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Pickle Me This

December 10, 2007

The Mitfords Edited by Charlotte Mosley

Here is not a book for the common reader: you have to know and “get” the Mitfords in order to appreciate Charlotte Mosley’s collection of their letters The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters. My journey towards such knowing and getting began about five years ago when I read Mary S. Lovell’s biography The Mitford Girls. I’d plucked it off a shelf in Waterstones one day whilst on a lunch break, and I can’t remember now what possessed me to do so, but I was enthralled by these sisters, their family and their story. Nancy, the lady novelist; Pamela, who had her Aga custom-painted to match her blue eyes; Diana, who married a Guinness heir and then left him for the leader of the British Fascists, was fond of Hitler and never repented; Unity the Nazi, whose own fondness for Hitler led to her suicide attempt two days after England declared war on her beloved Germany in in 1939, where after she lived brain damaged until her death in 1948; Jessica the Communist, who ran away to the Spanish Civil War and then to America where she made a career for herself as a “muckracker”; and Deborah, who would become the Duchess of Devonshire.

Only England could have made them, and only in the twentieth century at that. Their story is the century summed up, from society balls to “Well Lady, the inevitable has occurred, Dinky is going to have a baby by a black man”. Their relationships best understood by the phrase: “I naturally wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him if it was necessary… but in the meanwhile, as that isn’t necessary, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be quite good friends.” I’ve written plenty here about my Mitford leanings. How I’ve loved the other volumes in my Mitford library since the Lovell: Nancy’s novels, Jessica’s memoirs, even Debo’s book (I visited in Chatsworth House in 2003 and would have enjoyed it much more had I not been terribly ill at the time and having to keep collapsing on the grass amidst sheep poo). I read Decca’s letters earlier this year and absolutely adored them.

This collection of letters is essential, and I found them fascinating– though I didn’t enjoy them as much as Decca’s. Perhaps a collection between six people wouldn’t have the same narrative arc? And also that Unity’s and Diana’s letters were so disturbing, the latter right up until the very end as she perpetually viewed herself as victim (though the years she spent imprisoned during WWII for her relations to the Germans must indeed have been traumatic). But I learned so much new stuff here, about Debo and Pamela in particular and how interesting (but not inter-esting) each one was in her own right. Debo is also as fine a letter writer as her far more literary sisters. That though Jessica and Nancy were terrible liars, this trait was not unendearing somehow. That the homeliest sister turned out prettiest in old age (I think, at least– Pamela). How impossibly hard is one life, and any life, even one which is most extraorder.

What an amazing bond is sisterhood, which these letters demonstrate. The jokes, secret languages, grudges, traumas, and joys. Collections of letters also manage to represent death like no other literary form I’ve encountered (as I found when I read Carol Shields’ letters in June) –the absolute silence of a writer’s cessation is incredibly powerful, and real. With Nancy’s and Pamela’s in particular, and then in the end that blank page. To think of all the life that created these, which is as palpable as the page upon which they’re printed.

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