Now if you are sat there thinking ‘he can’t have read that mammoth book in only a few days’… I haven’t. This has actually been a book I have been devouring in fits and starts for almost a month, well three weeks or so. It’s so big I couldn’t carry it everywhere with me on the tube, so have been reading other books along side. ‘The Mitford’s – Letters Between Six Sisters’ is an amazing book, a collection of the famous sisters letters to each other over 80 years, edited by Diana Mitford’s daughter in law Charlotte Mosley. Edited I think is an unfair word in this case; she hasn’t merely compiled them and then cut out bits and bobs. She has thoroughly researched the sisters so that as you read each different era you get a good introduction by Mosley as to what was going on in each of the sister’s lives and the life of the family of Mitford’s as a whole.
Not that I have read anything about the Mitford sisters before, though bizarrely I have heard of them often, but I can understand J. K. Rowling’s quote on the front that ‘the story of the extraordinary Mitford’s has never been told as well as they tell it themselves’ and she is write, there is no hole barred here. The sisters are constantly frank with each other through times of loving each other and times where they hated each other as some of them did. But its not just the times when they think each other is ‘wondair’ or each other are ‘hateful’ and all the turmoil they go through as a family, its an amazing look through history as the Mitford girls seemed to know everyone separately.
Nancy writes in fascinating detail of the family and how she found the constraints of her parents and the family too much. She also writes of how she writes, why and a fascinating insight into some of the other great writers of the last hundred years such as her close friend Evelyn Waugh. Pamela wants a simple quite life and can discuss any meal she has eaten in the last thirty years, has a love of farming and also became a lesbian although only once or twice do the sisters discuss this. Diana, the family beauty, becomes a fascist, after marrying the heir to Guinness she has an affair with a politician and is jailed during the Second World War. Then there is Unity who became a close friend (and has a slight obsession with) Hitler causing a conflict between her love for him and the love for her country which led to her shooting herself. There is Jessica who became a fighter for social change and ended up living in America writing about funerals and prisons. Finally we have Deborah who became Duchess of Devonshire, owner and restorer of Chatsworth, and who mingles with royalty (describing Diana as ‘clever with the public but truly she was mad’) and the Kennedy’s. This is truly simply outstanding, both for the historical and for the tales of six women who became celebrities without trying to and couldn’t see quite what all the fuss was about. What is also interesting is as they get older they too look back on their older letters and indeed themselves.
This is possibly my favourite book of the year so far. I am now officially a Mitford-holic and will be reading much more by them and about them. Where else would you get such insight in 900 pages of Britain from both the poor and the rich (the sisters weren’t all loaded as some people believe) told by some of the most fascinating, mischievous, voices that you could ever wish to hear.
Another thing that’s been special about this book bar all the above is it has been the first non-fiction book that I have enjoyed, recommended to everyone and has just made me read and read. It’s also a book that has given me lots and lots to read in the future. I now want to read books that they recommend each other; some of these included Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Mary Anne’, everything by E.M. Forster, Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’. As well as everything that they wrote themselves, particularly Nancy, as well as everything by Evelyn Waugh, so that’s made the book even more of a treasure. I will leave you saying this book is truly ‘wondair’ and a final quote from Jessica on reading. Buy this book everyone should read it!
“1) Get a supply of books you have always meant to read, but never had time, such as Plutarch’s Lives, War & Peace, Bacon’s Essays etc. You’ll find your attention unaccountably wandering – you seem to have read the same paragraph several times and still can’t quite get its import. Put the books on a chair to be read some time later. 2) Next, fetch up some novels that you know one ought to have read in childhood but never did – Hardy, Conrad, the lesser-known works of Dickens. Same, alas, as in 1) above. 3) Find some books that you know you like, as you have read them before – Catch 22? Catcher In The Rye? Pride & Prejudice? (You’ll have to fill in the titles of your own favourites). This is far more easy going, far more pleasurable. 4) Try some collections of short stories, the shorter the better. Also, Grimm’s Fairy Tales – that sort of thing. That way the constant interruptions – meals, pills, baths etc – don’t specifically matter. 5) Above all – lay in a huge supply of mags, the more trivial the better, and leaf through them languidly while waiting for your cup of tea. That, anyway, is what I usually do.”
I was really sad to put this book down, in fact slightly bereft, but on with more!