If you’ve never heard of The Mitfords, you’re in for a treat. Downton Abbey has absolutely nothing on this aristocratic family comprising of a very eccentric set of parents, one son and six very different, very controversial sisters:novelist and slave to love Nancy Mitford, domestic goddess Pamela (who had her Aga painted the colour of her eyes), glacial Diana, who was married to a Guinness and British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley and was incarcerated for much of the second world war, Unity, who moved to Germany to make friends with Hitler (which she succeeded in doing, only to shoot herself in the head in public once war was declared against Germany), communist Jessica, who made a name for herself as a civil rights activist, journalist and muckraker in the USA and finally, Deborah, who is the current Duchess of Devonshire and the only one of The Mitford Girls alive today.
Still with me? Don’t worry if you’re not; the Mitfords are such a complicated and well documented family, either in books they wrote or had written about them, that it’s easy to get as tangled up in myth and family feuds as in fact. An excellent place to start is The Mitford Girls by Nancy Lovell, which clips along at an easy, breezy pace despite its doorstop size. As a basic introduction, it is brilliant – one gets a real feel for the girls, their relationships with each other and finally, what happens when old age, resentment and disease catches up on them and it all falls apart.
If, then, you really want to get a glimpse into their heads (and if you have sisters, you’ve probably gone far beyond that stage), then The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters (edited by Charlotte Mosley). Again, if you have sisters living in different places you’ll know the drill – except all six sisters are exemplary writers; witty and mean and loving all at the same time. It’s the early twentieth century version of sibling Facebook messaging, but thankfully bereft of emoticons or references to embarrassing Snapchats (actually, Jessica Mitford used the word ‘frenemy’ quite a lot – but that’s a different story).
Of course, the Mitfords were writers as well as women to be written about – the letters of both Nancy and Jessica are compelling for different reasons (Nancy is gossipy and razor-sharp, Jessica unbelievably earnest and principled). Nancy’s many books are still in print – The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate are brittle Twenties fare full of thwarted passions and Bright Young Things. Jessica’s memoir Hons and Rebels was a runaway hit and, oddly, her non-fiction book The American Way of Death revolutionised the way funeral parlours were run.
Deborah Mitford, despite or perhaps because of her advanced age, has written several books in the past few years, including Wait For Me (co-written by Charlotte Mosley). Her memoir draws to a close to the twisted, convoluted, loving tale of the Mitfords – six women bound by blood and temporarily separated by politics, rivalries and the inevitable passage of time.
Sarah Waldron is @The_Licentiate