The Sisters – by Mary S. Lovell

“… described by The Times journalist Ben Macintyre as “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur”.  The family was “twice elevated to the British peerage, in 1802 and 1902, under the title Baron Redesdale.”   The Sisters focuses on the daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, and his wife Sydney Bowles.

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family
By Mary S. Lovell
2011 / 611 pages
Read by Annie Wauters 18h 38m
Rating:  8 / history/biography
(Both read and listened) 

I knew I’d heard of the Mitford Sisters, but I recollected almost nothing. One of them was involved with Oswald Mosely, the English fascist,  and one with the Hitler himself.  I thought that was maybe the same sister. They were aristocrats of a sort. That’s about it. The family name dates back to the 11th century and the time of the Norman Conquest .  

As a group I thought the Mitford sisters were simply 1930s era socialites and authors,  perhaps more talented than their peers.  And I find out now none of the girls was formally educated so it’s really quite amazing. They first lived in the old country home of Asthall Manor which goes back in the family name to the 11th Century. But they moved to the somewhat nicer Chatsworth at Swinbrook – 
 
But this book delved into what they actually did, and that was really quite a lot for one family and this book is excellent in so many ways. 

The book also has some problems because the family was so large and they used a lot of nicknames, they got married and had spouses and children who had nicknames. Who is whom gets quite confusing. And there were in-laws and friends, even unto Rose Kennedy and her connection. (Of course this is interesting to Americans.) There is a lot of gossipy stuff naturally, as these folks were aristocrats sometimes behaving badly, shockingly even. 

Some wrote books. Some went to jail, some landed in the hospital. They all married and I think 3 divorced. A couple people were killed in the war.  

But they were also really quite involved in many of the important European events and issues of their times – Fascism vs Communism vs liberal democracy plus capitalism. “Being involved” was who they were. I think if they’d been born 50 years prior they would have been ardent suffragettes. In today’s world they might be involved in climate change and #metoo and political headlines, who knows?  This is one reason they are so interesting to women even today. 

The aspect I enjoyed most was the sense of time and place. The book really did re-create Europe before, during and after WWII.  Although Deborah, the youngest, didn’t die until 2014 and that was many years after this book was first published.   

The book is so much more than it starts out being.  It’s basically the biography of 6 less-than-wealthy aristocratic sisters, who although deprived of formal education (as well as doctors and medicines) thanks to the idiosyncrasies of their parents, were quite talented and privileged in many ways. They traveled in the literary circles with the wartime politics of the day thrown in. Each sister was also extraordinarily beautiful and stylish.  When WWII came around their own political ideas solidified and these young women held to them passionately. Diana and Unity fell toward Hitler and the Nazis,  while Nancy and Jessica did the opposite, going with the “liberals” almost to the point of communism.  

I remember when “The American Way of Death” an expose of the funeral business by Jessica Mitford was published but I never read more than excerpts.  (I think I was about 15.)

Their names and birth years of the sisters are:  Nancy (1904), Pamela (1907),  Unity (1914), Jessica (1917), Deborah (1920), Diana (1910).  The  estate where they grew up was Asthall Manor in  Swinbrook but they later moved to Chatsworth House while they were still young.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chatsworth_House

There’s an amazing section of photos in the front and nice source notes – the problem with the notes is that the book is mostly using letters from one family member to another, newspaper clippings, their own books, and so on. There’s also a “Select Bibliography” which seems to be mostly biographies but I”m not sure that’s a bad thing since this is a biography itself.  (Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich is mentioned 
Chatsworth Farms Shop: https://www.chatsworth.org/shop-dine/farm-shop/

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