All in the Family

Lucretia Stewart is the author of the novel "Making Love" and editor of "Erogenous Zones: An Anthology of Sex Abroad."

The Mitfords occupy a special place in British hearts and in British folklore. They are national treasures, so their eccentricities, their peccadilloes, their broken marriages, their unorthodox political allegiances are all forgiven. They’ve become a sort of alternative royal family, immortalized in Nancy Mitford’s novels (notably “The Pursuit of Love,” “Love in a Cold Climate,” “The Blessing” and “Don’t Tell Alfred”). And, more recently, their world was depicted in a musical (“The Mitford Girls”) and a highly successful television adaptation--an amalgam--of the novels. Everybody knows them, everybody loves them, everybody has a claim on them.

The Mitford sisters--Nancy the novelist, Pamela the countrywoman and “quiet” sister, Diana the fascist, Unity the fascist and fanatical fan of Hitler, Jessica the communist and Deborah the duchess--were the daughters of a minor British aristocrat, David Mitford, who became the second Baron Redesdale. For a number of reasons, some clear, some less so, the sisters became famous. Mary S. Lovell claims in “The Sisters” that, were it not for Nancy’s novels, the family would never have become enshrined in the national consciousness and, to a certain extent, that is true, but the exploits of the Mitford girls were being reported in the press long before Nancy published her first book. Their long-suffering mother is supposed to have remarked, “Whenever I see a headline beginning with ‘Peer’s Daughter’ I know one of you children has been in trouble.” (Her only son, Tom, gave considerably less trouble and died at 36 when he developed pneumonia after being wounded in Burma in 1945.)

The sisters, four of whom were almost always known by their nicknames--Pamela, “Woman” or “Woo”; Unity, “Bobo” or “Boud”; Jessica, “Decca”; and Deborah, “Debo"--lived largely (or at least until they “came out” as debutantes and set off to find husbands) in a world of their own or at any rate of their own making. They invented a private language, Boudledidge, (which appears in Nancy’s novels as eggy-peggy); they had endless jokes, teases and games, which were peculiar to them and must have appeared weird and baffling to outsiders. That they were eccentric is beyond doubt, but somehow, in their hands, that eccentricity became novel and exciting; it became daring and groundbreakingly witty.

Sadly, Lovell does not share her subjects’ light touch. In this exhaustive (and exhausting) new biography, no stone has been left unturned, no letter unread, no dance unattended, no outfit not described, no joke not retold, no beloved pet (and there were dozens of these) forgotten. The result reads like a collection of facts and anecdotes hastily assembled, with little thought or analysis applied to their presentation. Much of the material relies heavily on Jessica Mitford’s memoir, “Hons and Rebels.”


The country weekend, for example, at which Jessica met her cousin Esmond Romilly, with whom she was soon to elope, is reported thus by her: “Cousin Dorothy’s house was deliciously comfortable and pleasant. Unlike most English country houses, the rooms were always glowingly warm. You got the feeling that the fires burned in the fireplaces continuously all winter.... There were many old-fashioned touches: oranges stuffed with cloves in the chests of drawers, early morning tea in your bedroom....” Here is Lovell’s version: “Renowned for her hospitality ‘Aunt’ Dorothy was credited with being the Edwardian instigator of weekend house-parties--'Do come Saturday to Monday'--and her house was famous as a haven of comfort. Fires blazed in all the rooms throughout the winter, and no expense or detail was spared to make guests feel pampered.” And so it goes on--for more than 600 pages.

Her tone, simultaneously gushing and banal, is more suitable to Britain’s Hello magazine than to a serious biography. (Witness her initial description of Lord and Lady Redesdale: “They were honest, well-meaning, salt-of-the-earth, admittedly slightly eccentric, socially retiring minor aristocrats, thoroughly nice people who, because of their extraordinary daughters, were propelled unwillingly, blinking and unprepared, into an international spotlight.”) She veers between the arch, the naive (“It is tempting to wonder what might have happened had Diana been able to arrange a meeting [between Hitler and Churchill]. Might the war, which tore Europe apart, have been prevented?”) and the frankly incomprehensible (as when she reports that Unity “gave alcoholic parties in her apartment for her friends from ‘the heim.’” Is an alcoholic party one attended by alcoholic guests or one at which alcoholic drinks are served?). Lovell, like many before her, has fallen hook, line and sinker for the Mitfords, and it shows.

But, worse than the cliches that pepper the text (“Aunt Dorothy had a soft spot for her wayward young kinsman”) or the breathless admiration for all things Mitford, including Diana’s espousal of the Fascist cause and its dangerously charismatic leader in England, Oswald Mosley (Lovell seems to believe that a love so great as theirs was sacred and deserved the reverential, swoony treatment that Abelard and Heloise would have considered themselves lucky to get), is the complete lack of any distance or objectivity.

The main problem with “The Sisters” is that Lovell appears incapable of putting any of the information she has amassed in context, so that Evelyn Waugh’s first marriage to Evelyn Gardner (“The marriage could never have worked: Waugh had homosexual urges and was not able to give She-Evelyn the emotional security she needed; as a writer he needed quiet and isolation, while She-Evelyn craved social life”), the Bright Young Things (which included “Lytton Strachey and his lover Dora Carrington"--something of an oversimplification of their actual relationship), the British Fascist movement, Unity’s crush on Hitler and the Spanish Civil War are all splashed carelessly onto a vast, sprawling canvas of 1930s upper-class British life. Everything, trivial or not, is given the same breathy, excitable treatment in a sort of grotesque parody of Mitford-speak (at one point, Lovell claims, “Decca was putrid with jealousy” because Nancy had gone to Russia).

This inability to understand the nuances of the British class system, which is part of the larger problem, is perhaps understandable--only the British upper classes and a few snobbish and clever outsiders understand it--and therefore forgivable. What is less forgivable is her absolute conviction that she does understand it perfectly, that she is utterly at home in this strange alternative universe created by the Mitfords and that she is our guide and conduit to that universe. She just doesn’t get it at all and the book jars with every sentence as a result. British readers will understand what’s wrong; American readers may simply be uneasily conscious that something is out of kilter.

Another significant weakness of the book is Lovell’s failure to explore the relationship between the Mitfords--their lives and times--and their portrayal in Nancy’s novels. These novels are intrinsically far more interesting than anything the Mitfords got up to, but obviously not to Lovell (if the British weren’t so busy treating the Mitfords as national treasures, they would be embarrassed by them; it could have gone either way). She dutifully details the crossovers between Life and Art, but she never seems to grasp how the one fed into the other, and her understanding of the relationship between the two seems limited to such comments as “The girls’ parents Lord and Lady Redesdale ... are perhaps better known to posterity as ‘Farve and ‘Muv.’” It is difficult to avoid believing that she simply isn’t familiar with the novels, if only because of the endless missed opportunities to make interesting connections.

By the time Lovell came to research the book, all but two of the Mitford children were dead. “Two of the sisters are triumphantly alive as I write this book. Diana, at ninety, still chic and articulate: Debo, serene and utterly charming, celebrated her eightieth birthday in March 2000....” As a result, the Mitford family and their circle appear primarily as caricatures: chaotic children jumping fences twice their height (all of them, however, rather more elegant than those depicted by a cartoonist) on plump ponies; red-faced men in pink (hunting) coats; effete but frightfully amusing homosexuals, or men affecting to be homosexual (“filthy sewers” castigated by Farve); beastly Fascists; languid beauties (Lovell remains astonished and entranced throughout by the fact that Diana was one of the great beauties of her generation and refers to it so often that one becomes suspicious) and so on. They have all already appeared--more elegantly, more endearingly, more enjoyably, more memorably--in Nancy’s novels, and that is where you should look if you want to know about the Mitfords.