Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell

The six sisters collectively known as the Mitford Girls were not only very different and interesting characters of themselves, living in an interesting time in history, but the way their lives turned out, makes them even more fascinating.

So let me briefly introduce them. The oldest, Nancy, was born in 1904 and became a very successful writer, getting much of her inspiration from her own surroundings. Then there was Pam, one of the quieter, lesser known sisters. The two younger sisters Diana and Unity more than made up for that. Diana falls in love with and later marries Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Fascist Party, and becomes an ardent supporter of Fascism and Nazism. Unity gets acquainted with and becomes a personal friend of Adolf Hitler. In fact, Diana may have been one of the very few if not the only person who counted both Hitler and Winston Churchill (he married into the family when he married a cousin of the girls' father) among her personal friends. Decca's political preferences go in an entirely different direction: she becomes a communist, in the late 30s she runs off to the civil war against Franco in Spain and eventually ends up in the US. The youngest sister, Debo, was born in 1920. Like Pam, she is one of the "quieter" of the sisters, though in her own way she makes something remarkable of her life, becoming a business woman and successfully leading and expanding her husband's estate, making it one of the few profitable estates in the country. There is a fairly recent interview with her here.

I found Decca the most interesting of the sisters, because she was the only one who actually broke free of the life and conventions of her class and ended up leading a life different from what was expected of her. She was the most unconventional of the six. The others, no matter how "funky" their political opinions, still stayed within what was expected of them by their social background. Debo and Pam, in The Mitford Girls at least, stayed a bit in the background, probably because they were the most "ordinary" of the six. Relatively speaking that is. I would have loved to find out more about them. Though for that I suppose I'd have to read one of the numerous other books that have been written about one or more of the sisters.

The most interesting part of the book were the chapters dealing with the period from the late twenties until the end of the Second World War. Anyone who reads this book cannot but read that part with hindsight, knowing what Fascism and Nazism would lead to, knowing about the Holocaust.

In fact, the same goes for Decca's becoming a communist in the thirties. At this time Stalin's terror was pretty much at its top. This was one question I had that didn't get answered in this book: to what extent did Decca really believe in Communism as an ideal, a solution for economic and social problems or was Communism for her a way to combat Fascism. Or was she just some sort of fellow-traveler. Even more important, to what extent was she aware of what was happening in the Soviet Union, the Gulags, the executions and persecutions, the famines following the collectivization of the agricultural sector. This book at least doesn't say anything about her knowledge of and attitude towards all this.

Many more pages are dedicated to Unity's infatuation for Hitler an Diana's support for Nazism and Fascism. During her life, Diana actually never apologized for or repented her support for Fascism. I found Diana an interesting woman as well.

Apart from the six women's roaring lives, this book also gives a very interesting picture of upper class life in England and especially of the social mores and conventions that the girls had to cope with and adhere to in the first half of the twentieth century. One thing that struck me was how the different families were on the one hand continually selling their mansions, houses, and parts of their estates because they couldn't afford their upkeeping anymore, moving into smaller living places all the time, but on the other they were also continually traveling abroad, sending their children to finishing school abroad, and they kept buying land and houses as well. All these changes in property were sometimes hard to keep up with. To my 21st century mind it was sometimes hard to understand the logic behind not being able to afford one thing, but at the same time spending so much money on other luxuries.

Another thing that struck me is how seemingly common extramarital affairs were in the society in which the Mitfords lived. Don't get me wrong, I am not a prude and all this adultery going on didn't bother me as such, it was just one of the things I noticed while reading the book. Extramarital affairs seemed to have been acceptable for both men and women, but at the same time once a woman was divorced, her social status was gone. This became very clear when Diana's affair with Oswald Mosley was discussed in the book. When their relationship started, Diana was still married to someone else. She did push through a divorce, despite the objections of many, her own parents among them. Diana's mother even forbade some of the younger sisters to visit Diana after her divorce.

All in all, I enjoyed The Mitford Girls enormously. Mary S. Lovell wrote a fast-paced, seemingly well researched book, that gives an intriguing look into the lives of a family that was notorious and famous at the time and also into upper-class life in England in the first half of the twentieth century in general. I highly recommend this book as an introduction into the Mitford family.

As always, if you have reviewed this book on your blog, leave a comment with the link to your review or send me an email with the link, so I can include it in the post.

No comments: