Many of you may be familiar with the famous Mitford sisters from Nancy Mitford’s wonderful books The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, thinly veiled novels about her own eccentric family. Last year, after reading several books by Nancy Mitford and wondering about the kind of family that could have produced such extreme offspring as Nancy the social satirist, Decca the devoted communist, Diana the fascist and wife of Oswald Mosley, and Unity the fanatical worshipper of Hitler, I struggled to find an unbiased book about the Mitfords. I thought I had found one when I located The House of Mitford, which was written up as the “authoritative Mitford biography.” It wasn’t until I was halfway through that I realized the authors, Jonathan and Catherine Guinness, were Diana Mitford’s son and granddaughter. In fact, any books I could locate about the Mitfords were written by the Mitfords, a prolific family indeed.
The book is certainly interesting and often amusing, and it provides a lot of insight into the 1930’s, an especially turbulent time in Great Britain, but it has its faults.
Although the authors deplore both the extreme leftist and rightist views of the family and point out how all believed what they wanted to believe, the book shows certain biases and likes. It is much harder on Decca’s communist sympathies than on Mosley’s Naziism, for example. We are invited to admire Mosley’s ideals and prescience, and yet the book almost ignores the fact that he tolerated his followers’ rabid anti-Semitism.
On the other hand, Decca is made out to be a liar in what she writes in her book Hons and Rebels about the family, while other family members are depicted simply as having selective memories. Yet when I read Hons and Rebels after this book, expecting it to depict the family in a cruel and critical manner, I found it to be more the story of teenage rebellion. Decca (Jessica) left the family at 17 and what she remembers is colored by her feelings when she left.
Nancy, seemingly the most harmless of all the famous sisters, is depicted as two-faced. Great efforts are made to deny that Unity was a sort of groupie for Hitler, when she clearly was one. Unity’s most famous act besides the photos of her at Hitler’s rallies in Nuremburg was to shoot herself in the head on the day that England declared war on Germany.
Nevertheless, the book successfully shows that despite all the family disagreements and bickering, underlying it all was strong family affection and unity. The book didn’t do much, however, to answer my initial questions about how an admittedly eccentric but not very political upbringing could produce such extremes of personalities and beliefs in a single generation.