The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell (4 Stars)


Usually not my norm, this is a book report not just merely a book review. The writing is well-researched, clear and concise, and though I felt it sometimes leaned toward sympathizing with the sisters and trying to explain away their shortcomings, it is a fascinating look at an extraordinary family. I do remember hearing snippets about the sisters over the years, but had never read anything in-depth about their lives. Fact proves stranger than fiction, as this story could not be made up.

Their parents were David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford (Second Baron Redesdale and a cousin to Clementine Churchill) and his wife, Sydney Bowles (Lady Redesdale). Both were portrayed as cold and distant during their children’s youth, but that seemed to change as they moved to adulthood. The children, 6 girls and 1 boy, were raised by nannies, as was the way at the time for wealthy landowners in England. All were raised in privilege, some were beautiful and all possessed the famous clear blue Mitford eyes. They spoke in their own language, Boudledidge, had nicknames for everyone, shared private jokes, had coming out parties and and grew into rebellious teens and famous (and, in some cases, infamous) adults. Here is a short introduction to each, which I hope will spark your interest to learn more:

No. 1:  Nancy (1904-1973).  Nancy describes her life as perfect, until her sister Pam was born. Indeed, she becomes a bully, albeit one who tries to hide her hurtful and cruel remarks by pretending they are jokes and all in good fun. Her first engagement to Hamish St Clair-Erskine, son of the Earl of Rosslyn, ended perhaps due to her fiancee’s homosexuality.  Nancy married The Honorable Peter Rodd (nicknamed Prod), son of the First Baron Rennell. It was not a happy marriage, and the two separated for many years before finally divorcing. Nancy then fell in love with Colonel Gaston Palewski (de Gaulle’s chief advisor), and for many years had a relationship with him, hoping he would marry her, however, he never loved her enough and married someone else. Nancy was one of the most celebrated writers of her time. Some of her books were loosely based on her family and did not necessarily portray them in a good light. Diana’s husband, Sir Mosley, banned her from entering their home for a good many years. At Nancy’s death, Diana said of Nancy “the awful thing is, she didn’t come first with anybody.”

No. 2:  Pam (1907-1994), a/k/a Woman.  Pam’s life is so overlooked in this book, perhaps because she was the only one of the sisters not to get involved in celebrity or politics. Her leanings toward domesticity, country life and horses earned her the nickname Woman. She married physicist and Oxford professor Derek Jackson. After their 15-year marriage ended, Pam went on to have female companions for the remainder of her life. The book hints that the sisters, or at least Rebecca, suspected Pam’s sexual preference was females, but it was never a topic of discussion.

No. 3:  Thomas (1909-1945), the only boy.  During his school years at Eton, Tom and Hamish (yes, his sister’s later fiancé) had been lovers. While Tom never married, he did become a ladies’ man. He was also a member of the British Union of Fascists, met Hitler and attended Nazi rallies. Rather than fight Germany, he elected to fight in Italy and North Africa, and died in Burma.

No. 4:  Diana (1910-2003) a/k/a Bodley, because Nancy thought her head was large. Considered by some to be the most beautiful of the sisters, Diana married Bryan Guinness, heir to the Guinness fortune, had two children with him, then left him for Sir Oswald Mosley, who was leading the British Union of Fascists. At the time, this was scandalous in itself as Mosley was married and would not leave his wife, and Diana was content to remain his mistress. However, Mosley’s wife died quite unexpectedly, and they were able to live together. Oh, but in the meantime he humiliated her with his numerous affairs, including one with his sister-in-law, before marrying Diana. Their marriage took place in Joseph Goebbels’ home, with Adolf Hitler was guest of honor. Over the years she met with Hitler trying to receive his financial support for a radio station which would fund Sir Mosley’s fascist group. Diana did this as a means of keeping Mosley out of the spotlight. She met with Hitler frequently, and described him as a lovely, charming man. The author points out that this was before Hitler’s atrocities were known. However, even after knowledge of Hitler’s atrocities and until her death, Diana would never condemn Hitler, even going so far to say that Stalin and Mao had killed a greater number of people. This led to her title as The Most Hated Woman in England. Diana and Mosley were imprisoned without a trial during the war for their fascist politics, but I couldn’t seem to work up any sympathy. Neither could others at the time, especially when she complained about her lodging. Others took her to task to dare to compare her imprisonment to those in Hitler’s death camps. And their fascist beliefs didn’t mean they were above using their relationship and friendship with Churchill to try and gain their freedom. The Mosleys moved to France, where they were shunned by most of aristocracy, but still led a happy, privileged life together until Mosley’s death in 1980. Diana also went on to write her memoirs.

No. 5:  Unity (1914-1948), a/k/a Boud and Bobo.  Unity was obsessed with Hitler, and made it her life’s priority to meet him. She did, and along with Diana, she was dubbed one of Hitler’s angels. She appeared to be immature and seeking attention, and loved to shock people. I wondered if it was because of Diana’s beauty and notoriety. Diana was 6’-1”, and was teased about being enormous. Unity’s was a sulky, rebellious, nasty teenager who played mean-spirited practical jokes on others, which were not funny in the least (releasing rats and snakes at events). Diana’s scandal had rocked the family and Diana was being shunned. The defiant Unity sought out Diana, met Mosley, and took on Nazism, perhaps as a way to shock her parents. She moved to Germany and began her pursuit of Hitler. She stalked him, waiting for him at his favorite cafes until she finally met him. She would literally tremble when she laid eyes on him. Hitler helped her furnish her apartment, and rumors abounded about there being even more to their relationship. Britain declared war on Germany and Unity shot herself in the temple. Her hospital bill was paid for by Hitler. Amazingly, she regained most of her faculties, such as speech, walking, etc. yet was incontinent and had mood swings. Sydney became her caretaker until Unity died at 33 from meningitis caused by the bullet.

No. 6:  Jessica (1917-1996), a/k/a Decca and Susan.  In her teens, Jessica ran away to marry Esmond Romilly, Churchill’s Communist nephew and her cousin. Her father disinherited her and never spoke to her again. Esmond was killed in action, Jessica moved to the United States, and married Robert Treuhaft. The couple were active members of the American Communist Party and civil rights campaigners. Jessica is a dichotomy. While remaining staunchly Communist throughout her life (even though she left the party), she pursued money and used it for its power. She disagreed with Diana’s politics, and didn’t speak to her for over 30 years. While remaining estranged from her father, she and Sydney did reunite. Jessica became a civil rights activist and a writer. Her books include best-selling exposés of the funeral industry and prison system, as well as her memoirs. Her children were nicknamed The Donk and The Mong.

No. 7:  Deborah (1920-2014) a/k/a Debo, and also Nine as Nancy thought that was her mental age.  Deborah married Andrew Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire. The Duchess turned their home, Chatsworth, into a successful business enabling them to keep the property in the family yet allow the public to share in its history and beauty. Restoration and improvements took place during the months when the home was closed due to low tour numbers, and other business were spun-off Chatsworth, such as produce sales and cafes.  Andrew and Deborah were married for 63 years, until his death.

David (1878-1958) a/k/a Farve and Sydney (1880–1963) a/k/a Muv or The Poor Old Female separated due to their irreconcilable political beliefs.  Sydney remained a Nazi sympathizer, while David renounced them.

While this certainly isn’t light reading, it was absolutely captivating.  It also took me a long time as I continuously turned to the internet to look up people, places, history.  I’m sure you will find you can’t put it down either.


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