The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell
Opening sentence: “Sydney Bowles was fourteen years old when she first set eyes on David Freeman Mitford.”
I really can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading this book. When a biography feels like a novel – in its tone, structure, plot development and engrossing story arcs of the characters, then you know you’ve got a great read on your hands.
I had, of course, heard of novelist Nancy Mitford but what I didn’t know was that she came from such an extraordinary family. It was a brief reference I stumbled across about her sister Unity’s relationship with Hitler that made me want to find out more about the Mitfords.
Lovell begins this biography with the meeting of Sydney (who herself came from an interesting family – her father founded Vanity Fair and The Lady magazines) and David, who was Lord Reesdale, parents of the six Mitford sisters and one son, Thomas. Lovell then chronologically covers the lives and exploits of each family member, expertly weaving together many story threads, so you always know what’s going on with each person as the years move on.
Born into high society, the six sisters – Nancy (1904-1973), Pamela (1907-1994), Diana (1910-2003), Unity (1914-1948), Jessica known as Decca (1917-1996) and Deborah known as Debo (1920-2014) – lead charmed lives. They each had an allowance, were not expected to work and were ‘presented’ into society when they turned 18 to find a suitable husband and meet the right sort of people. Although, it quickly became apparent that this easy life was not what any of them particularly wanted.
Pam and Debo lead the most uneventful lives by Mitford standards – Pam a country girl at heart didn’t do anything dramatic but Debo did marry a Duke and became Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. So it tells you a lot about this family when becoming a Duchess doesn’t even put Debo close to the most interesting member. Nancy became an established author in her lifetime, the publication of The Pursuit of Love in 1945, drawing heavily from people she knew and her family life, was a huge hit.
But it was the stark political pursuits of Diana, Decca and Unity that caused the most controversy. From an early age, when Decca and Unity shared a room, Decca would decorate her half of the room with communist propaganda and Unity Valkyrie – yes, her real amazing name – would hang swastikas and pictures of Hitler up, showing her early allegiance to fascism. (On that note – another great fact about Unity, she was conceived in the Canadian town of Swastika.) Over the years, Decca’s dedication to communism saw her move to America and become estranged from her family, while Unity moved to Munich where she infamously became part of Hitler’s inner circle, although there is debate about whether she was ever actually his lover.
Diana, after initially marrying into the famous Guinness family, left her husband for politician Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and ended up, during WWII in prison for 2 and half years due to her political leanings and associations with Hitler.
This is just a broad summary of the fascinating things (by most families standards) these girls got up to, a truly diverse and memorable family in British history. At no point did I feel like a reading a bog-standard history book, Lovell has such a lyrical writing style, easily packing in lots of facts, while keeping the pace up. One of the best biographies I’ve read.