Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Marvelous Mitfords

I've had the most splendid day, doing absolutely nothing but sitting in my back yard in the sun and reading, and getting very tan. My book of choice is The Mitford Girls, by Mary S. Lovell, which I talked about vaguely here, back when I bought it in December. I am absolutely loving it. I started it Saturday night or maybe Sunday, the thing is 529 pages, and I expect to finish it tomorrow. It's lovely having time to read, but if I were reading a different book I doubt I'd have gotten through so much of it. I always forget how much I like reading biography.

For the few readers of book blogs who have not yet heard, the Mitfords were (and are, I suppose) a family of British aristocrats made famous mostly by Nancy Mitford's semi-autobiographical novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. They were at the height of their notoriety (I think I can pretty safely call it that) in the 1930s and '40s. Lord and Lady Redesdale, David and Sydney Mitford had six daughters and a son, born between 1902 and 1920. Each of them is a fascinating and often strikingly different person in their own right, and on top of this they lived in one of the most interesting times in history. Not only that but they were also a notable part of this history. The book suggests, for example, that it is possible that Diana Mitford (third eldest daughter) was the only person to be personally well-acquainted with both Churchill and Hitler.

I enjoyed the stories of their childhood and their early adulthood, especially the various eccentricities of the family, and also the various associations they had--suddenly reading a name of some close acquaintance or other and realizing that it was some famous person. Evelyn Waugh, for example, based his novel Vile Bodies off Diana Mitford and her first husband and their friends. Nancy Mitford especially knew numerous famous members of England's literary world.

What I've found most fascinating about this book, though, is the politics, and the family's place within political history. Diana and Unity Mitford were both devoted Fascists, while Decca Mitford was a Communist, and David and Sydney Mitford's inability to agree on Hitler, Fascism, and the war fractured their marriage. The family was related to Winston Churchill. Diana's second husband, Oswald Mosley, was leader of the British Fascist party. Unity spent most of the 1930s living in Germany, and for quite a long time sat in restaurants she knew Hitler frequented, waiting to see him. Eventually, he noticed her. They got to know each other very well; he gave her presents, found her apartments, paid medical bills, got her tickets to the opera. She was so torn between Britain and Germany that she decided she would have to commit suicide if they went to war with each other.

The story of Unity Mitford's relationship with Hitler and Germany is, I think, the most interesting part of this book for me. I've never read anything about Germany in the years before World War II, and it's especially interesting to do so now, having innocently read The Pursuit of Love a year ago, and now being able to connect its author to such a subject.

I definitely recommend this book, whether you already know anything about the Mitfords or not. The writing is very fluid, and I think does a good job of capturing the world these people lived in, and their extremely unique and forceful personalities.

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