Reviewed by Mindy Aloff
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Letters Between Six Sisters
Edited by Charlotte Mosley
Harper. 832 pp. $39.95
Even as talented families go, the Mitford sisters are remarkable -- the most brilliant pride of literary lionesses to have emerged in England since the Bront¿s, who also had little or no formal education. Four of the sisters were published writers of wit and substance, and, as this collection of their letters to one another demonstrates, all six could write evocatively, even hauntingly.
These letters have been chosen with great care by Charlotte Mosley, daughter-in-law of Diana Mitford and editor of three anthologies of Nancy Mitford's writing. Happily, her choices provide an intriguing record of each sister's personality: their conflicting politics (which ranged from Unity's crush on Adolf Hitler and Diana's fascism to Nancy's contempt for political extremes and Jessica's communism), their relationships to their parents (Sydney Bowles and David Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, who seems to have been something of a madman), their affairs, divorces, affections (Pamela's love of cooking, Deborah's delight in her children), and personal cataclysms. The correspondence shows how, over time and under stress, charming youthful differences, including differences of literary expression, evolved into polarizing distinctions that both stretched and demonstrated the bonds of familial affection.
Jessica Mitford, especially, emerges as a tough-talking figure of moral conscience so unyielding that, from her 20s on, she practically seems to crash into the family mix from outer space. In contrast, Unity, whose impressionable nature led her to fall in love with Hitler, remained beloved by all of her sisters -- including Jessica, who broke decisively with Diana and her husband, Oswald Mosley, over their commitment to fascism. Diana eventually learned that, in the early 1940s, Nancy had told the government that the Mosleys were dangerous and should be imprisoned -- which they were, for several years. (Among their defenders was George Bernard Shaw, who pointed out that despite their notorious politics, they had not actually done anything illegal.) Nevertheless, Nancy continued until her death, in 1973, to write effusively intimate letters to Diana.
This ability to compartmentalize her actions in intimate relationships was apparently unique to Nancy. It was certainly not shared by Unity, who seems to have lacked the family gene for acidulous critique and ruthless teasing -- which is why in the late 1930s, as a thrilled member of Hitler's social circle, she could write vividly of how he conducted himself at tea. And it helps explain why, on the day in 1939 that Britain and Germany went to war, she went to the English Garden in Munich and tried to blow her brains out. Unity survived, but as an invalid, and eight years later an infection in the old bullet wound turned fatal.
Mosley introduces each decade with direct and dignified mini-histories, sprinkles family photographs and newspaper cuttings throughout, and adds indispensable short biographies of each sister along with a wealth of explanatory footnotes. These provide as much supplementary material as a contemporary reader might need to appreciate the social and political milieus in which the sisters moved; the troubled, tragic and, in the case of Nancy, treacherous undercurrents of their playful teasing, cavalier dismissals and protestations of affection; and some of the personal shorthand and nicknames that bonded them.
The over 800 pages here represent only about 5 percent of the 12,000 surviving letters and notes -- all but Jessica's were handwritten -- exchanged by the sisters between 1925 and 2003. Most of the Mitfords lived dramatic lives, and their social orbits brought them in close contact with world leaders (Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy), leading writers and artists (Evelyn Waugh, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton), politicians and journalists. The Mitfords could have been an operatic group biography on an epic scale: Instead, thanks to its editor's taste and discretion, it is chamber music with symphonic longings. Ironically, as the sororal voices drop away owing to irreparable feuds or lost letters or death, the surviving sisters become more serious and open. Tragedy and aging lead them to wisdom, or something very like it.
Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah -- to name the sisters from the eldest (b. 1904) to the youngest (b.1920) -- also had a lively brother, Thomas, a barrister, born in 1909 and killed in Burma near the end of World War II. He wasn't inclined to write to his sisters, however; and although many of their letters to him have survived, few by him to any of them have, and so he has been excluded from this volume as both writer and recipient. He is quite present in spirit, though: As the editor explains, it was Tom who invented the particular tone of voice -- wickedly observant, studiously offhanded, punctuated by lightning bolts of judgment -- that permeates most of the sisters' letters during the first half of their lives and that occasionally reappears, like the smile of a Cheshire cat, in the second half.
At this writing, Deborah is the only sister still with us. The family's wit and narrative gifts are represented in this little anecdote from a 1997 letter she wrote to Diana, describing an incident at Chatsworth, the great home of her late husband's family in Devonshire, where she lives, whose restoration she has curated, and which she has chronicled in several books: "We've put a notice by the fountains (because when there was nearly no water they could only be on for a couple of hours) & now it says The Fountains Will Play 11.30 -- 5.30. A woman standing by it, when going like Billy O, looked at her watch, which said midday, 'Oh, we've missed 11.30 & we can't stay till 5.30. What a pity. Now we won't know what they play.'
"The ash trees are still like winter. What does it mean.
"Much love, Debo." *
Mindy Aloff is a cultural critic who has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly. She teaches at Barnard College.