© Neil Spark

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War torn

August 21, 2016

The lines between left and right have become blurred. But the ideological divide in the thirties was distinctive. Stalin in the Soviet Union and Hitler in Germany were at each end of the ideological continuum.

Diana Mosley and Unity Mitford’s friendship with Adolf Hitler made them famous. Sister Jessica’s Communist party membership made her notorious. The sisters’ ideological conflict is one of many chronicled by Mary Lovell.

But there’s more than conflict to this biography of the six Mitford girls and one boy. It’s also a family drama and an overview of twentieth century history. Nancy, Diana, Jessica and Deborah wrote about both in biographies and novels.

Their family and connections was a goldmine for material. Jessica Mitford’s books exposed the rapacious US funeral industry. There was also the revelation of the dishonesty of a so-called writing school.

Nancy Mitford was an accomplished novelist and biographer. Her work included the lives of Voltaire and Fredrick the Great. The eccentric clan also had its share of tragedies.

Lovell manages the wide ranging and complex content with skill and objectivity. Diana and Unity’s friendship with Hitler and its disastrous consequences are all there. Lovell’s writing is even-handed if not somewhat sympathetic to the women’s plights.

Nancy’s marriage to an unfaithful man was unhappy. Her affair with a prominent French man didn’t end in the marriage for which she longed.

Jessica ran away with Winston Churchill’s nephew. He was a pilot for the RAF in World War II and became a war casualty. Jessica insisted on staying in the US where she rebuilt her life and remarried.

The youngest Mitford, Deborah, became the Duchess of Cavendish. Her husband, Andrew, inherited one England’s biggest estates in 1944. Crippling taxes imposed after the war forced the subdivision and sale of many estates. Deborah saved Chatsworth House house by creating an industry in farm foods and luxury items. She wrote memoirs and books about the estate.

Her life was not without tragedy: her husband battled alcoholism and four of their seven children died soon after birth.

The Mitford women lived their lives out loud, much of it in the public spotlight. Lovell has written an entertaining and enlightening insight into twentieth century history.

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S Lovell.

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