The Sisters(The Saga of the Mitford Family) by Mary S Lovell.
Hardcover: 611 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; (January 2002)
From Publishers Weekly
In her history of England's Mitford sisters, who were major figures in the international political, literary and social scenes for much of the 20th century, Lovell (The Sound of Wings: The Biography of Amelia Earhart; etc.) rises with aplomb to the challenges of a group biography, deftly weaving together the narrative threads of six at times radically disparate lives to create a fascinating account of a fascinating family. Born into the ranks of the minor aristocracy and educated at home by eccentric and perennially cash-strapped parents, Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah Mitford hardly seemed the types whose exploits would generate endless fodder for the sensationalist press. But when Diana left her wealthy young husband to take up with and eventually marry Sir Oswald Mosley, infamous leader of British fascism; when Unity became close friends with Adolf Hitler and a proponent of Nazism; when Jessica, a vocal Communist, eloped with a notorious cousin who was also a nephew of Winston Churchill; when Deborah married the Duke of Devonshire; and when both Nancy (Love in a Cold Climate) and Jessica (The American Way of Death) became acclaimed, bestselling authors, the world responded with avid, insatiable and at times alarmingly intrusive curiosity. But whether adored or reviled by their public, all the Mitford sisters were engaged with (and at times embodiments of) the major social and political issues of their time. Lovell's account of the sisters' upbringing and their often tumultuous adult lives is as lively and engrossing as Nancy's heavily autobiographical fiction; the group biography also does a commendable job of separating the myths that fiction created from the sometimes more mundane realities of the Mitfords' activities and relationships.
Until I began this book, I had no idea who any of the Mitford’s were.
I had seen more than one book about the Mitford sisters, in fact I have another called “The Mitfords” which is basically letters between the sisters over the years. I have to admit that my first view of “The Mitfords” was at a book store and the cover drew me to it and the fact that I had just read a book which consisted mostly of “letters” I thought it might be interesting. But that was a number of years ago and I did not get the book at the time.
Not all that long ago I saw it again at very reduced price and picked it up deciding “one day I will get to it”. Then my friend Cath got all interested in The Mitfords and I remembered I had the book. But then when I was in the used book store I found The Sisters in excellent condition.. one dollar. Hmmm, ok I got it. Then decided this book should probably be read first, telling me about all these ladies (and one brother) and then the letters would make much more sense to me. So.. I read The Sisters.
To have so much notoriety all in one family (without them being a “family business” of some sort) is pretty amazing. Probably the largest amount of notoriety came from the sister named Unity who became fascinated with Hitler and wanted nothing more than to be close to him.. eventually, she got her wish. A large part of the book talks of Hitler and Unity and, if possible, you find that there may have been a small amount of humanity in the man. But not enough to change anyone’s opinion of him .
(below: Unity.. Unity and Hitler)
I was never a big history buff when I was younger. I think it was because most was to memorize “places and dates”… dates, dates, dates! Ugh! But now I enjoy books with history in them, maybe just because it matters not if I memorize the incidents or not! Well, this book has plenty of history or historical backgrounds to keep one interested.
The Mitford girls were not given a formal education and so it becomes a huge surprise that most of them wound up writing “best sellers” in their lifetime.
But beneath all the notoriety this was still a book about a rather large family. Their marriages (and to whom), their successes, their children, their family quarrels (which were rather on the large side) and Unity with Hitler. Of course there was much talk of Nazis, communism, and fascists.
I can honestly say that nothing in this book sounds anything like something I would read.. and that would be the truth. But I did read it. I did not set it aside , and I did find it very interesting. Enough so that I can say I most probably will read the other chunkster of a book I have about them … just not at this moment in time.
There is so much in this book that my head is muddled to be able to pull out just certain things to tell you about. I can say that if you like history, and want to read how one family survives the ravages of time and war..this would be a good choice of books.
This is such a large book and I can’t begin to do it justice.. so I did some searching and found a good review. (I could not find who wrote it though so I cannot give credit) But I hope that if you are even slightly interested in reading of this family that the review helps!
Families fascinate me. They can be nurturing or dysfunctional, comforting or traumatic. Whatever they are, families are undoubtedly influential in forming who we are as people. I happen to be very lucky in that all the members of my immediate family get along and genuinely enjoy each other’s company (unless they’ve been lying to me all these years). Perhaps that’s why I find family sagas where things all come apart incredibly compelling whether they are fictional or reality.
The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family is the ultimate crazy family story. Mary S. Lovell’s book follows the intriguing, eccentric Mitfords — an English aristocratic family that raised four of the most interesting women in the 20th century. The story of the seven siblings is one that forces you to examine not only your thoughts about how children are raised and the relationships between siblings but also your values and the choices you make when it comes to love, politics and family.
A little background, the Mitfords are famous for several reasons. The first, and probably most easily recognizable to enthusiastic readers, is that Nancy Mitford is one of these seven siblings whose story Lovell sets about writing. Nancy is the author of many caustically funny, eccentric books the most famous being The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Yet she is far from the only prominent Mitford (and actually not the focus of most of the book’s attention). Diana Mitford married the leader of the English fascist movement, Sir Oswald Mosley. Unity Mitford became obsessed with Adolf Hitler during the run up to World War II and became one of his most outspoken English supporters. Jessica “Decca” Mitford ran away from her family and became a prominent muckraking journalist in the United States as well as a strong supporter of the civil rights and women’s movements. Each woman’s life individually would be interesting. Together they weave a complex story that touches all aspects of society, social movement, politics and literature in the first half of the 20th century.
The Sisters works because of Lovell’s strong command on her material. The book is carefully researched with interviews, diaries and letters. The wealth of information about the family is incredible. However, it isn’t the research that makes the book shine. It is the sisters themselves. Lovell chose her subject well. The Mitford’s story is alternatively laugh out loud funny and solemn. Parts of the book almost write themselves.
The family’s eccentricity is legendary. There is the father David who use to let his hounds track and hunt his children across fields when foxes were scare. He is known for hating most people outside of the family. When tired of guests at a dinner party he “was liable to call down the table to [his wife], ‘Have these people no homes of their own?’” And one can’t forget the children. The youngest girls in the family created their own language — and became fluent enough to tell dirty jokes in front of adults. A distinctly Mitford way of speaking forms in the family. ”Sewers,” “hons,” and “counter hons” are all part of the Mitford vocabulary. Nancy draws on the Mitford language in her novels which are highly autobiographical (and therefore the cause of much controversy among the family).
The girls’ failures and successes at love are a prominent part of the book. Some of these stories are preposterous. During the 20s Nancy “announced that she was unofficially engaged to arch-sewer Hamish St Clair Erskine…thoroughly unsuitable in various ways, not least of which that he was an obvious (though unadmitted) homosexual.” Other stories are truly sad. There can be little doubt that Unity Mitford was profoundly disturbed. She fell obsessively for Hitler and torn between Germany and England on the eve of World War II tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide. Diana Mitford gives up her marriage to Bryan Guinness to marry Sir Oswald Mosley. She lives as two times the social outcast being both a divorced woman and the wife of the most hated man in Britain during the war. Both Diana and Unity’s choices cause rifts in the family, and they are far from the only offenders.
Much of the book is given over to the gleeful, frantic 20s and the somber, disturbing 30s through the war. It is horrifying and fascinating to watch Unity and Diana’s relationship with Hitler develop knowing what we do now. It’s clear that it wasn’t just clashing personalities that tore the family apart. Politics played a strong role in the great schisms that divided sisters, mother and father, some of which are tragically never resolved.
The Sisters manages to be both incredibly fun and profoundly tragic at the same time. The book gives a strong sense of what life was like in the English aristocracy as events unfold. These women touched and were touched by so many of the most influential events during the 20th century that it really is a study in living history.