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, Pamela, 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 reputation 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.