Thursday 24 April 2008


I am forlorn. There is no other word for it. Having started it in November, I am drawing to the final pages of The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters. Only two sisters are still alive, and I have lived every period of their lives. It is rare, I must confess, that I want a book to continue when I've come to the end. Almost always I am happy to finish and move onto the next, even if I've really enjoyed reading the book. It is astonishing that an 800+ page book should leave me wanting more.

When I started The Mitfords in November, I had heard of Nancy, Jessica and Diana, though got them a little mixed up, and had no idea about
the rest of them. I knew they were fairly posh, and had written some books between them, of which I had only read The Pursuit of Love and letters between Nancy and Heywood Hill. Oh, those early days of reading the letters, when I had constantly to flick to the front, to work out which one Pamela was and whether or not she was older than Diana, and whether or not Jessica was married yet and if Unity was two or twelve or twenty. How far away such ignorance now seems! I can name them all in order of births and deaths, state political leanings; spouses; sororal favourites and antagonisms; every bit of their characters which could be revealed in these letters.

As Jo Rowling says: 'A novelist would never get away with inventing this: a correspondence spanning eight decades, written from locations including Chatsworth and Holloway Prison, between six original and talented women who numbered among their friends Evelyn Waugh, Maya Angelou, J. F. Kennedy and Adolf Hitler'. As a social document alone, this book would be one of the most important of recent years. Throw in six unique, unmistakable characters, gifted women with affection and great humour - The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters is unquestionably the best book I've read thus far in 2008, and I can't see it being bettered before the year is out.

It is impossible to read about Nancy, P
amela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah without emerging with favourites. Seeing their true selves exposed and shared, I couldn't help form opinions and imaginary kindred spirits. So, I did warm to - no, strike that, adore - Deborah (indisputably the heroine of the book) for her warmth, lovingness, refusal to adopt a political viewpoint which would damage her sisterly relationships. Witty, too, without the barbs some of her sisters planted. Pamela is adorable too, forever known as Woman for her unfeminine qualities, but she is the least garralous sister. The only sister I couldn't stand by the end of the collection was Jessica - I think it unacceptable to cut a sister from your life because they have different political leanings. Extreme ones, on both sides, yes - but the ties of siblingship are above such things. And a minor quibble over a scrapbook was being dregged up by Jessica FIFTEEN YEARS after the event happened. For goodness' sake, woman!

Such are the strong reactions The Mitfords provokes, you see... and anyone else reading it will form different alliances, I daresay. Hopefully anyone staying away from this collection because of the Mitford reput
ation will be swayed. Yes, they were rich, and sometimes a little eccentric - their sense of humour and catchphrases take some getting used to, but isn't that true of all families? I long, now, to say "do admit!" when I mean "you must admit that's funny", or "screamed" for "was amused". Their range of nicknames is baffling, but delightfully so - and, once I got the hang of it, it felt rather like I'd been invited into the family group. Not quite into the group, actually, of course - but with the privileged position of benevolent eavesdropping...

Utterly fascinating, endlessly moving (I gasped aloud at a miscarriage one sister suffered) this collection of letters is a treasure chest and a social document; a comedy and a history; unavoidably brilliant without the least pretension to being anything other than the letters between six sisters.


  1. I'm looking forward to reading this collection on my holidays this year, if I can hold off that long in light of your review.

    I think if your read the excellent Decca: the letters of Jessica Mitford, you might have more sympathy for her.

  2. Your enthusiasm for this book is catching - it sounds absolutely the sort of book I would love. Great review.

  3. I adore the Mitford sisters too. Have you read the Jessica Mitford book, Hons and Rebels? (I think that's what it's called). And I have a fabulous biography of all the Mitford sisters but alas, it's not to hand at the moment and I cannot recall the author's name. Sorry!

  4. I'm holding out for the letters to come out in paperback (due 5th May and amazon has it listed for a very tempting £6.99) but I might have to dig out some other Mitford reading to prepare myself. I know I have a couple gorgeous hardback folio editions somewhere... Probably the attic knowing my luck. Glad you've enjoyed this collection - you've a very infectious enthusiasm!

  5. I was given this for Christmas and adored every page. My husband and I have adopted 'do admit' - you just can't help but be drawn in.

  6. I'm another great Mitford fan. I used to visit someone who lived very close to the Chatsworth estate for many years and it was fascinating to watch the way in which Deborah's influence was brought to bear on the commercial side. A very interesting woman.

  7. The best read in 2008? with doubts any will top it? Who can resist such a recommendation! Not me. Thanks! TJ

  8. Don't be too hard on Decca til you've read more by/about her. I don't think she is well represented in this book - too little of her material.

  9. You've done it again, Simon. The Mitfords have leapt off the tbr shelves to the spot beside my reading chair. I didn't even start reading it with you and the other doves last year, but at least I bought it. Your review has inspired me to move it up the pile.

  10. I really hope to read this one day. I still haven't read Lovell's book, The Sisters. There's an American set I've just bought a book about - The Peabody Sisters by Megan Marshall. It looks wonderful, as well. Maybe you could write a book about twins. :<)

  11. Simon, I'm not ususally a great reader of letters but your gorgeous review is sending me off to amazon to put this on my list. I thoroughly enjoyed the biography The Sisters so this would only add to my understanding and appreciation of these remarkable women. I also enjoyed the book about Chatsworth, especially because we have nothing like that over here.

  12. goodness what a review (sorry I am just catching up). can i just ask, which fine pair of 'bod squad' employees purchased this book for you??!


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