The Sisters, by Mary S. Lovell, is a biography that proves what I’ve suspected for a long time: the living get more influence than the dead. Lovell writes about the Mitford sisters (and, tangentially, their brother): six girls from an aristocratic British family who fought and flaunted and danced and went to prison and knew Hitler and wrote bestsellers during the 1930s and1940s. Their parents, Sydney and David Mitford (Lord and Lady Redesdale), were fairly ordinary Victorians; there seems nothing in the girls’ childhood that could explain the lust for power and notoriety that spurred their actions. Lovell spends chapters tenderly explaining the paths the girls took as they grew into women, but in the end, little is truly explained.
Not that I fault her for that. It’s a curiosity that so many of the Mitford sisters should have been famous in their time, but only a curiosity: politics, war, women’s rights, the literary scene in Britain, all contributed to the milieu that allowed their ambitions to blossom, and no one’s path can be completely explained by childhood events or adult heartache. In addition, Lovell sets herself the nearly-impossible task of writing the biography of six (or seven, if you count Tom, or nine, if you count the parents) people at the same time. The difficulty of such a task is incalculable, and it’s inevitable that even 600 pages will leave something out. No, what I fault Lovell for is the obvious bias in the book toward the living members of the Mitford clan, Diana and Deborah (Debo.) These two women were able to contribute their own version of the story to the biography, and it’s clear that Lovell takes them at their word, going so far at one point as to say that Diana is “congenitally incapable” of lying. (Really? Come now: even if she isn’t consciously telling an untruth – which few people are incapable of, by the way – don’t you think that her version of events is likely to be formed by opinion, omission, and long retelling?)
Conversely, the other sisters’ stories are neglected (Pam, for instance, is dismissed as a “womanly” stereotype, and her interests and adventures deemed less interesting than the others) or openly criticized. Jessica (Decca) comes in for the most opprobrium: she ran away and hurt her family! Actions she took at the age of nineteen were ill-considered! She was a Communist! Well, yes. I suppose that’s true. But then why the open-armed forgiveness for Diana, who left her husband for Oscar Mosley, the great British fascist, and supported his political ambitions all her life? Why the outrageous claim that her time in Holloway Prison was worse than internment at Dachau? Why the sympathy for Unity Mitford, who was what can only be called a Hitler groupie during the 1930s and shot herself in the head (not fatally) when war was declared between Germany and Britain? If Decca’s rebellious behavior was unforgivable, why the repeated aw-shucks comment that really, Mosley and Diana were never anti-Semitic, just devoted (perhaps misguidedly) to the future of Britain? While a dose of the reality of the time is welcome (most English people did not understand what the implications of fascism would be; the information about the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany was not widely available), admiration for Hitler’s supporters is intolerable. Lovell points out that Decca ignored the facts coming out of Soviet Russia about the millions murdered in pogroms. Despite the obvious parallel, she never seems to make the connection between this behavior and Diana’s or Unity’s.
One further thing to annoy the attentive reader: the editing is extremely sloppy. There are many problems with grammar and syntax (with six sisters and a mother in constant play, “she” is not enough of an antecedent), and the editing of words and quotations in foreign languages is abysmally full of errors.
Despite all of this, however, The Sisters remains an engaging and readable whirlwind tour of the lives of the Mitfords. Once I recovered from my irritation at its bias, I spent several pleasingly gossipy hours with these stars of society: Nancy Mitford, the wicked bestselling author; Diana, the woman who could convince Hitler to give her a radio station; Debo, the Duchess of Devonshire; Unity, the Nazi supporter; Decca, the member of the American Communist Party; and Pam, the only sister who retained an interest in horses, dogs, livestock, and farming. Almost all of them married at least twice; all of them had their names in the papers more often than almost any other women of their day. They were lively, intelligent, charming, indomitable. Perhaps when the last of the sisters has died, a truly frank biography will come out. Until then, this is a lively and entertaining skim over the surface.