A fresh look at six outrageous sisters.
There has been no lack of attention to the notorious Mitford sisters, including biographies of Unity Valkyrie Mitford, who, scandalously, adored Hitler; Diana, who married the outspoken fascist Sir Oswald Mosley; and writer Nancy, the subject of Life in a Cold Climate (2003) by Somerset Maugham Award winner Thompson herself (A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan, 2014, etc.). Added to those are family memoirs, collections of letters, and a previous group biography, Mary S. Lovell’s The Mitford Girls (2001). Yet for readers yearning for another take on the glamorous sisters’ “posh past,” Thompson’s smart, jaunty, and wittily entertaining book will amply fill their desire. Steeped in Mitford lore and mythmaking, the book offers sharply drawn portraits of each woman, teases out the complexities of their fraught, competitive relationships with one another, and sets their lives within the context of a radically changing world. “These girls are prize exhibits in a Museum of Englishness,” admits the author, but she shows how they were much more. Born between 1904 and 1920, the sisters grew up imbibing the etiquette of debutante balls and the personal consequences of global upheaval; their friends were the fey Bright Young Things, “sublimely clever aesthetes”; their enemies were legion. “Snobbery, shallowness, stupidity, adultery, unpalatability—the Mitfords were accused of all these things and rode out every criticism,” Thompson writes admiringly. They fervently believed they were exceptional, even Jessica, who rebelled vehemently against the family’s politics. Unity never married, and others chose startlingly unsuitable mates: Diana left her adoring, hugely wealthy, but unfortunately dull husband for the rake Mosley; and Pamela married opinionated, philandering bores; Jessica ran off with a communist, with whom she lived in poverty. Deborah, though, made a more suitable match, with an eminent duke who owned assorted castles.
Thompson has fallen under the spell of the breathtakingly beautiful (as she repeatedly insists), seductive Diana, but otherwise, her cleareyed view of the sisters’ strengths and foibles makes this gossipy story a delight.