The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

We’ve been on a bit of a World War history kick in our house. It all started when we discovered some documentaries on Netflix by David Reynolds, a Cambridge historian. I never knew much about World War I, but his series The Long Shadow is really interesting, because more than recounting the events of the war, he looks at how the war affected history for the next 50-60 years.

So when I came upon a review of The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, I was intrigued. These women came out to society during the interwar period and the six of them took dramatically different turns in their lives. Many of them met Hitler, one is a famous author, and several of them married either late or divorced early.

This is the type of history book I love to read, it reads almost like a novel at times and the picture painted of the various sisters is incredibly interesting. All six lived very different lives, but because they wrote letters to each other constantly throughout their lives, there is incredibly good documentation of what they all did.

Next on my list of reading is some of the novels by Nancy Mitford, because the glimpses I got of them through the author’s quoting intrigued me, I haven’t read much fiction from that time period, so want to give them a go. I also have on my list some more books on World War I, because I think that war and the decisions made after it, have haunted the world for years and right now we may be in the midst of repeating some of the nationalistic tendencies and mistakes of the 1920s.

Indeed perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the Mitfordian image is that it entrances and delights and at the same time contains so much that is not entrancing at all. Perhaps that is simply charm at work again, compelling people to overlook the lethal sympathies? (loc 320)

This confidence of theirs – relaxed, diamond-hard – is fascinating. It particularly fascinates women. It is the confidence of the upper classes, embellished by femaleness: a kind of confidence that, for all their greater freedom, today’s women do not find it easy to possess. (loc 377)

David was more liberal than most fathers; in no real way did he clamp down upon his daughters’ behaviour. This reactionary-cum-liberal attitude, this potent mixture of restraint and freedom, has been held responsible – in part at least – for the excesses of certain Mitford girls. And probably quite rightly. But it was more complicated than that: there were more factors at work. It was not David’s fault that he had so many daughters, that they were bright and mischievous and competitive, that they fought for the attention of a distant mother, that they came of age when the world went mad. (loc 1231)

Nancy’s problem was her intelligence, of course, which at some point or another riled most of the men she knew (honourable exceptions included her brother and Evelyn Waugh). This would probably be true today – feminism notwithstanding, female cleverness is still most acceptable when it spouts orthodoxies, or in some way conforms to a type. Nancy, with her spry chic and lethal tongue, was a one-off. As such she was certainly never going to flower fully among the men of her youth. (loc 1632)

Straightforward contentment was always going to be too easy for such a woman, who had been given every blessing without the obligation of payment. (loc 1891)

Whether one likes it or not, a woman will always be blamed more than a man for the same transgression, unless she seeks forgiveness in appropriate self-abasing style. That is the way of the world. (loc 3864)

Yet her spirit was unbowed: a very Mitford quality. They were brave women. They passed through calamitous events and remained themselves. Even Unity did, in so far as she was able. This was Sydney’s nature, although not David’s. Much of the fascination of the Mitford girls lies in this indestructible sense of One that they carried so lightly. (loc 3792)

It was part of her gift to write the things that women think but do not bother, or dare, to express. And, as she would often do, Nancy used Sophia as a conduit for the easy worldly wisdom that she herself found so hard to achieve. (loc 3947)

In telling her story, Nancy was also laying out her philosophy of life. Amid the furore that followed publication in December 1945 – in modern parlance, the book went viral – it took a John Betjeman (‘oh you clever old girl’) to perceive as much. Like all the best art it contained paradox at its heart, a slow-burn of elegiac melancholy set beside an abundant faith in joy. This was Nancy’s faith, the courageous belief that happiness was something that one could choose: it was lightly expressed, and most seriously meant. (loc 4865)