There must have been some extraordinary quality

The Mitford Girls
by Mary S Lovell

The Mitfords weren’t really on my reading radar until I started book blogging (almost three years ago) and suddenly they were everywhere. After trying to read a volume of Nancy’s letters and failing to see the charm everyone else seemed to have found, I decided it might help to know more about the family and by a stroke of luck, spotted this biography in a charity shop. It worked, in that I am now completely smitten with the Mitfords.

This book is clearly extensively researched – there are 80 pages of notes, index and bibliography at the back – but it manages not to read as a dry product of research, as biographies sometimes can. This is partly due to Lovell’s clear affection for the family, though she only briefly spoke to, rather than knowing intimately, four of the sisters and recounts those meetings very honestly in her introduction. In fact, she does an excellent job of bringing to life her large cast who were largely dead or elderly at the time of writing. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Mitfords were such a very interesting bunch of people.

For those who don’t know, the “Mitford Girls” of the title are the sisters Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah, of whom only the youngest, Deborah, is still alive. For much of the 20th century they were household names, for various reasons. Nancy was a bestselling writer, author of many greatly admired biographies as well as novels including The Pursuit of Love that were heavily based on her own family. Diana married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and was a staunch supporter of his political ideals despite decades of hatred from the British public. Unity went even further and became friends with Hitler, in fact was obsessively in love with him and tried to kill herself when Britain declared war in 1939, resulting in brain damage. Jessica was a card-carrying Communist, worked for the civil rights movement in the USA and became such an accomplished journalist that she lectured at universities including Yale and Harvard. Even the less-featured-in-the-headlines Pamela and Deborah lived the kind of lives most of us would find hard to imagine, born as they were the daughters of a Baron, hobnobbing with the great and good of Society, including John Betjeman (family friend), Evelyn Waugh (good friend of Nancy), Winston Churchill (their cousin by marriage), the Kennedys (related by marriage to Deborah) and Harold MacMillan (also related by marriage to Deborah), to name but a few.

I think, because the details were new to me, it was Unity’s story that I found most shocking:

“There must have been some extraordinary quality in Unity that not only attracted Hitler’s attention but caused him to establish a deeper relationship by continued invitations… Unity chatted to Hitler as she would to any member of her family, unselfconsciously bright, always seeking to amuse, entertain or impress. No-one else in his life dared to treat him in the casual manner that Unity adopted.”

Lovell’s job was not, I suppose, an easy one as so very much had previously been published about the family, often directly contradictory. As you might imagine from the differing political affiliations, there were some serious fallings out between members of the family and the combination of sisterly cattiness and a public profile that allowed them to publish their views on any subject in print meant that Lovell did have some work to do establishing the facts. However, sometimes I found this point pressed a little too hard, especially in the earlier sections where I, as a relative newcomer to the story, did not have any preconceptions and therefore got a little bit bored of being told what I had apparently got wrong. Lovell also had a lot of material to wade through, as no less than four of the sisters had written memoirs; they were all prolific letter writers and kept diaries; and being such high-profile figures, many biographies and documentaries of some or all of the family exist.

Despite the title, Lovell also writes quite a lot about the girls’ parents, Sydney and David, and the one brother, Tom. Tom, I suspect, would make a great subject for a biography of his own and does take a bit of a back seat here, though he was clearly universally adored.

My main criticism of this book (and bear in mind here that I thoroughly enjoyed it) would be that Lovell does seem to defend Diana and Unity’s political beliefs but remains critical of Jessica’s Communism (despite stating in her introduction that she would not take a political side). This was also the stance of the parents – Sydney in particular greatly admired Hitler, even after the war – and perhaps it is just that Lovell’s reportage of the opinions of family and friends seemed one-sided because their opinions were heavily sided against Jessica. In fact, on reading this I have come to admire Jessica most of all, as she was instrumental in early civil rights activism in the USA and spent her life bringing to light and campaigning against injustice. As she wrote of her youthful political awakening in Hons and Rebels:

“The discovery of other people’s reality – more than fifty million in England alone! – is one you can grasp from time to time, only to find it eluding you again, its vastness proving too much for you to handle. You discover suffering – not just your own suffering, which you know is largely of your own making, nor the childhood suffering over Black Beauty, David Copperfield or Blake’s Little Chimney Sweep – but you catch disturbing, vivid glimpses of the real meaning of poverty, hunger, cold cruelty.”

In fact most of the passages I marked in the book were about Jessica or noting something that annoyed me: Lovell’s adoption of some of the upper class language (“on non-speakers”, eurgh), her insistence on using nicknames throughout, her repeated use of the phrase “at the height of her beauty”. Except for this one passage, which illustrates the warmth and joy the sisters seemed to be filled with:

“For Nancy, Paris increasingly became the beau idéal of life. She found there an elegance, glitter, warmth and freedom that were lacking in London. One could be uninhibited there without drawing clucks of disapproval, ‘I have often danced all down the Champs Élysées,’ she wrote to Tom, ‘and no-one notices, they are so used to that sort of thing…Oh, I am so excited.’ “

And that’s what makes this a good read. The Mitfords were/are such wonderful characters. I foresee a lot more of them in my reading future!

First published by Little, Brown and Co in 2001.

Today x, y and z came to visit

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street:
Letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952–73

edited by John Saumarez Smith

This is the first collection of Mitford letters that I have read, after a couple of years of build-up, and I must confess that I feel a little bit let down.

Nancy Mitford briefly worked at the London bookshop of the title, before her writing career took off and she moved to Paris. The bookshop was started by, and for many years run by, Heywood Hill. Their correspondence lasted from 1942, while Nancy was still working at the shop, through Heywood’s sale of the shop and subsequent retirement, right up to Nancy’s death. From friendly but businesslike beginnings, they became firm friends and confidantes.

Between Nancy Mitford’s reputation (and indeed my great enjoyment of her novel The Pursuit of Love) and the bookish basis for the book, I had high hopes. I imagined an 84 Charing Cross Road with added gossip and celebrity shoulder-rubbing, and to an extent that’s true, but this book almost entirely lacks the charm of Helene Hanff’s classic. While both Heywood and Nancy are clever, witty and bookish, their letters seem to be largely composed of lists of people who they have visited/who visited them, most of whom are famous or aristocratic or literati (or all three).

Now, this may be down to the editing, which I was not impressed by. Smith also worked at the shop, starting there just before Heywood’s retirement, and struck up a friendship with Heywood and his wife, so he is not an impartial outsider. He is even mentioned in some of the letters. He has heavily cut the letters – ellipses abound – and added lots of explanations in square brackets, but he has not changed anything. So there are varying styles for book titles or emphasis, and abbreviated names are left abbreviated. I am sure it would have been acceptable to readers to spell out all those ampersands and contractions (seriously, text messaging was not the first time people wrote in their own shorthand code to one another) and it would have been a sight easier to read.

What he has done is summarise the first nine years of letters and occasionally throughout he adds in italics his summary of a letter or exchange of letters rather than the originals. But he hasn’t explained some events that are obliquely referred to – a falling out between the Hills and Heywood’s successor at the bookshop, for instance, which comes up often but is never explained. There are also bookshop/publishing terms used often and only a couple of these are explained. (What on earth is a Rainbird?)

Between Smith’s interjections, footnotes and a bibliographical index, there are a lot of different ways of filling in the details of the large cast and it felt bitty. A lot of the letters have been cut down to half a page or less and I constantly got the feeling that the better half had been cut out. There was certainly very little that was personal left in. I understand that in places a letter had been lost and Smith was piecing together what had been said from other sources but he also chose not to include letters that had been published elsewhere, leaving odd gaps, especially early in the book.

Perhaps more time needs to pass between a person’s death and a publication like this (Heywood Hill died in 1986 and I imagine this book took many years to compile). And I would certainly have thought that an editor who did not count the book’s subject as a personal friend would be preferable. Or perhaps surviving family (Hill’s widow and Nancy’s youngest sister are both still alive) were responsible for the odd editorial decisions that appear to have been made.

Whatever the reason, though both letter writers come across as warm, intelligent, humorous people, this collection was only occasionally entertaining and often tedious.

First published 2004 by Frances Lincoln.

See also: review by Simon at Savidge Reads.

Class commentary

The Pursuit of Love
by Nancy Mitford

The cover of this book is disturbingly pink and in her introduction Zoë Heller describes it as an “unassuming bit of mid-century ‘chick-lit’” but then she also calls it “spiky and intelligent” and that, I think, comes closer to my experience. Do not be fooled by the bright pink – here be politics, acute observation of human life and some tragic events.

The infamous Mitford sisters had never really been on my radar until last year when a friend mentioned reading a volume of their letters to each other and I became instantly fascinated. That letters compilation is still on my wishlist but in the meantime this loosely disguised autobiography has provided my first insight into the Mitfords’ colourful world.

Colourful is certainly the word. A quick search on Wikipedia reveals that if anything this novel tones down the reality somewhat, but the fictional Radlett family are engrossingly colourful. Narrated by cousin and confidante Fanny, the novel follows the lives of the many Radlett children, particularly the irrepressible Linda. From teenage crushes to marriage, divorce, infidelity and loss, the pursuit of love is ever central to Linda, but gradually less so to the novel. Like everyone living through such times, the Radletts’ world becomes increasingly preoccupied by politics and the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Radletts are thoroughly upper class, with an estate in Gloucestershire, a seat in the House of Lords and a love of hunting. As such it is good that Mitford does not make much effort to endear them to us, but instead lovingly picks apart their language, ideals and ideas. Linda has some fantastically flippant lines comparing the parties of Conservatives to those of Communists and insists on classing everyone as Hons or counter-Hons. In many ways I really wanted to dislike her but she was just so funny…

This small book packs a lot of historical and social observation between the comic lines and yet is still an easy, fun read. I look forward to delving further into the Mitford world.

First published in 1945