The Blurb (from Goodreads):
The eldest was a razor-sharp novelist of upper-class manners; the second was loved by John Betjeman; the third was a fascist who married Oswald Mosley; the fourth idolized Hitler and shot herself in the head when Britain declared war on Germany; the fifth was a member of the American Communist Party; the sixth became Duchess of Devonshire.
They were the Mitford sisters: Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah. Born into country-house privilege, they became prominent as ‘bright young things’ in the high society of interwar London. Then, as the shadows crept over 1930s Europe, the stark – and very public – differences in their outlooks came to symbolise the political polarities of a dangerous decade.
The intertwined stories of their lives – recounted in masterly fashion by Laura Thompson – hold up a revelatory mirror to upper-class English life before and after World War II
I first became aware of the controversial and fascinating lives of the six Mitford sisters when Mary Hoffman, a writer friend of mine, took me to see their graves in the cemetery in Swinbrook, a village in the Cotswolds near where the family grew up. Only four of the six sisters are buried there – Nancy the Writer, Unity the Nazi, Diana the Fascist, and Pamela the Boring One. The other two sisters are known as Jessica the Communist and Deborah the Duchess, I kid you not.
After Mary told me something of their lives, I became so interested that I read a few biographies about the family. Unity and Diana ended up having cameo appearances in my novel The Beast’s Garden, which tells the story of the secret underground resistance to Hitler in Berlin during the Third Reich. Both Unity and Diana were avid supporters of Hitler and the Nazis, and Unity shot herself in the head when England declared war on Germany (Diana spent most of the war in prison).
The Mitfords were an impoverished aristocratic family with seven children (the only son, Tom Mitford, could be nicknamed the One Who Everyone Forgets).
Nancy (b. 1904) was a bestselling novelist and biographer; Pamela (b. 1907) was a country woman who bred chickens; Tom (b. 1909) was killed in action during the Second World War; Diana (b.1910) was considered one of the most beautiful women of the age and left her first husband Bryan Guinness (of the Guinness beer fortune) to marry Oswald Moseley, founder of the British Union of Fascists; Unity (b. 1914) was in love with Hitler and tried to commit suicide the day war broke out (she survived another nine years); Jessica (b. 1917) eloped with her cousin Esmond Romilly to serve in the Spanish Civil War and was later active in the American Civil Rights movement; and Deborah (b. 1920) become the Duchess of Devonshire and ran Chatsworth House, the house famous for playing the role of Pemberley in the 2005 film with Keira Knightley).
No wonder people find them fascinating!
If you have never heard of the Mitford sisters, this is may not the place to start as the author assumes the reader is familiar with the lives, loves and hates of the six young women. (Start by reading Nancy’s novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in A Cold Climate, and then move on to Jessica’s autobiography Hons & Rebels.)
However, for someone who knows the background and is familiar with previous biographies, this book offers fresh material in the form of interviews with the last two surviving Mitfords, Diana and Deborah, before their deaths. And Laura Thompson does not pass judgement on the six sisters and their sometimes disastrous choices – she allows them to speak to us in their own words, through quotes from letters and diaries and intreviews, so we may draw our own conclusions.
You might also like to read my review of Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley: