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The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family…

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family (original 2001; edition 2003)

by Mary S. Lovell

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1,234306,440 (4.04)1 / 103
Title:The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family
Authors:Mary S. Lovell
Info:W. W. Norton & Company (2003), Paperback, 640 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:ABG, politics, Hitler, Nazi Party, Socialists, society, authors

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The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell (2001)


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Read during Summer 2002

It took me some time to read this thick biography of all 6 Mitford sisters but every page was interesting. Very well written and easy to follow, despite having to track 6 sisters of a large age range over two continents. Not suprisingly, the main focus is on the more famous sisters; Unity, Nancy, Diana, and Jessica. I read 'A Fine Old Conflict' by Jessica last fall so I knew some of the story from her perspective but I learned much more about Unity and Diana and their involement with both Facism and Nazi Germany. What an amazing family; talented, charismatic, but also capable of holding grudges and launching cruel barbs. The author is clearly fascinated by them but sticks to letters and interviews for her story. The notes, index, and bibliography are massive. I could read for a few years just based on the bibliography.
  amyem58 | Jul 14, 2014 |
Before reading "The Mitford Girls: The Biography of an Extraordinary Family" by Mary S. Lovell, I had already read Hons and Rebels: The Classic Memoir of One of Last Century's Most Extraordinary Families by Jessica Mitford, Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, and the first two novels by Nancy Mitford.

Mary S. Lovell does an extraordinary job of condensing down the lives of the Mitford girls, their parents, their brother, and numerous partners, children, grandchildren, and various other notable relatives, all of which takes place against some of the most momentous historical moments of the twentieth century. In a sense the family's story mirrors that of the century they lived in.

The parents known to their children as Muv and Farve, aka Lord Redesdale and his wife Sydney, represent the early twentieth century aristocracy. Both, to varying degrees are appalled by the changes wrought throughout the 1920s and the emergence of the post-WW1 generation of young people, dubbed Bright Young Things, who erupted into society determined to change the world for the better now once the war to end all wars was over. Oldest daughter, Nancy, and her arty friends were an anathema to her father.

Three of the daughters were split across the two political ideologies that wreaked havoc on the twentieth century: Unity (who unbelievably was conceived in a Canadian town called Swastika) and Diana both being unapologetic fascists, and Jessica (aka Decca) a staunch communist. Not only were Unity and Diana fascists but both formed a close friendship with Hitler and other leading Nazis in pre-WW2 Germany, and Diana married British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Shortly after Britain declared war on Germany Unity unsuccessfully tried to kill herself, and Decca ran away to help the Republican cause in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. These events, along with Nancy's success as a writer, are what make this book so fascinating for anyone interested in this era.

I was slightly less interested in the early childhood years, and in the post-WW2 era. After the war, the book details how each life played out. This is all worth reading but of less interest to me than the extraordinary events detailed in the 1930s and 1940s.

All told though, a very interesting biography, with plenty of conflict (both familial and global) to keep the story moving forward. ( )
  nigeyb | Dec 15, 2013 |
I'm putting this on hold. I checked it out primarily because I really want to read Diana Mosley, and I figured a little more background on the Mitfords wouldn't hurt. But it's not grabbing me this time around, so I'll try again later.
  liz.mabry | Sep 11, 2013 |
This book made for fascinating reading. The Mitford girls were undoubtedly the most talked about set of sisters during the Second World War and its aftermath. Their relationships with each other as well as with influential and notorious figures of the day make their life stories well worth reading. Excellent! ( )
  briandrewz | Nov 21, 2012 |

"Of course, the whole point of muck-raking, apart from all the jokes, is to try to do something to about what you've been writing about. You may not be able to change the world but at least you can embarrass the guilty." ~Jessica "Decca" Mitford (p. 481)

The Mitfords are a fascinating family.

I came to this book via an NPR list of recommended titles, and when I read the blurb, I was intrigued. A little bit about each of the girls (and Tom):

Nancy Mitford (as photographed by Cecil Beaton!!!): eldest of the seven (!!!) children; author of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate; friends with Evelyn Waugh (!!!); spent most of her adult life in love with Gaston Palewski, who though he enjoyed her attention, still maintained romantic relationships with many other (sometimes married) women.

Pamela Mitford: arrived after Nancy; nicknamed "Woman"; probably the least controversial of the bunch; preferred farming to scandal.
Tom Mitford: only boy; died relatively young

Diana Mitford: next after Tom; infamous for her first marriage to Bryan Guinness, and then relationship with and later marriage to Sir Oswald Mosely, noted Fascist; spent the better part of World War II in a jail cell for social ties to Hitler

Unity Mitford: so enamored with Nazi politics, she learned German, moved to Germany, and found a way not only to meet Hitler, but to become his close friend; shot herself (and survived) when Germany and England declared war.

Jessica "Decca" Mitford: politically very different than Diana and Unity in that she was a Communist for years; eloped to Spain with Esmond Romilly (a Churchill descendant); later moved to the US and, after Esmond's death, married Bob Treuhaft and worked in support of the Communist Party and civil rights; wrote The American Way of Death, an indictment of the funeral industry's exploitative practices.

Deborah "Debo" Mitford: youngest; was growing up in the midst of all the controversy stirred up by her elder sisters; married Andrew Cavendish and became the Duchess of Devonshire and an accomplished businesswoman.

Mary S. Lovell does a wonderful job of trying to avoid redundancy, to not only to consolidate all of the source material on the Mitfords that has accumulated over the years but really present each of the sister's perspective in a non-judgmental way (which is no small task when discussing the polarizing opinions and decisions of Diana and Unity!!!). I was particularly struck by the delicacy in which she handled Unity's developing relationship with Hitler and Diana's imprisonment during WWII. She presented the facts, expressed how the family reacted, and let the reader have their own reactions.

The entire biography was superbly well-researched, yet felt completely accessible considering that I had zero prior knowledge of the Mitford sisters (having been born post 1980). One thing that makes this bio stand out was the access she had to the remaining Mitford sisters. Near the end of the biography, Lovell discusses the other biographies written about various members of the Mitford family, each with varying degrees of access to the sisters themselves. Lovell, because of her access, was able to really speak to how the sisters themselves felt and reacted during different points of the family history, What I appreciated though was that, for her access, she really tried to present the women as the complex human beings that they were, faults as well as triumphs.

Rubric rating: 8. Check out Mitford related postings and pictures here. Apparently there's a Mitford tumblr. Who knew?? ( )
1 vote jaclyn_michelle | May 18, 2012 |
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Sydney Bowles was fourteen years old when she first set eyes on David Freeman Mitford.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393324141, Paperback)

"[A] balanced, well-researched, and beautifully written biography....[an] exceptional achievement."—Bay Area Reporter, Tavo Amador

The Mitford girls were probably the most spectacular sister act of the twentieth century."—Vogue This is the story of a close, loving family splintered by the violent ideologies of Europe between the wars. Jessica was a Communist; Debo became the Duchess of Devonshire; Nancy was one of the best-selling novelists of her day; the ethereally beautiful Diana was the most hated woman in England; and Unity Valkyrie, born in Swastika, Alaska, would become obsessed with Adolf Hitler. 24 b/w photographs

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:41 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A portrait of the Mitford sisters follows Jessica, a communist; Debo, the Duchess of Devonshire; Nancy, a best-selling novelist; Diana, who was the most hated woman in England; and Unity, who was obsessed with Adolf Hitler.

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» see all 3 descriptions

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W.W. Norton

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