified tagging system that Mosley cleverly designed to identify each sister—swastika, hammer and sickle, and so on— seem increasingly problematic, ironically creating just the effect of “Nazis all the way,” for example, which Deborah feared in others’ simplifications of Unity). Their stories of surviving the war to face the indignities of illness and death are especially moving. It is hard not to be touched by seeing these indomitable and seemingly unstoppable women laid low by blindness, deafness, headaches, tumors and cancers, in part because they focus on the most concrete details of their own decline: “Darling Debo, Debo my hair. Don’t laugh. It’s ... a shaving brush,” Diana writes. They struggle valiantly to keep up their trademark breezy, ironic understatement, and it is impossible, watching them do it, not to cheer them on.
The sisters speculated that their letters could never be published while any of them were living. “I also think a vol of letters will have to wait until everyone’s dead, don’t you, because of hurt feelings?” Diana wrote to Deborah. But in bringing these letters to light now, the remaining Mitfords—the Duchess of Devonshire and Jessica Mitford’s two children, Constancia “Dinky” Romilly and Benjamin Truehaft, especially, all of them public people—have, to their great credit, replaced stock figures with complex and, hence, more three-dimensional women. “It’s not too easy to know what anyone is really like,” Deborah wrote to Jessica. But as she also wrote to Diana, “it’s the humanizing we’re after so Carry On Honks.”
Carla Kaplan is the Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature at Northeastern University, a fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and a Guggenheim fellow. Her books include “Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters” and the forthcoming “Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance.” She is also writing a biography of Jessica Mitford.
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