The Mitfords Letters Between Six Sisters
The Mitfords Letters Between Six Sisters – I bought this large (800+ pp) volume from Hatchard on a trip to London in 2014 and first tried to read it when it arrived in a Royal Mail bag with a few other books I had bought. I got through the first chapter before I realized I was completely lost – who in the world is Honks? Which sister was called Woman? Who is the French Lady as there are two sisters living in France? At the time, I knew very little about the biography and inner workings of the Mitford Sisters. So I spent the last year trying to make up for it, not just so I could read this book, but because of the Mitford sisters, their circle of family and friends, the times they lived in, and more about them. it’s fascinating.
To read more about the sisters, click here to find a 2014 article from BBC Magazine. I won’t give you my personal opinion on each sister because I don’t want you to be influenced before you read the book yourself.
The Mitfords Letters Between Six Sisters
The letters between the six sisters were edited by Charlotte Mosley, who was married to Max Mosley, Diana Mitford’s son. He has done a wonderful job here and managed to organize a monumental amount of material into a cohesive and very readable format. As the editor’s note tells us at the outset, “the correspondence between the six Mitford sisters consists of nearly twelve thousand letters, of which a little over five percent are included in this volume.” The letters begin with a letter from Pamela to Diana in 1925 and pick up speed in the early 1930s. Mosley thankfully provides an overview of what happened in each sister’s life during each decade. Of course, the elephant in the room for the Mitfords in the 1930s was the Commonwealth’s obsession with Adolf Hitler. One never really gets a clear picture of the Union in this or any other source, so I still can’t decide whether his Nazi fanaticism is due to the Union being simple-minded, cruel, impressionable, or just plain crazy. The Union pursued Hitler, particularly at a restaurant he frequented, and made no bones about these activities. Union wrote in a letter to Diana in December 1935: “ . . . today he finally came, he was very nice and he was very surprised to see me. He immediately asked me. . . go and sit with him. . . The Führer was heavenly, in the best of spirits, and very gay. There was a choice of two soups and she flipped a coin to see which one it would be, which was very sweet of her to do. He asked after you and I said you will come soon. He talked a lot about the Jews, which was very nice. News kept coming in by phone from Abyssinia and Egypt, which was quite exciting. Furher stayed at the Osteria for two hours, isn’t it nice? . . . .” He signed the letter: “Best love and Heil Hitler! Bobo.”
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Of course, letters can tell us a lot about any aspect of a Sister’s life. At various points over the years, their individual feelings about any subject or each other were often left unwritten. There’s a lot of reading between the lines, which Mosley does admirably. But all is not as it seems, even with his help. In June 1940, Diana Mitford and her husband, the fascist leader Oswald Mosley, were both arrested without charge or trial under Defense Regulation 18B, which authorized the internment of people suspected of being Nazi sympathizers during World War II. Diana was sent to Holloway Prison. This did not prevent the Sisters from communicating. On November 19, 1941, Deborah suffered the death of her premature newborn and wrote to Diana in prison: “It was heaven for you to write your precious letter and everything. You can’t imagine how good I feel now, really good. . . Oh Honks, don’t be Gilliat again, I’ve lost all faith in him. He never came after being looked for, and when I was there with everything, he came in and the nurses said, ‘Here, I have a friend to see you,’ and if I had the power I would have really kicked him, or at least. he asked where he was all afternoon. . . . ” Three days later, on November 22, 1941, Nancy also wrote to Diana from her hospital bed in London: “Dear Diana – Thank you so much for the beautiful grapes, you really are an angel and my grapes are so good to me. I had a terrible time, I was very depressed because they had to take out both of my tubes and so now I can never have children. I can’t say that I suffered much, but I had enough anxiety. . . . Rodds (Nancy’s soon-to-be ex-mother-in-law) was shaping up beautifully – my mother-in-law was told by the surgeon that I would be in danger for 3 days and none of them called to ask, let alone bloom. or whatever. I’d like to know if they bother to look under the R in the deaths column, but I highly doubt it. . . Muv (their mother) was beautiful, she floated between me and Debo in a fog of confusion. When I explained my symptoms to her, she said, “Ovaries – I thought I had 700 eggs in one.” Then I told her how I couldn’t stand having a big scar on my stomach and she replied, “But it will go away someday my love. See?’ . . . Much love, my love, and many thanks for the face, Nancy.”
On the surface, both of these letters sound like nothing more than correspondence between two sisters and a third sister. Although written from her hospital bed, Nancy’s letters still retain Nancy’s characteristic breezy tone. However, in 2002, MI5 released World War II-era documents describing Lady Mosley (Diana Mitford) and her political leanings. “Sir Oswald Mosley’s wife, Diana Mosley, is said to be the ‘best authority’ that her family and inner circle are now a public danger. She is said to be smarter and more dangerous than her husband and will stop at nothing to achieve her ambitions. He is wildly ambitious.” Nancy Mitford was the “best authority” quoted above. Diana eventually learned that her sister had written to the government about her and Oswald Mosley not once, but twice, and her words went a long way toward seeing them both in prison.
Aside from these two dark episodes in the lives of the Mitford Sisters, most of the letters in this book are more open in tone. Here are some examples:
Deborah to Diana, August 13, 1957 – ”. . . . I wonder if you have seen the papers, they are full of Hardwick and death tax deals, I think v. satisfactory to us, but nevertheless sad (1). . . . Evelyn Waugh arrived last week on her way to Renishaw. He is a crusty old thing, he didn’t really get a cross, but one always felt that he was on the verge. The wife was here (2), we were talking in my room when we went up (stairs) and she was saying things like “I hope I have Malvern water by my bed, I hope the curtains will keep the light out.” , can I have some lemonade for bed, Lady Mercy has finished her bathroom,” and generally makes the person feel that things are not right and that it is their own fault. I thought he was really gone when he came back with a look of triumph on his face and said, “I looked at the pedestal next to my bed and thought I should tell you it’s FULL OF GAS.” Oh Honks shame, horror. I was rooted to the bed, I couldn’t help it at all, I left him and his Wife to deal with it, I hid my head in the blanket and threw it out properly. Evelyn looked very pleased. Oh dear, not as nice a character as Nancy said. . . “
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1. Nine of the most important works of art at Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth, which had been in a Devonshire family for fifteen generations, were handed over to the government in lieu of death duty.
Deborah to Diana, August 13, 1958.” . . . . We went to lunch with the Sitwells on Monday. Dame Edith was in a long fur coat (which she never took off at dinner).