The great wits and beauties of their age, the Mitford sisters were immoderate in their passions for ideas and people, counting among their diverse friends Adolf Hitler and Queen Elizabeth II, Cecil Beaton and President Kennedy, Evelyn Waugh and Givenchy. As editor Charlotte Mosley notes, not since the Brontës have the members of a single family written so much about themselves, or have been so written about.
The Mitfords offers an unparalleled look at these privileged sisters: Nancy, the scalding wit who transformed her family life into bestselling novels; Pamela, who craved nothing more than a quiet country life; Diana, the fascist jailed with her husband, Oswald Mosley, during World War II; Unity, a suicide, torn by her worship of Hitler and her loyalty to home; Jessica, the runaway Communist and fighter for social change; and Deborah, the genial socialite who found herself Duchess of Devonshire.
Spanning the twentieth century, the magically vivid letters of the legendary Mitford sisters constitute not just a superb social and historical chronicle; they also provide an intimate portrait of the stormy but enduring relationships between six beautiful, gifted, and radically different women who wrote to one another to confide, commiserate, tease, rage, and gossip—and above all to amuse.
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About the Author
Charlotte Mosley, Diana Mitford's daughter-in-law, has worked as a publisher and journalist. She has published A Talent to Annoy: Essays, Articles, and Reviews by Nancy Mitford; Love from Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford; and The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. She lives in Paris.
Read an Excerpt
The MitfordsLetters Between Six Sisters
By Charlotte Mosley
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2007 Charlotte Mosley
All right reserved.
There are few letters to record the Mitford sisters' childhood and early youth, and such letters as they did write were mostly to their mother and father. Nor are there many letters dating back to the eight years covered in this section. By 1925, only Nancy, aged twenty-one, and Pamela, aged eighteen, had gone out into the world; the four youngest children were still in the nursery or schoolroom. Nancy's main family correspondent at the time was her brother Tom, and Pamela-who confided mostly in Diana-was the least prolific writer of the sisters.
When the letters begin, the family had been living for six years at Asthall Manor, a seventeenth-century house in the Cotswolds, which the sisters' father, Lord Redesdale, had bought when he sold Batsford Park, a rambling Victorian pile that he had inherited in 1916 and could not afford to keep up. Before the First World War, David Redesdale, or 'Farve' as he was known to his children, lived in London where he worked as office manager for The Lady, the magazine founded by his father-in-law. Life in the country was far better suited to this unbookish, unsociable man, whose happiest moments were spent by the Windrush, a trout river that ran past Asthall, or in the woods where he watched his young pheasants hatch. Unluckily for his family, country sports did not exhaust his energies and Asthall, which the children loved, was not to his liking. In 1926, they moved to Swinbrook House in Oxfordshire, a grim, ungainly edifice that Lord Redesdale had built on top of a hill near Swinbrook village. All the sisters except Deborah, who was six when they moved, disliked the new house, which was cold, draughty and impractical. Worst of all, unlike Asthall where the library had been in a converted barn some distance from the house and where the children were left undisturbed, there was no room at Swinbrook that they could call their own. The younger children found some warmth and privacy in a heated linen cupboard, later immortalized in Nancy's novels as the 'Hons' cupboard', while the older children had to share the drawing room or sit in their small bedrooms. Lord Redesdale was hurt by the family's dislike of his dream project and began to spend more time at 26 Rutland Gate, a large London house overlooking Hyde Park that he had bought when Asthall was sold.
The sisters were in awe of their father. Strikingly handsome, with the brilliant blue eyes that passed down to his children, he was kindhearted, jovial and the source of much of the fun that was had in the family. Deborah remembered him as 'charming, brilliant without being clever' and uproariously funny when in a good mood. She wrote that when he and Nancy started sparring they were better than anything she had ever seen on stage, 'a pair of comedians of the first order'. But he could also be impatient and had a violent temper. The smallest transgression-a child spilling her food or being a minute late-could send him into a towering rage. His anger was all the more alarming for being unpredictable: he would turn with sudden fury on one of his daughters and then, for no apparent reason, decide to single out another. Their way of standing up to him, and of drawing his unwrathful attention, was to catch their father in one of his sunnier moods and tease him, which he took in good part. Jessica used to call him 'the Old Sub-Human' and pretend to measure his skull for science or would gently shake his hand when he was drinking a cup of tea to give him 'palsy practice' for when he grew old. Nancy's caricature of him in her first novel, Highland Fling, as the jingoistic, hot-tempered General Murgatroyd-a precursor of the formidable Uncle Matthew in her later novels-was an effective way of reducing this larger-than-life figure to less alarming dimensions. As they grew up, the sisters rarely seem to have resented Farve and looked back on his autocratic eccentricities with affectionate amusement. The inclination to hero-worship is foreshadowed in their relationship with their father; like the other powerful men who were to come into their lives, he could do no wrong.
Their resentment-and that of Nancy and Jessica in particular-against the perceived shortcomings of their upbringing was reserved for their mother. In contrast to her moody, volatile husband, Sydney, or 'Muv' as her children called her, was cool and detached. Her own mother had died when she was seven years old and at the age of fourteen she had taken on the responsibility of running her father's household. This had taught her financial prudence and to be a good manager-qualities that came in useful later when raising a family of seven on never quite enough money-but it also created a certain rigidity in her attitude to her children when they were growing up; an inflexibility that fuelled her daughters' rebellious behaviour and their desire to shock.
From her father, Lady Redesdale had inherited definite opinions about health and diet, believing that the 'good body' would heal itself more effectively without the intervention of doctors or medicine. An early campaigner against refined sugar and white flour, she made sure that her children ate only wholemeal bread, baked to her recipe. Physically undemonstrative, she rarely exhibited outward signs of maternal warmth and seldom hugged or cuddled her daughters, who had to compete fiercely for the scarce resource of her attention. In 'Blor', an essay on her childhood, Nancy described her mother as living 'in a dream world of her own', detached to the point of neglect. In her fictional portrait of her as Aunt Sadie, she depicted a more sympathetic character but one that was nevertheless remote and disapproving. But the aloofness that some of her daughters complained of also had ...
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the most engrossing read ever. Granted, I have been fascinated with the Mitford sisters ever since reading The Blessing (by Nancy Mitford), but even those poor souls who have never heard of the Mitford sisters will be enthralled by this book. Of course, the more you know of the sisters and their lives, the better the letters are. None of these six sisters chose to lead a conventional life; they made fierce friendships with the most interesting and controversial figures of their times, and they were only interested in TRUE love (husbands notwithstanding). The letters are presented chronologically. My one quibble is that only a tiny selection is presented; I, for one, would love to read the entire correspondence.
The first few chapters of this book border on cumbersome, due to all the nicknames and slang used. You spend a lot of time reading the footnotes just trying to understand what's going on. Yet once you get past that and into the flow, it's an amazing read. It's quite hard to the believe that these six women were sisters, seeing as how some of their ideals were so diametrically opposed. You really become attached to each woman and feel a tug at your heart when something big happens for or to one of them. I think every woman can find a Mitford Sister she somewhat relates to. Truly charming book.
Maybe I'm not an avid enough fan of the mitford saga itself, but I found this book to be a little more extensive than necessary. It is apparent that the book was compiled lovingly and very thoroughly researched, but I found myself consistently about midway through each era (as the book is divided) growing tired of the sisters. In addition the inconsistent nickname use was more confusing at times than keeping track of the characters in a Tolstoy epic (worn cliche, I know, but it fits).
This was my second favorite book this year (1st was Mississippi Sissy). This is the most amazing book, in scope, that I think I've ever read. I was completely mesmerized while reading. The Mitford Sisters were like one degree of separation from everyone who ever lived in the twentieth century. I want to read this book again.
A must for anyone fascinated with the Mitfords, or with 20th century history. The letters between Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah span thoughout their lifetimes, their connections to history's elite providing an inner look to newsmakers of the past, like WInston Churchill and JFK.The sisters have a unique sense of humor due to their unconventional upbringing as struggling aristocrats. Their letters are peppered liberally with nicknames, inside jokes, and jibes at their peers and each other. Editor Charlotte Mosely (Diana's daughter-in-law) provides many detailed footnotes to sort it all out. I did wonder at the objectivity of having a family member edit the letters, and there are things that have been left out that may be too personal for those still living (such as well-publicized affairs of Debo's husband Andrew Cavendish.) Yet, I was amazed by what was left in -- these are very personal letters. And the upside of having a family member as your editor is that the sensitive topic of the sisters' politics can be handled with care. Here we see fascists Diana and Unity not just as Hilter fans, but as loving family members, witty jokesters, and intelligent women. It brings depth to characters that we though we understood. For instance, I was blown away by the pitiful letter of Unity's, written after the suicide attempt that rendered her with serious brain damage, that was so innocent and childlike -- a huge departure from the gushing, adoring accounts of Hilter and the Nazis only a few years before. This is precisely the goal of the Mitfords when it comes to public opinion of themselves: Loyalty to each other trumps politics, though not every sister followed this to the letter. Letters between Diana and Jessica stop when Diana becomes a unabashed fascist. However, Jessica had no such injunction against her most beloved sister Unity. It's feuds like that that also bring these letters to life. We see Nancy playing her sisters off of each other and causing trouble, Deborah desperately trying to keep everyone happy, and little snipes and jibes from one sister to another over perceived slights and betrayals. It is their relationship with each other that matters more than politics. Diana's close relationship with Hitler is not as big a family scandal as when Jessica was accused of stealing a photo album and giving out the pictures. The letters show that the sisters were wrapped up in themselves and their world, creating a bond strong enough to last decades, and inspired them to write faithfully to each other. Were they selfish, out-of-touch members of a fading aristocratic system? Or are they just regular women who happened to be caught up in the whirlwinds of history? Reading the Mitfords' own words will allow you to decide and pass judgement.
I¿ve long been fascinated with the Mitford family, six sisters and a brother whose lives spanned the 20th century. This collection of letters strictly focuses on the sisters: Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah. In a nutshell, this is who they were:Nancy (1904-1973): The writer/ reader. Author of The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, and several other novels and biographies. Married Peter Rudd; worked for the London bookseller Heywood Hill and lived for a time in Paris in the 1950s.Pamela (1907-1994): Married for a time to the physicist Derek Jackson (she was the second of his six wives).Diana (1910-2003): married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the BUF (British Union of Fascists) in the 1930s. Spent some time in prison during the war.Unity (1914-1948): Hitler-adoring fascist, who spent some time in Germany before and during WWII. Attempted suicide; lived the rest of her life with their mother, Lady Redesdale.Jessica (1917-1996): the communist, who eloped with Esmond Romilly and later moved to the United States with husband number two, Robert Truhaft.. Author of a couple of autobiographies, especially Hons and Rebels.Deborah (1920-): Married Andrew Cavendish in 1941, and later became the Duchess of Devonshire. After the death of Andrew¿s father, and the heavy death taxes that were imposed, the Cavendishes turned Chatsworth House into a famous tourist attraction.The Mitford sisters exchanged over12,000 letters over roughly 75 years of correspondence. Although the sisters were completely different from one another and lived all over the world, they kept up a lively correspondence over the years (only 5% of the total of existing letters appear in this 800-page compilation). The short biographies I give of the sisters above don¿t do them justice; each of the sisters¿ voices are so lively and vibrant. For much of their lives, the Mitfords frequently made the headlines in newspapers, and it¿s easy to see why people were so fascinated with them, despite the controversy that followed them. I don¿t necessarily agree with the sisters and the choices they made, but I was nonetheless interested to read their story from their POV.Although the language they used amongst one another confused me a bit at first, I found the girls¿ letters extremely easy to read after a while. The footnotes got to be a bit much at times, especially when the editor kept mentioning who famous people were married to (really, do we need to be reminded that Lyndon B. Johnson was married to Lady Bird?), and explaining things like what Boggle is (or do the British not play it?). But on the whole, the footnotes were helpful and informative, especially when the girls began writing in ¿Honnish.¿ There¿s a strong pro-Diana bias in this book, mostly because the author is her daughter-in-law; and I though the author was a bit too interested in her own connection to this famous family.One thing I was especially interested in was how much the Mitfords read. Nancy especially was a big reader, and she talked a lot about what she read in her letters (she read a lot of memoirs, with a lot of fiction thrown in). Jessica (¿Decca¿) jokingly says in one letter that she¿s a ¿slow¿ reader¿ for having finished Gone With the Wind in just a week! Deborah seems to be the least literary of the sisters; apparently, however, she pretended not to be a reader when she really was one! My favorite quote from her: ¿I have got to page 652 in C [by Maurice Baring] & there are only 741, what shall I do when it¿s finished, I really never will read any more beastly books they are only an extra complication to one¿s pathetic life.¿ (letter to Nancy, 7 May 1944).The book is good for both people who know a lot about the Mitfords, and for newcomers; in each section of the book, the editor gives an introduction, the better to understand the events that the sisters mention in their letters. The book is also accompanied by a large collection of black and white photographs, depicting the