The Mitford Girls by Mary S Lovell

Seeing as I’ve just started this blog I feel the nee d to write another post, to bulk things out a little. And yes, this isn’t a novel, but a biography, and I know I say I never read anything other than turgid novels, but that was a teensy lie and I am, if anything, a woman of many contradictions. So, a biography this is. I love a good biography, but usually only if the person (or people) it’s about are dead and/or rich and/or dysfunctional and/or very naughty and the good old Mitfords are all of those things in spades apart from the dear Duchess of Devonshire who is still very much alive and still very wonderful.

The Mitfords were a band of six sisters (and a brother, but he barely gets a look in and then tragically got killed in action after the war had ended) who were all born in the early years of the 20th century to Lord and Lady Redesdale, minor, impoverished and, of course, rather eccentric aristos who had a pile Somewhere North of London, and a gold mine, with, as it turned out, no gold in it, in Canada. Lord and Lady Redesdale also happened to have a talent for breeding attractive, intelligent and strong willed daughters. Nancy, the eldest daughter, grows up and goes to Oxford and becomes friends with everyone worth being friends with – mostly witty camp clever men who go to Oxford and end up being Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman and everyone else who was famous for being witty and camp and clever in the 20th century, and after much sadness and heartbreak etc ends up being a famous writer herself and living in Paris and writing the most hilarious and lovely books ever, despite loving a handsome cad who never loves her back.

Unity, the fourth daughter, goes skipping off to Germany, just so happens to fall in love with Hitler, and then shoots herself when war is declared, though, being a Mitford, she makes a real hash of it and doesn’t actually kill herself, but simply damages her brain, leaving her dependant on others for the rest of her short life. Diana, the third daughter and most beautiful, also meets Hitler and likes him very much and then falls in love with Sir Oswald Mosley the Fascist, leaves her nice but dim husband for him and then ends up in Holloway prison. Jessica, the fifth daughter, turns Communist, moves to America and blames Diana for her husband’s death in the war because she supports Hitler and doesn’t speak to her for the next…oh..thirty odd years. Debo, the youngest, marries a nice young man whose older brother dies and so she unexpectedly ends up as the Duchess of Devonshire, and also the peacemaker amongst her warring sisters, and then of course there’s the lovely Pam, the second daughter, who stays under the radar and looks after everybody else’s children when they’re off gallivanting around Europe and making headlines.

These sisters are hilarious – they behave like squabbling children well into their old age, refuse to speak to one another FOR YEARS when minor offences have been made, write nasty depictions of each other in their books, talk frequently in the made up language of their childhood and write the most wonderful, witty, scathing letters to each other that I’ve ever read. They were (are, in the case of Debo) all brave, independent, intelligent, beautiful and warm hearted women who lived through extraordinary times, were related to and friends with some of the biggest movers and shakers of the day, and carved lives that were very distinct from each other’s, some with great success, others with great tragedy. They didn’t always get along, and some of the sisters were very close while others couldn’t stand the sight of each other, but when it mattered, they stood together against the world, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with each of them as I read about their turbulent and fascinating lives.

And it’s not just the girls that come out as heroes; their mother, Sydney, was a truly remarkable woman who encouraged all of her girls to be themselves and always remained loyal, unbiased and loving despite what each one put her through. Their father, the wonderfully eccentric David, comes across as a real grumpy bear who loved his daughters and was deeply sorry to lose contact with them as they grew up and left home. The marriage of the Mitfords and their affection for one another, even after they have moved into separate homes, was one of the most touching aspects of the book.

All in all, this is a wonderful read, that is written in a gossipy, mostly unbiased style (it’s clear Mary Lovell doesn’t think much of Jessica) and rips along at a rate of knots…I could barely put it down! The Mitfords all led such eventful lives, and as they were so involved in the great debates of the day, and knew all of the people worth knowing at the time, their story also becomes, in a way, the story of the 20th century itself. Remarkable, fascinating, at times infuriating (Unity, Jessica and Diana in particular are not the most reasonable of women) and unforgettable -I’m moving on to their letters next. Read it! Now! You can buy your own copy here.

The Devastating Boys by Elizabeth Taylor

Oh, the joys of judging books by their covers.  I bought this book for the sole reason that I really quite liked the cover, and I’d read Angel by the same author after again quite liking the cover (not the one you see if you follow the link, that one’s downright ugly), and thoroughly enjoyed it. Virago covers (the old ones, that is – the new ones tend to be horrendous and why they changed what was a perfectly lovely design to their sexy moody contemporary photography shenanigans, comme ca, is, like many things, beyond my comprehension) are wonderful things, and to be frank, even if I never read half of the Viragos I own, I wouldn’t care, because they look pretty even when they are propping things up, gathering dust and generally taking up space I don’t have. But I digress.

This blog is for reviewing books, of course, so review this book I must. The Devastating Boys is actually a collection of short stories, which I am really getting into these days, as, when one only has time to read books while on packed commuter trains/tubes, it’s very satisfying to get two whole stories read by the time you’ve made it to South Kensington via London Charing Cross. And, just to dispell any possible confusion, there are two famous Elizabeth Taylors – this one is not the same as blue eyed-National Velvet-lots of husbands and diamonds-now rather decrepit Elizabeth Taylor. Just so as you know.

Anyway, I read this while sunning myself on Lesbos, which is a ridiculously idyllic and stereotypical Greek island, and it was the perfect book to pick up and put down between the various holiday activities one does on Greek islands; namely, turning periodically while sunbathing to ensure maximum yet even tannage, eating huge amounts of icecream, and popping down to the sea for a refreshing paddle, because the stories are fairly short and you can comfortably read one in 20 minutes. The stories themselves were perfect little gems, and they traversed the whole spectrum from hilarious to charming to touching to downright shocking, which is quite a lot for one small volume to traverse by anyone’s standards. I especially enjoyed the story of ‘The Devastating Boys’, which is about an old Oxfordshire couple who have an empty nest and are in need of a little excitement in their lives. So, they decide to take two black boys from the East End in for the summer holidays, to give them an experience of country life, with hilarious and heartwarming consequences. It’s funny and touching and so well observed, and though it is only a few pages long, it was enough for the characters to really come alive off the page and leave you hungry for more. ‘The Fly Paper’ was the only story I didn’t enjoy, as, though it was equally well written as the others, it sent a nasty chill down my spine when I reached the final shocking paragraph. This is one of the best short story collections I have ever read, even better than Tea with Mr Rochester and maybe even on a par with Alice Munro and Katherine Mansfield. High praise indeed! Highly, highly, recommended. Read it now! You can buy it here.