22 SEPTEMBER 2007, Page 33

Rich man, poor man, communist, fascist

Philip Hensher THE MITFORDS: LETTERS BETWEEN SIX SISTERS edited by Charlotte Mosley 4th Estate, £25, pp. 832, ISBN 9781841157900 © £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 At the beginning, it was rather like a bizarre round of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor'. Decca ran away to the Spanish civil war; Unity went to Munich and made friends with Hitler; Diana bolted with the founder of English Fascism and then went to prison; Pamela stayed at home; Debo ended up with Chatsworth; and Nancy wrote some very good books. The Mitford sisters' fame originated, mostly, in newspaper scandals of the 1930s, to the horror of their parents, who believed that a gentlewoman's name should appear in newspapers only twice, on her marriage and on her death. (According to Decca, Lady Redesdale grew to dread the sight of the words 'Peer's Daughter' in newsprint, as well she might.) They did unusually interesting things between them, and their lives often seem to reduce the passions of the 1930s to a disconcertingly human level. 'Poor sweet Fiihrer, he's having such a dreadful time,' Unity writes at one point. The ongoing general fascination with the six of them, which I happily admit to sharing, comes from the unforgettable image of Jessica and Unity in childhood dividing the schoolroom at Swinbrook with their different ideological territories, alternating Red Front choruses and the Horst Wessel Lied on the phonograph. There is, too, the inscrutable figure of Diana, who sometimes seems, by her much remarked beauty and alarming public utterances on the subject of Hitler right up to the end of her life, to hold the larger historical explanation of quite why it was that Fascism in England never got anywhere. Hitler thought that Mosley had made the mistake of importing the foreign-sounding `Blackshirts' and would have done better to call his movement the 'Ironsides'; he was probably right, but we can all be grateful for Mosley's mistake.

Other people ran away to the Spanish civil war; other people's husbands founded political parties of cranky extremism which led to nothing very much. Plenty of other scandals of the time have passed into the realm of the specialist and the archive; other once famous names only ring bells nowadays if they were associates of great figures, like Waugh's friend 'Baby' Jungman. The reason the Mitford sisters go on inspiring biographies and sustain our interest is that, in their own voices, they were wonderfully funny and original, and in more than one case, superb writers. Nancy's novels include two great ones, Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, beautifully transformed mythologies of the oddest of childhoods. Jessica's exceptional Hons and Rebels, unreliable though it is, is hardly on a lower level of literary ability; and occasional lively books on Chatsworth and snippets of published diary (see page 9) by the Duchess of Devonshire have suggested that, but for her having the busiest of lives, another vivid literary talent might have emerged from the family.

All the sisters were terrific correspondents, even Pamela, whose less eventful life tends to leave biographers insisting on her personal charm. The one brother, Tom, was not much of a correspondent, contributing nothing to this collection; the letters of his sisters to him, with perhaps less justification, have been omitted too. The letters collected here are only a small part of an enormous archive at Chatsworth — apart from anything else, the Duchess and Lady Mosley wrote to each other almost every day in the latter decades of the story. In this absorbing, funny and often very moving volume, six voices make themselves heard, as fresh as paint.

The world of the Mitfords was one of teases and fantasy, what Auden called verbal infighting honed in Protestant schoolrooms during long wet afternoons. The details of their famous childhoods have been told over and over, by them and by their biographers — the future Duchess imitating the expression on a chicken's face when laying an egg, the dirty songs translated into Decca and Unity's private language, Boudledidge, 'Brains for Breakfast', the Chub Fuddler and Farve's legendary rages. That doesn't form part of these letters; they only discuss them long afterwards, often disputing each others' published versions.

What does emerge with great force is the talent for teases and long-running private jokes. There is a habit of ridiculous nicknames, which sometimes taxes the reader — Decca and Nancy usually called each other Susan, for reasons beyond discovery. Overall, there is that unmistakable atmosphere of absurd, alluring fantasy. In the English way, no one and nothing was sacred even J. E Kennedy, a.k.a. 'Fat Friend'— once the joking started. 'I wore my pink dress & coat,' the Duchess writes of a trip with the Queen Mother to the Chelsea Flower show, "& rather rued the day, the evening rather, as NO FIRE at Cake's [the Queen Mother's] dump.' In 1938 Nancy writes to Unity in Munich with a song of her own invention: Rassenschande [race hatred] is my joylTisch tisch and a merry go roundlGemutlich is my hochgeboren boy...' and the news that I saw [Henry] Bernstein who remembered sitting next to you at Emerald's and saying 'I hate you, I don't know why' and you replied 'But I know why.'

Such teases on subjects we have learnt to treat solemnly are disconcerting now, and serious-minded people will no doubt deplore Deborah writing to Nancy in 1944 to ask: Do you listen to a German programme called D-Day Calling. It happens at 7.30 A.m. and 7.30 P.M. and there is a heavenly tune called 'Invasion', it's the signature tune and it's bliss.

The tease is at the heart of the Mitfords' barbed hilarity; it's quite noticeable that Diana, who doesn't seem to have the same taste for the cruel running joke as her sisters, emerges comparatively palely here. What seems clear is that the spirit of the tease led most of the sisters into acts of audacity and sometimes bravery. As Charlotte Mosley says, it was a classical Mitford tease when Jessica helped a black family to buy a house in an all-white Californian suburb, directly opposite a bigoted local district attorney. The sisters' frequent acts of perverse effrontery often seem to arise from this love of the tease: Jessica running off with the very cousin she had always been forbidden to meet, or Nancy's chilling letter to the authorities in the first days of the war, denouncing Diana as a subversive and effectively sending her to prison.

The sisters were never all in the same room after 1937, and several of them maintained 'non-speakers' for years on end; Diana and Jessica met only once after Jessica's elopement, at Nancy's deathbed, and there is only one post-war letter between them, though an unexpectedly affectionate one. Sometimes the distance between barbed teasing and near-hostility is not that great; Nancy's post-war relations with Diana seem always on the verge of open aggression. On the other hand, the sisters' relations with Pam are, generally, conducted on the level of an enormous joke about her make-do-and-mend obsessions and wildly detailed memory for menus, decades after the meals.When she writes to Deborah, of all people, offering the loan of 'a perfectly good cot'and some 'some perfectly good blankets' and some 'rather worn' sheets 'which have a few moth holes', the Duchess promptly underlined all the most pennypinching phrases and forwarded it to Lady Mosley.

Some feuds ran for years and were never properly resolved; some went on after the death of one party; others were brief but violent. At some points, it seems that Deborah is the only one to whom all the sisters are talking. Nevertheless, what emerges from this constantly interesting volume is the fact of love in spite of everything. Unity has always been the tantalising one in the Mitford story, very difficult to bring into focus. Everyone who knew her, even Jessica, insisted on her wonderful humanity and good humour, claims which have always been difficult to reconcile with her obsession with Hitler and inclusion, in the years before the war, in his Munich inner circle. (It's a curiosity that none of Hitler's biographers has anything to say about her; she was clearly in his company repeatedly in the late 1930s.) The Munich letters don't quite convey this; their girlish quality on this most horrible subject takes some swallowing. And yet, after the catastrophe, when she shot herself in the head on the outbreak of war and somehow survived, her brain-damaged personality asserts itself. She writes to Jessica, the sister to whom, on ideological grounds, she ought to have nothing to say. The odd, short, damaged letter is an expression of the triumph of love over difficulties: Darling Boud, When I got your letter, I nearly went off my head! You SEE, I had ached for you, because I do love you so much. Oh Boud, I have a Goat! The Fem gave her to me & I LOVE her. Oh Boud, I AM so sorry to be short, but will write again soon!

Nancy said at one uncharacteristically hopeful moment that sisters were what stood between one and 'life's cruel circumstances'. Jessica, on hearing this, observed that as far as she was concerned sisters were life's cruel circumstances, especially Nancy. Despite this, the Mitfords' story is one of love surviving most, if not all challenges, and the letters subside at the last into the unalloyed love and trust between the Duchess and Lady Mosley.

The story, as told through the letters, is a slightly odd one; it is much heavier on the years after 1960, when the sisters' concern was, understandably, largely over establishing correct versions of their history. Though their personalities carry on being highly entertaining, there is less at stake after the mid-1970s, and the interest slightly declines. After the great feuds of the 1970s about Unity's and Nancy's biographies, I wonder whether Jessica decided she had said what she had to say, and withdrew somewhat from correspondence. That can't be helped, but I think it was a mistake to limit the letters to those between the sisters. The letters from poor old Lady Redesdale to her daughters which are quoted in Mary S. Lovell's excellent group biography, The Mitford Girls, are vivid and telling, and those at least might have been plundered to good effect.

Nevertheless, it's a remarkable story of six remarkable personalities. I can't imagine that such a collection of letters between members of one family will ever emerge again, given the rise of text-messaging and e-mail. But then, there was always the stamp of uniqueness on everything these remarkable women set their minds to achieving.