The sisters : the saga of the Mitford family

by Mary S. Lovell

Hardcover, 2002

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Norton, 2002.

Description

"This is the story of a close, loving family splintered by the violent ideologies of Europe between the wars. Jessica was a Communist; Debo became the Duchess of Devonshire; Nancy, the eldest, was one of the best-selling novelists of her day; the ethereally beautiful Diana, married to the Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley and imprisoned without trial through most of World War II, was the most hated woman in England; Unity Valkyrie, born in the mining town of Swastika, Alaska, would become obsessed with Adolf Hitler, whom she met on at least 140 occasions. When war was declared between England and Germany, she shot herself in the head." "The Mitfords had style and presence, and were extremely gifted: four would go on to write best-selling books. Above all, they were funny - hilariously and often mercilessly so. In this wise, evenhanded, and generous book, Mary Lovell captures the vitality and extraordinary drama of a family that took the twentieth century by the throat and became, in some respects, its victims."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member -Cee-
The Mitford family was all about strong character, independence and choices. The six daughters of Lord and Lady Redesdale seemed to have it all - with consequences they fully embraced. Raised in a permissive, upperclass household pre-World War II, their family life in England is portrayed as fun-loving with an undercurrent of derision towards each other. As they matured in the turbulent times of WW II and years following, they were full of wordly self confidence, pursued entirely divergent paths in public lives of politics (democracy, facism, socialism, communism), and private lives of wealth and romance. They were all dedicated rebels for their causes in very unique manners and lifestyles.

This narrative of the Mitfords focuses on the sisters and flows in a relatively even timeline from the girls' childhoods and through their old age. After reading this, you will have a fairly good understanding of all members of the family, how they made their choices, and how they affected each other and the world.

Though both honorable and embarrassing public events and struggles are included in this book, it was written with a positive and kindly view with a light hand on the deeper family issues such as wealth, poverty, alcoholism, illnesses, flagrant lifestyles, ambition, bitterness, etc. I got the impression there was much more to reveal that was hidden, better left unsaid, or perhaps unknown. Lovell writes more a history of the family than any attempt at a more intimate understanding of their dynamics. Taken as such, it is a good overview of an intriguing family.
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LibraryThing member StoutHearted
Before the Hilton sisters, before the Kardashians, the "It" sisters were 6 women of aristocratic English upbringing who each went very different ways, but still held on to the bonds of sisterhood. In the early twentieth century, these were the Mitfords.

This biography is very comprehensive and extensive, considering the number of characters that demand attention. Each sister is dynamic and given her due, even Pam, the Mitford sister of whom little is published because she was the least scandalous. Each sister is depicted in all their layers: Nancy, the acerbic writer who poked fun at her class, yet embraced its snobbery; Pam, the "rural one" who was the maternal center of the sisters; Diana, the beauty who left her first husband for Oswald Moseley and was an unrepentant fascist; Unity, the one so besotted by Hitler that she attempted suicide after hearing that England and Germany had declared war; Decca, the one who ran away from home to become a communist and became an immigrant writer in America; and Deborah, the one who became a Duchess and held the family together through their many tiffs.

Each sister is handled fairly, which is difficult concerning some of their troubling politics. It is their bond that means most to them, and nowhere is this most evident in the strong affection between Unity and Decca. The two were on opposite sides politically: the room they shared as children was full of swastikas and hammer and sickles on their respective sides. Still, the two girls had unending affection for each other. Decca had no such forgiveness for her other fascist sister, Diana, whom she treated as a fallen idol. This is just one of the many "warts and all" revelations of the sisters' personalities.

The biography truly brings the sisters to life with their letters and many nicknames, any woman with a sister can recognize the heartfelt affection in the Mitfords. Many past biographies and news reports delight in reporting the evilness of Unity and Diana's politics, and the muckraking of Decca, but overlook the fact that these women were human and meant something to their family. (Understandably, though, that point may be too sentimental for newspapers.) When a biography of Unity is published soon after her death, the sisters rally to defend her memory. This move was criticized, but the sisters made it clear that whether or not they agreed with each others' politics, the main thing was to remain loyal to the family. Whereas the girls' upbringing was often depicted as frivolous and indulgent, this biography expands on their early life and helps explain how and why they each chose their paths in life. It makes for an engrossing, fascinating read.

In addition to the sisters' lives, the book is also interesting for the depicition of Hitler as a gentleman whose charm was so strong that many of the Mitfords (and other British citizens) who met him refused to believe he was wrong. Showing this side of Hitler is not an attempt to make him look like a good guy, but to warn us how the devil can come to us smiling, dressed well, and offering kindness to deceive us. What a contrast from the man who paid all of Unity's medical bills after her attempted suicide and sent her home safely to her parents in England after the war started, to the man who ordered the extermination of Jews, homosexuals, and anyone not specifically "Aryan." To the sheltered, upper-class Mitfords, Hitler's attention to Unity meant more than the yet-untold horror unfolding across the Channel. It's a complicated portrayal of how strong family ties are that Lady Redesdale (the girls' mother) and Diana still support Hitler during the war (and after). They associate the man with the memory of Unity at her most vibrant. It still doesn't make their politics any more palatable, but at least we can see why they remained so stubborn and steadfast to their beliefs.

The book is only outdated in that, when written, Diana was alive. She has since passed after reaching a ripe old age, leaving Deborah as the only surviving Mitford sister.
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LibraryThing member herschelian
The six Mitford sisters were born into an aristocratic English family between 1904 and 1920. They had an unconventional, some might say eccentric, childhood and adolescence with no formal education of any kind but all grew up to be well known as individuals. Nancy, the eldest, was a highly regarded novelist and biographer of Madame de Pompadour and Louis IVX, who spent the later half of her life living in Paris; she also wrote wonderfully sharp and witty articles on English manners and mores, coining the phrase "Non-U". Pamela the most domesticated of them all, was the sister with whom John Betjeman fell in love. Diana, the elegant beauty who first married a member of the Guiness family, and then fell in love with and married Sir Oswald Mosley M.P., leader of the British Union of Fascists,she became a figure of hate, imprisoned for supporting the BUF. The middle daughter, Unity, an unstable young woman who went to Germany in the 1930s, was in love with Hitler and totally obsessed with Nazism. When war was declared she shot herself. Next in line was Jessica - always known as Decca - who eloped at 19 and went off to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War where her husband died. She then married an American and became a member of the Communist Party and active in the Civil Rights movement - she too, like Nancy, became a writer of some reknown. Finally there was the beautiful Deborah who married the Duke of Devonshire and became chatelaine of Chatsworth, one of the greatest houses in England. Their lives have been covered partially and individually several times by other writers, but Mary Lovell has managed to write about them in the context of their sisterhood, yet giving a clear picture of each of these rather extraordinary women. An absolutely fascinating read.… (more)
LibraryThing member fizzy_fizz1
This book got my mind going. I was not aware how the lives of one family could be so entwined with opposing sides of world politics in the 20th centuary
LibraryThing member marient
This is the story of a close, loving family splintered by the violent ideologies of Europe between the World Wars. Jessica was a communist; Debo became the Duchess of Devonshire; Nancy was one of the best-selling novelists of her day;beautiful Diana married the Facist leader Sir Oswald Mosely; and Unity, a close friend of Hitler, shot herself in the head when England and Germany declared war.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookweaver
I really enjoyed reading this book; the Mitford sisters are weird but memorable as they are portrayed here. I think Unity is the most interesting of the group, and I appreciate the large sections of this biography devoted to her.
LibraryThing member mzonderm
A biography clearly more sympathetic with some sisters more than others, but overall a comprehensive look at the sisters and the time and world in which they lived.
LibraryThing member neddludd
A wonderfully satisfying assessment of an extraordinary British group of sisters who achieved celebrity from the 1930s to almost the present day. One, Unity Mitford, had a personal (sexual?) relationship with Hitler; another totally infatuated Adolf. As the author points out, it would be inconceivable to think of Churchill or FDR having private teas with two German groupies. Posed against Unity and Diana, was Jessica Mitford, best known for her study, The American Way of Death. She was an active American Communist for decades and there was intra-familial war for decades as well. (It should be pointed out that Diana married the leader of the British fascist party, Sir Oswald Mosley.) We are taken inside castles and a sybaritic lifestyle; the book is on the cusp of being wealth porn. The non-political sisters just muddled through on their estates and in their designer lives. Isn't Paris, Antibes, Rome, Scotland, etc. just marvy! The parents, his Lord and her Ladyship, were somewhat taken aback as they were thrust into a media circus via the writing and activities of their talented children. But there was undeniable talent as well; Nancy Mitford was a well-known writer in mid-century. Rightly, the author poses the question: why did these girls so dramatically impact culture, when most of their peers did not? Well worth reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member jaHce
Story of a close, loving family splintered by the violent ideologies of Europe between the world wars. Jessica a community, Debo became the Duchess of Devonshire; Nancy best selling novelist of the day; Diana married to Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley; and Unity a close friend of Hitler, tried suicide when her beloved England and love of Germany collided in war.… (more)
LibraryThing member Summermoonstone
I am quite fascinated by the Mitford Family and have read so many books and visited so many places associated with them. This book is one of the best. The "story" romps along keeping the reader interested throughout, no mater how much about the family has been read before. The author tries very much to remain objective when writing about the sisters' ideologies. Nancy, Diana, Decca and Debo are the famous sisters but in this biography Muv, Farv, Pam and Tom are brought to life. I shall refer back to this again and again… (more)
LibraryThing member bacreads
There was so much history in this book on an everyday basis. These sisters were amazing, selfish, incredible,intelligent. If it was fiction critics would accuse the author of invention and interference with characters.
LibraryThing member cathymoore
I came across this book completely by chance, it is very far removed from what I normally read. I was really quite pleasantly suprised. Before reading I had vaguely heard of Nancy Mitford, now I am interested to learn more about this fascinating family, their lives and politics. This comes across generally as a well-balanced, well researched biography. There were occasions where the authors fondness for her subjects coloured her views of their politics; particulaly Diana and Unity and their relationships with Mosely and Hitler respectively. Although perhaps I need to read more on the subject to be better informed myself.… (more)
LibraryThing member otterley
As someone who avidly read all of Nancy's books and also Hons and Rebels in childhood (and still returns to them when struck down with unpleasant colds) it was fascinating to read a different 'take' on the family - the treatment of Unity and her relationship with Nazism and Hitler was particularly fascinating and depicted with a very even handed approach. I found myself wanting to know more about some of the less written about characters - Tom and Pam - and ended very impressed by the author's ability to make such divergent stories so readable.… (more)
LibraryThing member lucybrown
Back in the late '90s, I read several of Nancy Mitford's novels and histories, and Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels for good measure. The family seemed like unfailingly fascinating. This book does provide some new insights into the relationship of the Mitfords, especially the parents; however, so much for the unfailingly interesting bit. I skipped chunks which seemed redundant. Unity's stalking Hitler was creepy, not fascinating.

A common misconception among those who I know who have read the book is that the Mitford support of Facism was odd for between the wars England. Far from it!

Perhaps it is because there is so much out there about Nancy already, The Sisters does not develop her life very well or with much depth or insight. It is a bit of a wonder that there is never the whiff of a mention of the Duke of Devonshire's extreme alcoholism. Considering Debo left for a time period, considering how Debo made such a success of the family estate while being hampered by his drinking, it should have been mentioned!
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LibraryThing member lucybrown
Back in the late '90s, I read several of Nancy Mitford's novels and histories, and Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels for good measure. The family seemed like unfailingly fascinating. This book does provide some new insights into the relationship of the Mitfords, especially the parents; however, so much for the unfailingly interesting bit. I skipped chunks which seemed redundant. Unity's stalking Hitler was creepy, not fascinating.

A common misconception among those who I know who have read the book is that the Mitford support of Facism was odd for between the wars England. Far from it!

Perhaps it is because there is so much out there about Nancy already, The Sisters does not develop her life very well or with much depth or insight. It is a bit of a wonder that there is never the whiff of a mention of the Duke of Devonshire's extreme alcoholism. Considering Debo left for a time period, considering how Debo made such a success of the family estate while being hampered by his drinking, it should have been mentioned!
… (more)
LibraryThing member briandrewz
This book made for fascinating reading. The Mitford girls were undoubtedly the most talked about set of sisters during the Second World War and its aftermath. Their relationships with each other as well as with influential and notorious figures of the day make their life stories well worth reading. Excellent!
LibraryThing member nigeyb
Before reading "The Mitford Girls: The Biography of an Extraordinary Family" by Mary S. Lovell, I had already read Hons and Rebels: The Classic Memoir of One of Last Century's Most Extraordinary Families by Jessica Mitford, Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, and the first two novels by Nancy Mitford.

Mary S. Lovell does an extraordinary job of condensing down the lives of the Mitford girls, their parents, their brother, and numerous partners, children, grandchildren, and various other notable relatives, all of which takes place against some of the most momentous historical moments of the twentieth century. In a sense the family's story mirrors that of the century they lived in.

The parents known to their children as Muv and Farve, aka Lord Redesdale and his wife Sydney, represent the early twentieth century aristocracy. Both, to varying degrees are appalled by the changes wrought throughout the 1920s and the emergence of the post-WW1 generation of young people, dubbed Bright Young Things, who erupted into society determined to change the world for the better now once the war to end all wars was over. Oldest daughter, Nancy, and her arty friends were an anathema to her father.

Three of the daughters were split across the two political ideologies that wreaked havoc on the twentieth century: Unity (who unbelievably was conceived in a Canadian town called Swastika) and Diana both being unapologetic fascists, and Jessica (aka Decca) a staunch communist. Not only were Unity and Diana fascists but both formed a close friendship with Hitler and other leading Nazis in pre-WW2 Germany, and Diana married British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Shortly after Britain declared war on Germany Unity unsuccessfully tried to kill herself, and Decca ran away to help the Republican cause in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. These events, along with Nancy's success as a writer, are what make this book so fascinating for anyone interested in this era.

I was slightly less interested in the early childhood years, and in the post-WW2 era. After the war, the book details how each life played out. This is all worth reading but of less interest to me than the extraordinary events detailed in the 1930s and 1940s.

All told though, a very interesting biography, with plenty of conflict (both familial and global) to keep the story moving forward.
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LibraryThing member liz.mabry
I'm putting this on hold. I checked it out primarily because I really want to read Diana Mosley, and I figured a little more background on the Mitfords wouldn't hurt. But it's not grabbing me this time around, so I'll try again later.
LibraryThing member lucybrown
Back in the late '90s, I read several of Nancy Mitford's novels and histories, and Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels for good measure. The family seemed like unfailingly fascinating. This book does provide some new insights into the relationship of the Mitfords, especially the parents; however, so much for the unfailingly interesting bit. I skipped chunks which seemed redundant. Unity's stalking Hitler was creepy, not fascinating.

A common misconception among those who I know who have read the book is that the Mitford support of Facism was odd for between the wars England. Far from it!

Perhaps it is because there is so much out there about Nancy already, The Sisters does not develop her life very well or with much depth or insight. It is a bit of a wonder that there is never the whiff of a mention of the Duke of Devonshire's extreme alcoholism. Considering Debo left for a time period, considering how Debo made such a success of the family estate while being hampered by his drinking, it should have been mentioned!
… (more)
LibraryThing member wealhtheowwylfing
The story of the six Mitford siblings, their parents and relations, with particular focus on the five sisters: literary Nancy, beautiful fascist Diana, home-maker Pam, Hitler-fantatic Unity, social justice journalist Decca, and peace-maker Duchess Deb. There is a lot of material to cover: the Mitfords were connected to everyone from Hitler to Churchill, and were prodigious letter writers to boot. I felt the author defends Diana too vociferously, and mocks Decca too strongly for her early foolish political efforts. Decca also comes under fire for calling her childhood unhappy, which Lovell spends rather a lot of time refuting. Deb and Pam are practically forgotten (and their brother Tom, who died in WWII, is never fully described); Deb's books are mentioned in passing, barely meriting a single sentence, and her marriage and efforts to transform Chatsworth into a money-making attraction aren't chronicled. Poor Pam falls out of the story completely after her philandering scientist husband divorces her.

That said, Lovell does a good job given that there are so many dynamic women to follow, and so many entangled relationships and nonsensical nicknames to decipher. I did end the book with a solid feeling for each of the sisters and their various relationships with each other.
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LibraryThing member JCGirl
A family saga of the Mitford family an upper crust English family between 1894-2000. I enjoyed this book because it was about six sister raised in the same household with very different opinions and beliefs. They gained fame and fortunes but not real happiness. If you like English upper crust stories, this is the book for you.… (more)
LibraryThing member towncalledmalice
Perfect easy read.
LibraryThing member gbelik
This joint biography of the 6 Mitford girls was a fun read and, I think, managed to be fair to each of them, even Unity, a groupie for Hitler and Diana, wife of British Union of Fascist head Oswald Mosley. A thoroughly good read.

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