Magazine article The Spectator

Rich Man, Poor Man, Communist, Fascist

Magazine article The Spectator

Rich Man, Poor Man, Communist, Fascist

Article excerpt

ThHE MITFORDS: LETTERS BETWEEN SIX SISTERS edited by Charlotte Mosley 4th Estate, £25, pp. 832, ISBN 9781841157900 £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

At the beginning, it was rather like a bizarre round of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor'. Decca ran away to the Spanish civil war; Unity went to Munich and made friends with Hitler; Diana bolted with the founder of English Fascism and then went to prison; Pamela stayed at home; Debo ended up with Chatsworth; and Nancy wrote some very good books. The Mitford sisters' fame originated, mostly, in newspaper scandals of the 1930s, to the horror of their parents, who believed that a gentlewoman's name should appear in newspapers only twice, on her marriage and on her death. (According to Decca, Lady Redesdale grew to dread the sight of the words 'Peer's Daughter' in newsprint, as well she might. ) They did unusually interesting things between them, and their lives often seem to reduce the passions of the 1930s to a disconcertingly human level. 'Poor sweet Führer, he's having such a dreadful time, ' Unity writes at one point. The ongoing general fascination with the six of them, which I happily admit to sharing, comes from the unforgettable image of Jessica and Unity in childhood dividing the schoolroom at Swinbrook with their different ideological territories, alternating Red Front choruses and the Horst Wessel Lied on the phonograph. There is, too, the inscrutable figure of Diana, who sometimes seems, by her much remarked beauty and alarming public utterances on the subject of Hitler right up to the end of her life, to hold the larger historical explanation of quite why it was that Fascism in England never got anywhere. Hitler thought that Mosley had made the mistake of importing the foreign-sounding 'Blackshirts' and would have done better to call his movement the 'Ironsides'; he was probably right, but we can all be grateful for Mosley's mistake.

Other people ran away to the Spanish civil war; other people's husbands founded political parties of cranky extremism which led to nothing very much. Plenty of other scandals of the time have passed into the realm of the specialist and the archive; other once famous names only ring bells nowadays if they were associates of great figures, like Waugh's friend 'Baby' Jungman. The reason the Mitford sisters go on inspiring biographies and sustain our interest is that, in their own voices, they were wonderfully funny and original, and in more than one case, superb writers.

Nancy's novels include two great ones, Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, beautifully transformed mythologies of the oddest of childhoods. Jessica's exceptional Hons and Rebels, unreliable though it is, is hardly on a lower level of literary ability;

and occasional lively books on Chatsworth and snippets of published diary (see page 9) by the Duchess of Devonshire have suggested that, but for her having the busiest of lives, another vivid literary talent might have emerged from the family.

All the sisters were terrific correspondents, even Pamela, whose less eventful life tends to leave biographers insisting on her personal charm. The one brother, Tom, was not much of a correspondent, contributing nothing to this collection; the letters of his sisters to him, with perhaps less justification, have been omitted too. The letters collected here are only a small part of an enormous archive at Chatsworth -- apart from anything else, the Duchess and Lady Mosley wrote to each other almost every day in the latter decades of the story. In this absorbing, funny and often very moving volume, six voices make themselves heard, as fresh as paint.

The world of the Mitfords was one of teases and fantasy, what Auden called verbal infighting honed in Protestant schoolrooms during long wet afternoons. The details of their famous childhoods have been told over and over, by them and by their biographers -- the future Duchess imitating the expression on a chicken's face when laying an egg, the dirty songs translated into Decca and Unity's private language, Boudledidge, 'Brains for Breakfast', the Chub Fuddler and Farve's legendary rages. …

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