Why do we still love reading great books about the Mitford Sisters? Maybe it’s because there were so many of them (six!), they were so extreme in their thoughts and ideals and they mixed with such interesting people of the day. What’s not to be intrigued about?
The Mitford Girls; The Biography of an Extraordinary Family by Mary S.Lovell (Abacus) What fun! What larks! What drama! Those ‘mahvellous’, multi-faceted Mitford sisters. Not knowing much about this legendary family, I asked my local bookshop for a recommendation for where to start regarding learning about all things Mitford. With this suggestion I hit the jackpot. Equally fascinating (I am sure) for both Mitford aficionados and those being introduced to the Mitfords (like myself), I just loved it and fell into their world. Really you couldn’t have dreamed up a wider, more bizarre collection of personalities all growing up together. Eccentric parents (Farve and Muv) who had a son and six daughters; Diana marries fascist Oswald Mosley, Decca marries a communist, Unity is a very close friend of Nazi Hitler, Debo becomes the Duchess of Devonshire and lives at Chatsworth, Nancy becomes a novelist and ‘whatshername’ keeps chickens and had a blue Aga to match her eyes!
Add crazy antics such as writing to each other in code, bizarre nicknames, quick quips, a lucrative chicken and egg home business, lots of laughs and tears, wondering why post-it notes don’t work when you lick them and stick them down, sending wrinkly British pound notes in to London banks to be exchanged for fresh ones please and mother, Sydney’s, extraordinary remarks, ‘Oh, why do all my daughters fall for dictators?’, this book reads like fiction. Enjoy the energy, joie de vivre and self-confidence that makes them the Mitford sisters.
Wait For Me; Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister by Deborah Devonshire (John Murray; Hachette) Reading other Mitford books there is often a reference to this book, so I had to read it. Written by the late Debo (1920 – 2014), the youngest Mitford sister and last to survive, I loved reading her phrasing and her take on events; how as a young adult, her beloved brother Tom, used to actually pay older sister Nancy to argue with him for a whole day at a time to sharpen his legal and debating skills. Can you imagine? Eccentric relations such as the paternal grandmother who took a pig on a lead to church; ‘No one thought it a bit odd’; Farve who used to ask Diana to ‘Take your degraded elbows off the table’; her maternal grandfather (who owned The Lady magazine) set up his own Turkish bath in an empty dog kennel at home then was drenched with buckets of cold water by his butler; her mothers’ views on health, food and her body stretching exercise at the table; her father-in-law who liked to spend time in the bathtub imagining he was a salmon and of her husband attaching a piece of string to the coachman’s coat to communicate with him!
She had her own idiosyncrasies too with; her dinner party table decorations were live piglets sleeping in straw beds and she asked for her guest bathroom to be painted the exact shade of the plastic identity bracelet she was given in hospital!
There are wonderful family stories such as Pamela asking Lord Mountbatten who he was; house guests with jewel boxes so heavy that they were mistaken for gun cartridges; Nancy asking Debo’s son, Stoker, when he was two and a half if he could talk, ‘Not yet’ was his answer.
The family photos in the book were a bonus as were the descriptions of the unspoken rules of staying at someone’s house and the lack of comforts in those grand houses.
Farve and Clementine Churchill were cousins and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was her father-in-law’s brother-in-law; seemingly the Mitfords led charmed lives, but also faced great, great tragedies.
Phrases like ’in the swim’, ‘a stampede of dowagers, fighting like mad’, ‘the queen and the rest of her push were there’ and hysterical descriptions of the queen doing something with ‘dressing gown cord’ at the ceremony for knighthood are such great reading!
Did you know that Debo was a huge Elvis fan? Or that she held open houses and was the brainchild behind the shops and farm days at Chatsworth? Please read this book.
The Other Mitford; Pamela’s Story by Diana Alexander (The History Press) Written by Pamela’s (1907 – 1994) cleaning lady who later became a dear friend, this was an interesting perspective on the sister who stayed out of the public eye. Pamela became one of the first women to fly across the Atlantic in a commercial aircraft and married a brilliant physicist. Known as one of the most practical sisters, she looked after two of her nephews when their parents went to prison ‘for their championship of fascism’ and later transformed the kitchen gardens in Debo’s Chatsworth Estate.
The explanation of nicknames, stories of Nanny Blor, the special languages spoken between some of the siblings when they were children and carried into their adult life are all fascinating. Alexander explains that Pamela often spoke about how Farve made them all laugh so much, she expresses how brother Tom died of war wounds in 1945 and the Redesdale title passed on to a cousin, that ‘Diana was probably the only person in the world to be friendly with both Churchill and Hitler’, Nancy as a Bright Young Thing and then as one of the first women to wear Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’, of Debo’s father dying fourteen weeks before the inheritance laws’ obligatory five year wait and her dear friendship with her sister-in-law, Kick Kennedy (JFK’s sister).
The sisters’ love of words and humour sparkled through the book; a white Christmas to Pamela meant a Christmas with ‘old’ people. Stories with shrieks of laughter can only be imagined! A few family recipes at the back are a treat!.
Take Six Girls; The Lives of the Mitford Sisters by Laura Thompson (Head of Zeus) As Thompson sums it up; ‘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 idolised 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.’ Or as a chant like for Henry VIII’s wives; ‘Writer, Countrywoman, Fascist; Nazi, Communist, Duchess’.
So good and I do love a book with a family tree!
‘Never again will there be six such girls, raised in such a way, at such a time’, Thompson muses. Their jokes, the nicknames, the showmanship, the confidence, the humour, the braveness, the toughness – all times six! Their nursery way of speech (‘oh do be sorry for me’) was intriguing. It was an absolutely fascinating read.
Thompson explains that Nancy’s books celebrated and lamented what life she and others of her elk had lost and the what it was communicated was spellbinding. ‘They had an iron will to happiness’, Thompson writes about the Mitford sisters. Nancy’s creed was, ‘I have decided to be happy, because it is better for my health’, and she held to it firmly. They had such ‘cut-crystal’ voices that when Nancy was giving lectures on the subject of fire-watching during World War II, she was told to stop as ‘her voice annoyed her audience so much’. Scream!
Of course, I also loved reading wartime stories such as a soldier who bought a lemon from Italy home with him and it was placed on the counter of the local post office and people were charged tuppence for the Red Cross to smell it!
A great read. Do yourself a favour and read this one. I’m sure you will love it too!
The Riviera Set; 1920 – 1960: The Golden Years of Glamour and Excess by Mary S. Lovell (Little, Brown; Hachette) I loved reading this book all about the set of people that the Mitfords mixed with and more, especially on the Riviera. The Mitford siblings are mentioned throughout and it was wonderful to read who Nancy based some of her fictional characters on.
So intriguing to read about people like Maxine Elliott (whose wartime contributions were feeding, clothing and medically treating an estimated 350,000 people) who was quick to spot a trend, helped made the Riviera popular. This place provided a ‘sanctuary for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, ‘who were emotionally battered by the world. They too found a balm of sorts among this shimmering crowd.’ I loved reading about how house-guests were expected to contribute to the entertainment such as playing the piano, performing impressions and reciting lengthy poems! I had no idea. How about the story of when a ‘nouveau riche’ heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine empire was commented upon by someone haughty with ‘My name is better than yours’, the heiress quipped, ‘Not at the bottom of a cheque it’s not’! Did you know that Spanish Flu killed more people than in the trenches during the war or that Winston Churchill’s comment that after coming out of surgery and during a tumultuous time in politics he found himself ‘without office, seat, party or appendix’? The Duke of Westminster, Coco Chanel’s man, was known as the richest man in the world. I was intrigued to read that the Prince of Wales was also very keen on Coco. Who knew? I loved the story of a husband who had his wife followed by a private detective. When the detective phoned him to tell him that his wife had ben seen entering the house with a man, the husband said ‘You blithering idiot. It’s me. I’m here with my wife!’ I loved reading how even when on holidays, Winston Churchill would wake at 8am and immediately call for his secretary and that he produced so much correspondence output at home that he had a number of shorthand typists who worked in shifts from 8am until 10pm, that he played Mah Jong all afternoon and of his love of sunshine; ‘it energised him and enabled him to work at an even higher rate’. Harold Nicolson’s fascinating account of when the Duke of Windsor introduced his wife to a group of house guests as ‘Her (gasp) Royal (shudder) Highness (and not one eye dared to meet another)’. Superb! The reaction on the Riviera of Diana Guinness (née Mitford)’s marriage was an interesting perspective and of Pamela’s relationship with of Aly Khan. When Pamela asked who took precedence, Duff Cooper’s response was, ‘His Highness the Aga Khan is regarded as God on Earth by his many million followers. But an English Duke, of course, takes precedence’. Makes you stop to think. Such a great read.