- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2002

THE SISTERS: THE SAGA OF THE MITFORD FAMILY

By: Mary S. Lowell

Norton, $29.95, 611 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Speaking of the Mitfords, the late Lord Longford told biographer Mary S. Lovell, "You have to look at that family as fun. They were always fun." They were indeed, which perhaps accounts at least in part for the attraction they have held for millions of readers all over the world since they first hit the headlines in the years between the two world wars that dominated the 20th century. Each of these seven children of eccentric aristocrats, Lord and Lady Redesdale, grew up to become a memorable character in one way or another.
Sharp-tongued Nancy, the eldest, wrote scintillatingly amusing novels of social comedy, witty essays, and gossipy biographies. Statuesque Diana gained fame as a society hostess, then as wife to the leader of Britain's fascist movement, Sir Oswald Mosley, whom she married in the presence of Adolf Hitler, whose reputation she has continued to defend now for more than six decades. Bone-headed (Nancy's epithet for her) sister Unity was so personally devoted to Hitler that she shot herself in Munich on the day war broke out between her native and adopted countries in 1939.
Feisty Jessica (nicknamed Decca) became well-known as a communist, first in Republican Spain and then, of all places, in these United States where she eventually gained fame and fortune as a celebrated muckraking journalist. Baby sister Deborah fulfilled her childhood dream of marrying a duke, becoming the Duchess of Devonshire and the chateleine of Chatsworth, one of England's grandest stately homes. And even the remaining two siblings, Pam and Tom, achieved distinction of a sort for being relatively ordinary compared to the others.
Nancy's novels, particularly "The Pursuit of Love" and "Love in a Cold Climate," and Jessica's memoir "Hons and Rebels" indelibly imprinted on generations of readers the eccentricities of the Mitford household and the jokes, teases, and catchphrases that were uniquely theirs. They certainly had a lot of fun, and if all the world loves a lover, it is perhaps equally true that the capacity for fun will attract attention and affection.
The author has clearly borne Lord Longford's injunction in mind the shrieks (Mitfordese for laughs), the pranks, the jokes, the nicknames are all on display, as we've come to expect from any book about one or more of them. The trouble is, however, that their lives weren't all fun, and her blithely uncritical attitude towards some of the less appealing members of the clan leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth of the reader who has just ploughed through 600-plus pages about this fun bunch.
At the beginning of the book, the author states her approach in presenting the various Mitfords: "I accept each of these protagonists as she was, and, in Diana's case, as she still is. This book seeks to explore the richness of the personalities, not to judge them. The reader is as capable as I am of forming his or her own opinion based on the evidence, and an individual social ideology."
Now, such an attitude may have sufficed in the author's previous biographies of figures like Sir Richard and Lady Burton, the Victorian explorer and his wife, or the aviatrices Amelia Earhart and Beryl Markham, but when the subject involves three heinous ideologies that wrought such havoc and incalculable devastation communism, fascism, and Nazism, it is woefully inadequate or worse.
Indeed, the author specifically attempts to inoculate herself against criticism by presenting her book's most serious flaw as a perfectly legitimate tactic: "Although politics plays a major part in the story of the sisters, this is not a political book, so anyone expecting a stand against Unity or Diana and the far right, or Decca and the far left, must look elsewhere." The author seems to think it a virtue that she is an equal opportunity apologist for all varieties of totalitarianism certainly she is no more judgmental of Jessica's communism than she is of Unity and Diana's fascism and Nazism.
But far more damaging to her book than her unwillingness or inability to render judgment is the writer's inept use of those texts in which Diana and Jessica have reflected on their own political histories. Commenting on Diana's 1977 memoir, "A Life of Contrasts," the biographer who is so reluctant to judge her subject's attitudes seems to have no such compunction about judging those reviewers who expressed their outrage at her attitudes. "Many reviewers used the same phrase: Lady Mosley, they said, was 'unrepentant.' In the main this referred to the fact that Diana wrote her memories of Hitler, the man she had liked and admired, as though none of the things he did later (and none of the things which he was doing at the time, and which came to light afterwards) had occurred.
"That subsequent historical perspective did not change her original memories rankled. She did not condone the horrors perpetuated by his regime, but merely stated what her own reactions had been at the time. In turn, she had been offended by the factual inaccuracies published about Hitler by journalists and successive biographers; the fact was, she wrote, that she had observed a charming, cultured man, who did not rant and foam at the mouth (as was frequently claimed), with well-manicured hands (not roughened and nail-bitten), a fastidious man who ate sparingly rather than the cartoon character who stuffed himself with cream cakes).
"Her lack of criticism brought fury raging down on her head, and her account of her time in the filthy conditions of Holloway [Prison in London where she had been detained by Churchill] invited the comments that many millions of women were incarcerated in far worse conditions during the war, thanks to Hitler and his supporters." Clearly, the author came away from her interview with Diana enchanted by her charms, but it is interesting to contrast her attitude with that of Nancy and Jessica, both of whom had adored Diana but who nevertheless judged her harshly for her rebarbative views.
I think it may fairly be said that in Jessica's memoir, "A Fine Old Conflict," she was far tougher in judging her own slowness to recognize the flawed nature of the ideology she had supported for so long than the author is prepared to be. Not only does she fail to quote this material (she seems as averse to Jessica's making judgments as she is to making judgments of her own), but she makes almost no reference to this most revealing of Jessica's autobiographical works.
Aside from politics, it must be admitted that "The Sisters" provides some good stories about the Mitfords. Many are tales already familiar to those who have read their share of Mitfordiana, but there are fresh ones as well, many drawn from letters, and also from interviews with the surviving sisters, Diana and Deborah, as well as with sundry relations and friends.
Not surprisingly, Nancy emerges as the most interesting member of the clan waspish, acerbic, ready to make a joke of anything, even her excruciatingly painful struggle with the cancer that killed her in 1973: "It's very curious, dying, and would have many a droll, amusing & charming side were it not for the pain…" But by the end, even she cannot joke any longer and the pathos of her condition is summed up in her last letter: "I'm truly very ill … I suffer as I never imagined possible; the morphine has very little effect and hurts very much as it goes in. I hope and believe I am dying … the torture is too great. You cannot imagine."
Although her literary talent was generally to amuse, one sees in the simplicity and directness of her prose in extremis just what a powerful writer she could be.
But although Nancy was mercifully free of Nazi taint, the spectre that haunts the saga of the Mitfords is Adolf Hitler, who damaged this family (on a minor scale) even as he laid waste to Europe and indeed much of the world.
The author portrays the Mitford parents' marriage being devastated by their disagreement about Hitler: Lord Redesdale abandoned his appeasement politics when the war came, but his wife defended Hitler to the end of her days. It seems never to have occurred to Lady Redesdale that the man she had found so pleasant would have murdered her half-Jewish grandson, on whom she doted. That Mary S. Lovell seems unable to take note of such a contradiction, let alone voice such a feeling herself, is central to the distaste which many readers will feel upon completing this book, whatever their "individual social ideology."

Martin Rubin is a writer living in Pasadena, Calif.



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