The Sisters

“Sisters are a shield against life’s cruel adversity.”
–Nancy Mitford

“But sisters ARE life’s cruel adversity!”
–Jessica Mitford

Imagine there were six Hilton sisters, instead of just two, and the Hilton family were English Peers, cousins to the Churchills. Now imagine that one of the sisters (Diana) left her Guinness-scion husband just a few years after their high-society wedding, to become the mistress of Oswald Mosley, the notorious head of the British Fascist movement, and another one (Unity) ran off to become an acolyte to Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile, a third sister, Jessica, elopes with a cousin (both still teenagers) and joins the Communist party; they first attempt to join the fight against Fascism in Spain, then jaunt off to the U.S. to establish Communist party cells there. Back in England, the eldest sister (Nancy) is publishing popular novels featuring thinly-veiled caricatures of her Nazi-loving sisters and other family members. A fifth sister, Pam, (“the boring one”) shies away from the spotlight, hiding on her farm, and the sixth, Deborah, marries into the ancient and noble Cavendish family, becoming an in-law to the Kennedy clan and eventually, the Duchess of Devonshire.

Two words: tabloid gold. These women make the Hiltons look like paparazzi-baiting amateurs–although, of course, the Mitfords were all just following their passions, going where their hearts led them, not seeking press attention. AHEM. And these were just a few of the scandals caused by those “madcap Mitford girls”. Mother Sydney complains, “Every time I see a headline that begins “Peer’s Daughter” I know one of you is in trouble again.”

After about 1935, every member of the family is on “non-speakers” with at least one other member, if not two or three. The parents’ marriage eventually crumbles under the strain of politics; David is loyal to England, but Sydney met that nice Mr. Hitler–he was so good to our Unity when she was ill, darling–and won’t hear a word against him. The Communist sister, Jessica, condemns her entire family as Fascists for not disowning Diana and Unity outright, completely disregarding their actual political stances and war efforts. Pam’s quiet life is disrupted by her husband’s frequent affairs; after their divorce, he goes on to have five more marriages–two of them to a pair of sisters, in succession. (Not Mitford sisters, fortunately, but still!) Several of the sisters prove to be gifted writers–Nancy is easily the most famous author of the group, but Diana, Deborah, and Jessica also published many novels, memoirs, and works of non-fiction. Jessica Mitford was proud to have her investigative journalism called “muck-raking”; she’s probably most famous in the U.S. for her classic expose of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death.

The book is neatly arranged chronologically and follows the entanglements of all the Mitfords’ lives, but there’s only so much one can wedge into a six-person biography, and each of these women, plus their parents and brother–oh, imagine being the lone Mitford boy amidst those tumultuous sisters!–easily deserves a volume apiece. I did take exception to the author’s overly-apologetic stance toward Diana and Unity–she flatly condemns Jessica for pilfering small items from wealthy friends, while breezing over Unity’s denouncement of friends to Hitler with a sort of “Well, that’s Unity for you!” attitude–even when Unity’s chattering nearly gets an old friend executed by the Reich. She repeatedly emphasizes that the Fascist-leaning members of the family couldn’t have foreseen the results of the war from their vantage point in the early 1930s, and that’s a fair point. But Sydney lived until 1963, and Diana until 2003, and neither ever revised her opinion of Hitler. (Unity did the correct thing and attempted to shoot herself the day war was declared between England and Germany; always the dimmest Mitford, she couldn’t even get this right. She lived on for a few more years, brain-damaged and dependent on her family, until complications from the head wound eventually did her in.)

Like so many families, the Mitfords emerged from the war irreparably broken. They lost many loved ones, and bitter divisions of opinion kept many of the surviving members apart. That’s what struck me most about the Mitfords–how stiff-necked they were, how headstrong in pursuing their own ends, regardless of the hurt they might cause; how unwilling they were, almost to a person, to forgive, to bend, to downplay their differences in an effort to maintain some kind of family life. Given my obvious distaste for the Fascists, you might think I sympathized with Jessica, but she comes off as an obnoxious little snot. I didn’t really like any of them very much, except Deborah, the youngest sister. The controversies stormed upon the family by her sisters influenced her as she grew up, and she was the only one still at home to watch the acrimonious dissolution of her parents’ marriage. She turned out much more considerate and kind than any other Mitford, and made the biggest effort to hold some semblance of family together.

Not liking the Mitfords isn’t going to stop me reading more about them, I hasten to add. I have two of Nancy’s novels on order at the library and two memoirs (from Jessica and Deborah) to follow. I’ll be interested to hear what they have to say for themselves.

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5 Responses to The Sisters

  1. CAS says:

    I read your review to mum, and she actually knew a Nancy Mitford through her husband- and mum recalls that Nancy was the most stunning of three sisters and apparently was married the elder Mosley. Apparently he used to hold court- and stir the pot, near Mulberry House (Aviva’s first home). Mum was petrified of him.

  2. kaizerin says:

    She’s thinking of Diana–acclaimed as the most beautiful woman of her age, and the one who married Mosley. How frightening to have such people in the neighborhood. Also, interestingly, they were the parents of Max Mosley. You know, Nazi sex-dungeon-scandal Max Mosley? So that apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

  3. CAS says:

    I remember Max as former F1 honcho, and of course the Nazi dungeon scandal. I have to admit I was a bit ignorant of his father’s role in British politics. I read your review to Mum because she loves this very sort of novel, and was gobsmacked by the stories it elicited from her. I swear I should endeavour to start transcribing her stories!

    As an aside, you also now have a new octogenarian blog fan!

  4. Ramona says:

    In one of those coincidences that seem to happen regularly, Nancy Mitford was mentioned in a book I’m currently reading. I wouldn’t even have given her a thought if I hadn’t just read your review. The book is Robert MacNeil’s “Wordstruck”. He’s talking about the language of the theatre and how knowing the special terminology of any group can make one feel like he/she “belongs”. The passage is: “So special was the atmosphere of belonging, so strong the condescension to outsiders, that I felt like someone at a dinner party with Nancy Mitford, trying to catch what was U and non-U, fearing to call a napkin, God forbid, a serviette.”
    His next paragraph ends: “Words are gates and fences.” I like that. Looking forward to your review(s) of Nancy’s novels.

  5. kaizerin says:

    That was discussed in The Sisters, that Nancy had written this humorous piece on how to tell the truly upper class from the masses by their habits of speech. Nancy swears she wrote it as a satire of the whole idea, but it was taken at face value and she became the unwitting arbiter of proper speech for a generation. She was mortified by how snobbish it made her seem, when her intent had been to poke fun at the whole thing.

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