The Mitford sisters have become an industry. There are over twenty nine titles concerning them and that does not count their own books- three of them were writers. Only one of them was truly a success, the instigator of the Mitford mythology: Nancy Mitford.
Laura Thompson is contributing her second book to this already crowded section of the biography shelf. The Six, The Lives of the Mitford Sisters is not a straightforward biography. She has already written about Nancy, Life in a Cold Climate and this is her second attempt at mapping the complicated lives of these siblings only this time by psychological surveillance.
In case you are coming late to this upscale fête, the introductions are as follows: six beautiful English sisters the daughters of Lord Redesdale born between 1904 and 1920, all lively and intelligent, half frankly wayward. The eldest Nancy was the author of two comic masterpieces based upon their unconventional childhood: The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. She was followed by her rural sister Pamela, then by Diana Mitford, born in 1910.
Diana was a statuesque beauty who married first Bryan Guinness (of the Guinness beer fortune), then left him for Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists. Her younger sister Unity was a Nazi, personal friend to Hitler, and rabid anti- Semite, while Jessica Mitford born in 1917, was a Communist who during her debutante season eloped with Esmond Romilly , nephew to Winston Churchill. Last but not least was Deborah who became the Duchess of Devonshire.
The question most often asked about this disparate crew is: how did they get to be so extreme? After all, not everyone in 1930’s England became a Fascist, Nazi, or Communist. Ms Thompson’s answer is a long and cozy discussion about sibling rivalries and the pitfalls that can pock a lifetime dominated by them. In many ways, The Six is a pop analysis of the Mitford family rivalries, putting the sisters on the couch, and chatting about their jealousies of each others’ looks, money, men and, of course, babies – or lack thereof.
This is all great good fun and amusing to read especially if you are already acquainted with the Mitford story. She leaves out only two members of the clan, Pamela (because one assumes too dull) and Tom, the only boy. The drawback is that this intimate account might confuse someone who did not already know something about the family.
The book hits its stride during the war years when Diana Mosley and her husband were imprisoned in Holloway Gaol as possible Nazi sympathizers and spies. At nearly the same time Unity Mitford, after a failed attempt at suicide, returned home a hulking, brain damaged invalid. Jessica Mitford escaped to the US where, in 1941 she learned from Churchil himself of her young husband’s death at sea.
Thompson tries to understand the motives of Diana Mosley, and is on the whole sympathetic about the latter’s incarceration. Ms Thompson evidently met Diana while finding material for her books and was charmed by her. She tuts at Jessica’s passionate comment that the “Mosleys should be stood up against a wall and shot”, and shakes her head over Diana’s betrayal by Nancy, who informed MI5 in 1940 that her sister was potentially dangerous. Nancy was summoned to tell what she knew of her sister’s activities, and she was honest about them, though it seems that she may not have known the full extent of Diana’s Nazi connections*. Sisters betraying sisters, how tragic.
Except that it isn’t. Under the 100 year rule, many of the documents concerning what MI5 or indeed any other agency knew about the Mosleys, or Unity, is guesswork, because only some of the papers are released. The Mitford correspondence is published and the sisters’ witty commentary is well known in a sort of collective epistolary voice, but the facts of these cases are not.
Perhaps it is too soon to judge who really did what to whom or if, given the number of Mitfordian antics, the authorities had much choice about Diana. Nancy Mitford’s motivation for testifying against her sister may have been genuine alarm. In 1940-41 Britain was suffering through the blitz. Between the fire watchin, and the Polish Jews living in her flat, Nancy may have remembered one too many pre-war trips to Germany by Diana, to say nothing of Diana’s and Unity’s lunches with Herr Hitler.
Then there was the Mosley’s private wedding at the Goebbels’ house, and the largely German owned radio station the Mosley’s were trying to make operational in Britain as a means of funding the British Union of Fascists. All this while dozens of Mosley’s Blackshirts were being detained, most of them not so high up in BUF councils as Diana.
One of the problems with the Mitfords, and with many books about them (including this one), is that their brilliant collective allure rather blinds biographers. “No one could have been cleverer and more amusing,” wrote Nancy in The Sun King, describing the French Mortemart siblings, though really one feels, her own. “They had a way of talking which has unfortunately never been precisely described but which people found irresistible. Their lazy, languishing, wailing voices would build up an episode, unexpected exaggerations upon comic images until the listeners were helpless with laughter.”
Charming certainly, but in the context of the Second World War, perhaps just a tad too frivolous? The “simple little fellow Streicher”? “Sweet Hitler”? Collaborators in Italy, France, and Greece were shot, hanged, or head shaven. The Fascist Mitfords may have been lucky that they did not meet worse fates.
As to the other Mitfords, essentially Nancy, Pamela and Deborah were credits to their contemporaries and family. Some reputations were retrieved by time and effort. Jessica became a a talented journalist and over decades people began to forget Diana’s Fascism and to admire her book reviews. All three extremists believed in their causes to the death, but as the Bolter says at the end of The Pursuit of Love concerning love, one always believes it is the real thing, “every, every time.”
- Diana went to a dinner party in1938 right after the Munich agreement, with Hitler, and Goering in which the imminent invasion of Czechoslovakia was discussed. She told this to the radio company solicitor (Frederick Lawton) He felt he could say nothing to authorities because of attorney client privilege. Diana was under no such obligation.