Mary S. Lovell is by no means the first writer to be seduced into writing a biography of the Mitfords. The family—not only the glamorous and well-known daughters, but their crusty father and canny mother—provides irresistible material for a writer looking to tell the story of individuals whose colorful private lives not only were improbably novelistic, but whose controversial public personas insured a certain fame, even notoriety, in their lifetimes and beyond. Several of the Mitford sisters themselves were unable to resist telling their tale. Nancy did so in a series of brilliantly stylish novels, Jessica and Diana in pointed, and pointedly differing, memoirs. There have been several biographies and memoirs of Nancy, as well as collections of her letters and journalism; there have been provocative books on Diana and Unity and even an earlier group biography, The House of Mitford (1984) by Jonathan Guinness, one of Diana’s sons; there have been innumerable descriptions of the family in published accounts of English cultural life between the wars. Lovell’s book is certainly not the first, though, that having been said, it may for some readers turn out to be the best of the lot.
The new biography not only is more capacious than previous accounts, but it has the advantage of having been written with the cooperation of the remaining Mitford sisters (at the time of writing, Diana and Debo) and with access to previously unpublished material. Lovell makes particularly good use of Decca’s private papers, especially her family letters covering more than sixty years. She also had available to her the unpublished papers of diarist James Lees-Milne and his seventy years’ worth of Mitford correspondence. Both Debo and Diana agreed to regular interviews and candidly answered all inquiries. The result is a fairly hefty volume, burgeoning with information and alive with anecdote, covering old territory crisply and inserting new material in telling ways. It is all skillfully assembled, though the difficulty of juggling nine potent personalities over the course of a century means that occasionally the seams show as Lovell moves in and out of different characters, locations, and periods. Still, she manages to convey this idiosyncratic family with great effect and even greater affection; she has clearly been captivated, as were many contemporaries, by their unrelenting cleverness and eager, imaginative participation in life, even by their hallmark way of talking. Their linguistic inventiveness has long been enjoyed by readers of Nancy’s two novels, who found in the quirky speech of Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie (thinly disguised portraits of her parents) the very texture of Mitfordian conversational extravagance; all that is happily on display here—now not in fiction but in reams of actual correspondence. The reader is presented with a group of lively, irreverent, opinionated, curious, and candid individuals, who even when warring among themselves were singularly devoted to their tribe and its history. The conflicts and divisions (and these ran deep and lasted long) make for intense drama; the underlying connections make for real pathos. Lovell understands this, and her exuberance appropriately mirrors the sense of these lives largely and fearlessly lived.
Lovell’s announced intent is to focus on the relationships among the sisters and between the sisters and their parents. She wants to conduct a multigenerational exploration of the complex lives which wound up to have such dramatically public profiles. She also insists that she has not written a political book, that she has scrupulously tried to weigh in neither for nor against the right-wing Diana and Unity or the left-wing Decca. Yet noble as that attempt at objectivity may be, her biography can hardly help but be political to some degree, since it is Unity’s support of Nazism and Diana’s connection to British fascism that have continued to shape the Mitfords’ popular reputation. For years before, during, and after World War II, these two Mitford sisters were among the most reviled women in England. Unity’s recklessly anti-Semitic writings and her public defense of the close personal relationship she had with Adolf Hitler made her appear nothing less than a traitor; Diana, a Hitler apologist like her sister as well as the second wife and ardent supporter of Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, was similarly regarded with the deepest of suspicion by the public. Indeed, when she and Mosley were jailed without trial for three years during the war, the press celebrated the incarceration as a simple act of justice.
The heart of the book is, in fact, the meaty section on the war years and the way that...
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