Monday, June 16, 2014

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell


Sometimes when I read books off my TBR Pile Challenge list, it's kind of a slog, and I wonder why I bothered keeping this book around.  However, more often than not, I've been so pleasantly surprised by a book I'm annoyed at myself for waiting so long to read it.  The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family is the second type of book -- a sheer delight and one that I couldn't stop reading.  

I'd never heard of the Mitfords until I watched the BBC adaptation of Love in a Cold Climate around 2006.  I was so enchanted by the story that I quickly bought the book (a combined volume with The Pursuit of Love.)  I loved them both so I was delighted to find The Sisters, which I promptly put on my to-read shelf and then ignored, though I moved it from house to house.  I'm really glad I finally read it -- it's both a chatty tell-all and a fascinating biography of a the intertwining lives of six sisters from an eccentric aristocratic English family.  

This is one of those stories that is truly stranger than fiction.  The eldest sister, Nancy, became a bestselling author; the third sister Diana was a reowned Society beauty who married an heir to the Guinness fortune and then left him for Oswald Mosley, a right-wing politician who became an infamous Fascist (both were imprisoned without trial for three years during WWII); another sister, Unity, was one of Hitler's groupies and was rumoured to have been his lover.  The next-to-last sister, Jessica (nicknamed "Decca") eloped with a distant cousin Edmond Romilly, a nephew by marriage to Winston Churchill.  Romilly had fought against fascism in Spain and they were both Marxists.  The youngest sister, Deborah, became Duchess of Devonshire.  So, you can just imagine that this book is just packed with interesting characters and history, mostly set during my favorite period, the inter-war years in England.  I will note that there's quite a focus on Unity's friendship with Hitler, which is really quite creepy.  There's also a lot of discussion as to whether or not some of the sisters were anti-Semitic. I know that this wasn't uncommon among the upper-class British at the time, but it sometimes makes for some uncomfortable reading. 

All of the sisters (with the possible exception of Pamela, the second sister) were real characters, and they were all smart and witty -- sadly, they had very little formal education (some of the sisters never forgave their parents for denying them higher education).  Most of them had writing talent, and besides Nancy, Decca and Deborah also published books -- Deborah published a memoir called Wait For Me! back in 2010.  

I really enjoyed this book -- it's just chatty and gossipy enough to be fun, and includes enough history and politics to be informative, without getting bogged down in too much politics and jargon.  And I was surprised that I never had any trouble distinguishing between all six of them -- they had such distinct personalities.  I only had a few quibbles with the book -- there's not much about the second sister, Pamela, for one thing; also, I did have trouble keeping track of all the many houses the families lived in -- a map would have been incredibly useful, to go along with the family tree and extensive endnotes.  

Overall, though, it's a great biography and I'm very interest to read more of Lovell's books.  She also wrote a biography of Beryl Markham called Straight on Till Morning; The Churchills: In Love and War, plus several others.   The book has really piqued my interest about the Mitfords.  My TBR shelves still include  Hons and Rebels, Decca's memoir; Nancy's book Wigs on the Green, a satire about the fascist sister Unity; and a 700-page volume of Decca's letters.  Hopefully I'll get to some of them before the end of the year.  And now I'm halfway through my TBR Pile Challenge -- I've finished six books in six months, so I'm right on track. 

16 comments:

  1. I'd read The Pursuit of Love half a dozen times before I picked this up and it served as my introduction to the wider Mitford family. Now, I'm pretty sure I could ace a Mitford-focused Jeopardy! category. If you're able to, get your hands on The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters; it's fabulous. In addition to the books you mention above, Diana also wrote a memoir (A Life of Contrasts), which I have sitting on my shelf next to Debo's many Chatsworth books, though I've yet to read it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I really like the idea of a Mitford category in Jeopardy! (I tried out once, years ago, but I didn't make it past the first round). My library has the Mitford Letters, plus Debo's most recent biography, but I'd like to make some progress on the TBR shelves first.

      Delete
  2. I have that same edition of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate! The Sisters definitely sounds like my kind of biography.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was really a fun read, but of course now I want to reread The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate again!! And I have so many other books to read first. Sigh.

      Delete
  3. What a family! I can see why you found this book so interesting. I like biographies like this one, too; I'm really glad you read and reviewed it! Can't wait to check this one out. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was really good -- stranger than fiction, seriously. I think if you made it up people wouldn't believe it.

      Delete
  4. I want to read this book so badly. In fact, I was just thinking about it this afternoon when I was in the stacks at the library where I work. The pink spine is so distinctive. This is obviously a sign from the universe that I should read it soon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It MUST be a sign from the universe! And I love the pink spine too. I have three of the recent Vintage reissues of Nancy Mitford's books and I'd love to read the early ones too.

      Delete
  5. I do like the Mitford Sisters! I read their letters a few years ago, could not put it down. Absolutely fascinating family :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was great, and now I want to read the Letters and Decca's letters, plus Hons & Rebels and all the other books my Nancy Mitford, but not until I've finished Moby-Dick.

      Delete
  6. Dear oh dear, I was given this as a gift far too long ago, and I keep being put off reading it by its enormousness. I'm trying a new thing with nonfiction where I write posts about what I'm learning as I go along, rather than trying to review the whole entire book in one block. Maybe that will help me along with The Sisters -- I truly do want to read it, and it sounds wonderful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's fat but it's a really fast, fascinating read, plus there are about 100 pages of endnotes, so it's really not as long as it looks. That is one of the upsides to reading nonfiction. I started reading it, thinking I would be leisurely and spread it out over a whole month or so, but I finished it in just about a week.

      Delete
  7. Mary Lovell has written some great biographies; The Sisters is my favorite with A Scandalous Life coming in a close second. It's about a British aristocrat whose head was ruled by her heart. An early marriage, a scandalous divorce, lovers across the European continent, and finally, true love with a Bedouin nobleman in Syria.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sounds intriguing! I also want to read a biography called The Bolter, who's also sort of tied to the Mitfords.

      Delete
  8. I highly recommend Hons and Rebels. It's a fun read, charming book, with some more serious stuff about fascism.

    I think we can go out on a limb and say that if you were a friend of HItler's you were almost certainly anti-semetic. It's something a lot of well-to-do people in the 1930's tried to brush under the carpet after the war.

    I've Jessica Mitford's American Way of Death on my TBR shelf. I may even add this biography....

    ReplyDelete
  9. I've also had a fascination with the Mitfords, but have done little about it...although now that I think about it, I may have a second hand copy of this very book on my TBR pile (mountain!)

    It sounds wonderful and I'll also look out for the Love in a Cold Climate BBC show - thanks :-)

    ReplyDelete