Confession time: I love the Mitfords with a passion. For the last week I've been utterly lost in this mammoth book of letters between the six sisters, spanning almost eighty years of hilarious, poignant and always fascinating correspondence.
For those who aren't familiar with the Mitford family, a quick summary:
Witty, biting comic writer; author of The Pursuit of Love and Love In A Cold Climate, lightly fictionalised and screamingly funny accounts of her own youth as a daughter of a shabby, quite mad English aristocrat (he used to hunt the children with hounds). (These were the books that made me fall in love with the Mitfords.) After an unhappy marriage, moved to France to be near the love of her life, Colonel Gaston Palewski. Tragically, he didn't love her back as much as she loved him.
Known as "Woman." An accomplished cook, she could recall in smallest detail meals she had eaten fifty years before. Became an expert on chicken breeding.
The acknowledged beauty of the family. Left her first husband in a huge scandal to marry Sir Oswald Mosley, then leader of the British Fascist movement. When war was declared, they were both thrown into prison for years (Diana's baby was only eleven weeks old). After the war, more or less ostracised from public life, they moved to France, where they became friends with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, also exiles.
The only brother. Killed in the last days of the war (sob).
Gawd. Big, bold and generous, she developed a huge crush on Hitler of all people (!), and pretty much stalked him until they became friends. When war broke out, she went to a park in Berlin and shot herself in the head, but didn't succeed in killing herself. Brain damaged and much altered, she was nursed by the Mitfords' mother until she died a few years later (sob).
An avowed communist (she scratched hammers and sickles on the nursery windows; Unity scratched swastikas), she eloped with her Spanish Civil War-fighting cousin Esmond at the age of 17. They moved to America after the death of their baby (sob), Esmond joined the Canadian Air Force and was killed in the war (sob). Jessica remarried and became a civil rights activist and very effective muckraker, writing exposes of the funeral industry (The American Way of Death) and prison system (Kind and Usual Punishment), and also a memoir, Hons and Rebels. Often feuded with other members of the family, especially Diana, for obvious reasons. (Jessica regretted that she never took the opportunity of going with Unity to meet Hitler, whipping out a pistol and assassinating him -- she could have done it quite easily.)
The youngest sister and the only one to be always on speaking/writing terms with all the others. Married the Duke of Devonshire, restored his gigantic ancestral home, Chatsworth, and ran it as a business. Hobnobbed with JFK (his sister married her brother-in-law). Amazingly, she is still alive at 89, the last surviving sister.
What fascinating lives!! Though all of them knew misery and tragedy, the predominant note is one of amusement; sentimentality is sternly banished and all their writing is lively, witty and utterly engaging, the greatest fear that of being a BORE.
They are so English, so repressed, hardly ever saying how they truly feel. The letters are peppered with slang and in-jokes, salted with wicked humour and stabs of glorious bitchiness. And yet, the enduring bonds of sisterhood can't help shining through (how they would all loathe such a sickly sentiment). Oh how I adore them all.
But all the same, I'm quite glad that they aren't my sisters.
PS If the person who stole my two volumes of Nancy's letters from my East St Kilda flat in 1998 is reading this, I would like them back -- no questions asked.