Life of the Mind

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

Laura Thompson. St. Martin’s Press, 2016. 385 pages. $29.99.

By David Madden

There they very much are, on the jacket cover, all overwhelming six of them at once. Almost worth the money, it is one of the most striking group photographs of siblings to be seen anywhere.

Laura Thompson’s opening is an excellent anticipatory summation of her entire 385 pages: “Take six girls, all of them rampant individualists, and let them loose upon one of the most politically explosive periods in history.” Later, she states her recurring theme: “questions of truth and lies, multiplied and magnified within the charmed circle of the Mitford sisters.” Into that circle sometimes stepped the Kennedys and the Churchills and poet John Betjeman.

Generally speaking, the behavior of the six upper-class British Mitford girls (who would be termed “women” today, but an easy argument could denominate them “girls” in many ways, from childhood to the grave) invited criticism. Two sisters were to varying degrees rather despicable, depending upon your opinion of Adolf Hitler, who was one of the chums of Unity and Diana, and whom their parents admired.

Even so, they were indeed often quite charming, and were their own most appreciative audience; they were witty, in a giggly sort of way, more often than not; they were a beautiful lot, and their parents, their brother, and their lovers and husbands were handsome or attractive.

Frankly, I gave up on them halfway through Thompson’s The Six, but somehow drawn to The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949), Nancy Mitford’s celebrated autobiographical novels, I dipped in and out of Thompson’s book until I became fascinated enough to finish it. I had to turn now and then for relief to the astonishing mind of C.V. Woodward in her epic The Thirty Years War (1965).

Author also of biographies of Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire, Louis XIV of France, and Frederick the Great, Nancy is more often unlikeable than likable.

I must confess that Diana, wife of a fascist, is the most intriguing. They were imprisoned during the war. She may be seen late in life in an excellent Netflix documentary, The Mitfords: A Tale of Two Sisters (2017), talking about her life.

Unity, who shot herself (but recovered) rather than live without being a frequent companion of Hitler, is bizarre. Her long dying was ugly.

Jessica, who married a communist, informed on Diana, whom she never forgave for being a traitor to Britain. She became rich and famous for her book The American Way of Death (1963).

Pamela, sportswoman, and Deborah, quietly married to a Duke, did no one harm.

Thompson wrote three other books, including Life in a Cold Climate (2004), a biography of Nancy Mitford. Exhaustively researched, vivaciously and wittily written, fearlessly judgmental, Thompson’s The Six enables anyone at all interested to make up one’s mind, sooner or later, about each one of the sisters separately and as a famous group.

David Madden (ΦBK, University of Tennessee, 1979) is the author of more than 50 books of fiction and nonfiction. Madden’s latest book is Marble Goddesses and Mortal Flesh: Four Novellas (University of Tennessee Press, 2017).

(Posted on 9/12/2017 )