Tuesday, 25 February 2003

The Mitford girls

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 3.

Just read:

Mary S. Lovell, The Mitford girls: the biography of an extraordinary family.

This is a fascinating biography, and one that I definitely recommend. It tells the story of the Mitford family, starting at around 1900 and continuing pretty much to the present day. The main focus is on the six daughters, Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, Decca (Jessica) and Debo. There was also a son Tom, but his path through life was rather more conventional, and ended prematurely when he was killed in WW2. The family were minor aristocrats, and quite well connected. Winston Churchill married a cousin of the father’s, and intervened on a few occasions to the family’s advantage.

It seems as if all of the family were blessed with great senses of humour and wit. This means that the early sections of the biography are very amusing to read. Nancy might have been a bit of a horrible tease, but it’s hard not to smile at the story of her making one of her younger sisters cry at the plight of a lonely match. At this point in the story, it feels like the biography is the story of lovable aristocratic eccentrics. But as the girls grow up, their adult careers become even more interesting, and still spiced by occasional flashes of wit.

Most amazing is Unity’s story: she became a personal confidante and friend of Hitler, and spent a great deal of time alone in his company. She didn’t see him in a political context, but had amazing access to him. When war broke out in 1939, she was in Munich, attempted to commit suicide, had her hospital bills paid by Hitler, and was put on a special train to Switzerland, from where she returned to the UK. Through her, other members of the family also had various privileges bestowed on them, such as privileged access to the 1936 Olympics.

If Unity was an obsessive nut-case (she basically stalked Hitler until he noticed her), Diana seems slightly more normal. She had an early conventional marriage, but then fell in love with Sir Oswald Mosley, had an affair with him until his wife died, divorced her husband, and married Mosley (at a private ceremony in Berlin with Hitler in attendance (!)). Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists, and seems impossible to admire. Nonetheless, he and Diana had a long and happy marriage. On his behalf, Diana also spent quite a bit of time with Hitler, trying to persuade him to accept a radio broadcasting scheme that would raise revenue for Mosley’s political schemes. Not long after war broke out, both were imprisoned. Diana is still alive (or was, as recently as 22 November last year). If the biography has any failing, it is that it fails to explain how Diana could be so blind to her husband’s flaws. I can only imagine that she shares them herself.

The fifth sister, Decca was ideologically opposite. She ran away when less than 20 years old to support the Communist cause in Civil War Spain, and emigrated to the US just before WW2 began. There she became a US citizen, joined the US Communist Party (until the mid 50s), and was for a while denied a passport. She became a famous writer and journalist, following in Nancy’s footsteps who’d had great success with light novels such as Pursuit of love and Love in a cold climate.

The other sisters all have interesting stories too, particularly Nancy, as do their parents, David and Sydney. Lovell writes about them all very well and sympathetically. It’s definitely sad to read of them gradually succumbing to the inevitable cancers and other frailties of old age.

To read next:

Granta 80: groups