I have been reading The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, by Mary S. Lovell. When my son spotted it in the bookstore while Christmas shopping, he thought, “This is either the perfect gift for Mom, or she already owns it and has already read it.” He took a chance and bought it anyway, to my delight.
The Mitfords – six sisters and, almost parenthetically, a brother – were one of England’s most fascinating and notorious families of privilege. Tragedy wends its way through their lives in ways both deserved and undeserved. The sisters counted among them two best-selling authors – novelist and biographer Nancy, the eldest, and Jessica (whom the sisters called Decca), best known in the U.S. for her nonfiction, including The American Way of Death (1964). Two of them were admitted Fascists and suffered mightily for it: Unity, a middle sister, consorted with Hitler and attempted suicide at the outbreak of World War II, becoming as a result an incontinent and mentally stunted shadow of her former self, and Diana, whose husband headed the Fascists in Britain, was jailed with him for three years during the war. Decca gravitated to the other end of the political spectrum, becoming a member of the American Communist party; she was put under surveillance by the FBI and subpoenaed to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (she pleaded the fifth). The lesser known sisters melded into English aristocratic respectability – Pamela, nicknamed Woman, was more interested in sheep than politics; Deborah, or Debo, the baby, married a man who eventually inherited a dukedom.
Among them, they lost children to miscarriage, stillbirth, illness, and accident. They married often, and some of their greatest loves were extramarital. But it occurs to me that the essential tragedy of the Mitfords – or the Redesdales, since their father was the second baron Redesdale and a member of the House of Lords – was not unhappiness in love, their parents’ refusal to educate them (a source of incredible bitterness, particularly to Decca), or their political persecution. It was that some or all of these things led to real estrangement in the family, so that their primary strength – the source of all their wit, intelligence, and creativity – was compromised forever. I speak of their sisterhood.
Decca, the communist, despised Diana, blaming her, her husband Sir Oswald Mosley, and their ilk for the war, particularly their brother’s death in Burma. (Before the war’s outbreak the Mosleys had been trying to establish a radio station in Germany.) The sisters’ father, David, and Sydney, their mother, never lived together as man and wife after Unity’s attempted suicide; Sydney, who had met Hitler upon Unity’s introduction, refused to renounce Fascism, and David could not abide that.
It’s hard not to sympathize with Decca and her father, especially because of Diana’s blasé attitude toward Hitler. Long after the horrors of the Holocaust had been revealed, Diana and her mother continued to speak of the Fuhrer as though he were a particularly charming party guest they happened to have met. Diana and her husband, particularly, never reckoned with the anti-Semitism behind Mosley’s party, the British Union of Fascists.
The sisters had grown up with incredible privilege, raised by a nanny in a succession of moldering estates not unlike Downton Abbey. In novels and memoirs, the writer-sisters portrayed Sydney as a hapless and detached mother, which always struck her as unfair. What they did not fully appreciate – what they never attained the narrative distance to understand – was how incredibly lucky they were to have so many sisters.
Six of them! Tom was beloved, but his upbringing was always different: primarily because he was allowed to go away to school and university. The sisters compensated by creating their own sorority, complete with its own language, nicknames and humor. Even years later, after decades of bitterness and estrangement, they continued to write to one another, sprinkling their correspondence with made-up words and inside jokes.
Keenly missing my own sisters (having two for such a short time, until age 7, and then losing one a year ago), I read The Sisters with undisguised envy. It’s not their titles or their wealth that I long for, nor their strange British eccentricities, and certainly not their politics. No, it’s only the fact of that number, six, Nancy – Pamela – Diana – Unity – Jessica – Deborah, two perfect triangles, three pairs, adding up to an untold number of secrets, adventures, and stories. How sad that so much drove them apart.