Monday, February 11, 2008

The Sisters

I recently finished reading The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, a biography by Mary Lovell. This book was fascinating; it detailed the lives of six sisters, all born in the early 1900s in England. Most people in my generation have never heard of the Mitford sisters, yet they were household names throughout much of the 20th century in England, Germany, France, and the United States.

The six sisters (there was also one boy, Tom, who was killed in action near the end of WWII) were Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, Jessica (Decca), and Deborah (Debo).

Nancy became a famous author, drawing on her family for many of the characters in her novels. Her most famous books are The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. I haven’t read either of these books, but from many of Nancy’s letters and excerpts in this biography, they are now on my reading list. Nancy’s and her husband remained married to each other even though both had multiple affairs. For both of them, divorce was not an option because of the damage that it would inflict upon their social status and their careers. Nancy died in 1973 of Hodgkin’s disease.

Pam was married for 14 before divorcing her unfaithful husband. He remarried 6 other times, but his marriage to Pam was by far the longest. She had several miscarriages and no children, but was able to take care of some of her sisters’ children on different occasions. She and Derek, her husband, remained friends after their divorce. In 1937, Pam and Derek flew from New York to England, which means the Pam was likely among one of the first 100 women to fly across the Atlantic.

Diana was the beauty of the family, marrying at 19. She had two children, but fell in love with a married man (Oswald Mosley), divorcing her husband to become his permanent mistress. After the death of Mosley’s wife, he and Diana were married. Mosley was the leader of the British Fascists in the years leading up to WWII, and Diana served as a translator for a conversation between Mosley and Hitler in the 30s. She met Hitler through her sister, Unity. Both Diana and Mosley were imprisoned during WWII, and later kept on house arrest after the war. In all Diana’s writings, when she talks of interactions with Hitler, she uses her impressions at the time. She never uses hindsight and the knowledge of all the evil that Hitler did to change her opinions of him. She is still alive, and says that in her writings about Hitler, “It is not a question of right or wrong, but the impressions of a young woman in the thirties. Of course it would be easy just to deny these, but it would not be very interesting, or true.” That’s Diana for you.

Unity was born in Swastika, Alaska, at her father’s gold mine. She always saw that as a reason for pride, especially as she embraced extreme right political positions, and later became a friend of Hitler. Unity moved to Germany to learn the language. She found out the places where Hitler often visited and would go to those restaurants and caf├ęs for lunch. When he entered, Unity would shake with excitement; he was her hero. He invited her to lunch with him on one occasion, and from that time on they met at least another 140 times! She was convinced that there could be peace between Germany and England, and wanted Hitler to meet her cousin, (THE) Winston Churchill. When war broke out, she shot herself in the head, as she had told her sisters she would. Unity said she couldn’t choose a side between Germany and England. She survived the wound, though her mother became her virtual nurse for the rest of her life. She died of an infection from the gunshot wound in 1948.

Jessica (Decca) was as drawn to the left of politics as Unity was the right. As children, the two sisters shared an “office” in their house in which their political beliefs could battle each other. Despite their differing political views, the two remained friends as long as Unity lived. Decca ran away from home, eloping with her (2nd I think) cousin, Esmond. Both supported the communist party and hated the Nazis and Fascists. From the time Decca was 19 when she ran away from home, she never saw her father again. She and Esmond moved to the United States before WWII, but Esmond joined the Canadian Royal Air Force in 1940. He was lost the next year, leaving Decca a widow with a baby girl only a few months old. She found work and made friends with a Jewish man, Bob. Work took her to California, and Bob followed to marry her. They both supported the communist party until after WWII, and for that reason had their passports taken away and were questioned many times during the McCarthy red scare times. They left the communist party after learning about the atrocities that Stalin committed in Russia and realized that the communist party in the United States was no longer seeking to improve democracy. Decca was a very gifted writer like Nancy, publishing several books. She even became a professor at California State University at San Jose, as well as some time at both Yale and Harvard. She certainly did well for not getting the formal education for which she always blamed her parents.

Deborah (Debo), was really affected by Diana’s divorce and Decca’s elopement, as she was the only child at home still to see the way her sisters’ actions impacted their parents. She married Andrew Cavendish, the son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire. Since he was the second son, he would not inherit the family property, but he was still well off. Andrew’s older brother married Kathleen Kennedy, making Debo’s related by marriage to President John F. Kennedy. When Andrew’s brother was killed in the war, Andrew became the heir, and at his father’s death, the 11th Duke. They had to pay a death tax on the property of about 80% (crazy!), which forced them to sell much of the property. What the Cavendishs were able to keep was Chatsworth Hall, built by Bess of Hardwick in 1687 (p.s. Mary Lovell also wrote a biography of Bess of Hardwick which is excellent!). As the caretakers of Chatsworth, they made it an attraction open to the public, and several hundred thousand visitors come through the doors each year. Debo is still alive as well, though Andrew died in 2004. She has written several books about Chatsworth and the gardens, which you can buy on amazon!

This was an amazing book, opening up a whole new level of history about which I never knew. I found the lives of these women fascinating, if not incredibly tragic. In rebellion against their strict parents, each sought satisfaction and fulfillment in a different way. I think this shows in many ways that law without love is a dangerous thing. God has given us laws, but the reason for them is in our best interest. He does not give us rules to make us miserable, but to protect us and to help us to grow. What would the lives of the Mitfords have looked like if the law had been tempered with love? We will never know, but we have the opportunity to make it happen in our lives.

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