AN INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“Riveting. The Six captures all the wayward magnetism and levity that have enchanted countless writers without neglecting the tragic darkness of many of the sisters’ life choices and the savage sociopolitical currents that fueled them.” – Tina Brown, The New York Times Book Review
The eldest was a razor-sharp novelist of upper-class manners; the second was loved by John Betjeman; the third was a fascist who married Oswald Mosley; the fourth idolized Hitler and shot herself in the head when Britain declared war on Germany; the fifth was a member of the American Communist Party; the sixth became Duchess of Devonshire.
They were the Mitford sisters: Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah. Born into country-house privilege in the early years of the 20th century, they became prominent as “bright young things” in the high society of interwar London. Then, as the shadows crept over 1930s Europe, the starkand very publicdifferences in their outlooks came to symbolize the political polarities of a dangerous decade.
The intertwined stories of their stylish and scandalous livesrecounted in masterly fashion by Laura Thompsonhold up a revelatory mirror to upper-class English life before and after WWII. The Six was previously published as Take Six Girls.
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About the Author
LAURA THOMPSON is a writer and freelance journalist. She won the Somerset Maugham award for her first book,The Dogs, and is also the author of the critically acclaimed biography of Nancy Mitford, Life in a Cold Climate,Agatha Christie: An English Mystery (2007) and A Different Class of Murder: the Story of Lord Lucan (2014).
Read an Excerpt
Nancy's 'The English Aristocracy', published in 1955, is chiefly remembered for U and Non-U, but in fact the rest of the essay, a meditation on the nature of the aristocrat, is far more interesting and perceptive. She describes, for instance, an imaginary peer named Lord Fortinbras, of whom she writes that, owing to his cluelessness about land and money, 'he deserves to be ruined, and he is ruined.' She could very well have been talking about her own father, the 2nd Lord Redesdale.
'You were,' wrote Evelyn Waugh, in 'An Open Letter' responding to Nancy's essay, 'at the vital age of twelve when your father succeeded to his peerage, and until less than a year before there was little likelihood of his ever succeeding ... If your uncle had not been killed in action, if your posthumous cousin had been a boy, all you enchanting children would have been whisked away to a ranch in Canada or a sheep-run in New Zealand. It is fascinating to speculate what your careers would then have been.'
This was a tease, of course, but quite true. Nancy's father David inherited his title in 1916 after the death the previous year of his older brother, Clement, whose wife was pregnant with what turned out to be a daughter. The Mitford girls acquired the prefix 'Honourable' only by default. In other words, as Waugh was suggesting, the unelected spokesperson upon class was not as grand as all that. Such was his own fascination with the subject, Waugh probably viewed his good friend Nancy's social status with a mixture of excitement, envy and narrow-eyed criticism. What he could not get away from, and it was the sort of thing that mattered to both of them, was the downright antiquity of the Mitford name. Poshness in mid-twentieth-century novels was often conveyed by the remark that 'so-and-so's people came over with the Conqueror, you know.' The Mitford people were here before that, teaching U and Non-U to the Anglo-Saxons.
Although Nancy does not mention it in her essay, doubtless she relished the knowledge that her family owned Mitford, near Morpeth, in the reign of Edward the Confessor, and that a daughter of Sir John de Mitford was given in marriage by William the Conqueror to a Norman knight. Sir John's motte-and-bailey castle, built in Northumberland in the eleventh century and reduced to ruins some three hundred years later, is now a scheduled ancient monument.
These Northumberland Mitfords were the main branch of the family; the sisters descended from a junior line, originating in Hampshire. Among their ancestors was a barrister, John, created the 1st Lord Redesdale in 1802. The previous year he had been a short-lived Speaker of the House of Commons, then became a rather unpopular Lord Chancellor of Ireland. In 1808 he inherited Batsford – an elegant, symmetrical Georgian house set in parkland – from an uncle by marriage, Thomas Freeman (the Mitford girls were sometimes given the surname Freeman-Mitford). There was a dearth of contiguous heirs in the family; Bertram Mitford, the sisters' grandfather, acquired Batsford as a cousin twice removed. He did not inherit the title, although it was re-created for him in 1902.
He was a remarkable man; more so really than the son, David, who was immortalized in The Pursuit of Love. Bertie Mitford had all the masculine energy of 'Uncle Matthew' and none of his lurking timidity (Uncle Matthew hates leaving his home). He was one of those vigorous Victorian types who go at life like a steam engine, running out of puff only when they die. Certain traits of the Mitford sisters can be
perceived in him: good looks, a sophisticated morality, a knack for writing what people wanted to read and a deep affinity with Germany.
Born in 1837, he attended Eton and Christ Church before joining the Foreign Office, where he was posted to the embassies at St Petersburg, Peking and Tokyo. He spoke French, Russian, Chinese and German, translated Kant and Japanese literature. Again this talent was inherited: his son David had perfect French, Unity picked up German very quickly in order to chat to the Nazi high command, and Nancy and Diana both became translators. As a writer, Bertie had a less singular gift than Nancy. The Mitfordian clarity of his prose is muffled by the near-inescapable orotundity of the age. Nevertheless his Tales of Old Japan was a raging success. He had been invited to watch the last officially decreed death by hara-kiri, and his account was described by a reviewer as 'one of the most horrific and unforgettable pieces of prose I have ever read'. He also wrote a book about his time in China, An Attaché in Peking (many years later one of Diana's sons found the unexpurgated Peking diary, 'full of dread SEX'). An autobiography, Memories, was published not long before his death in 1916. It was a 'Book of the Year', just as Nancy's later works usually were, and a reviewer remarked that it was loosely constructed but 'contains not a word of "twaddle"': the sort of thing that was customarily said about Nancy.
In 1874, Bertie was appointed by Disraeli to the post of Secretary of His Majesty's Office of Works. He worked on improvements to Hampton Court and supervised the restoration of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London, where the remains of Anne Boleyn were interred. Almost in passing, he became MP for Stratford-on-Avon. He knew Dickens, Whistler, Browning – and as a close friend of the future King Edward VII he advised on the gardens at Buckingham Palace (described by his granddaughter Deborah, after a dinner with the Queen in 1961, as 'a literal vasty park' inhabited by field mice). On his own land at Batsford, where he moved in 1886, he grew bamboo and created a magnificent arboretum. He also spent fortunes on demolishing the old houseand raising up the fairytale castle of rich dull gold – a successful Victorian's dream home – that today stands fantastical against the Cotswolds sky.
It was said of him that 'he has been everywhere and seen everything'. He was, literally, a man of the world, although there is the faintest sense of a Victorian gentleman doing the Grand Tour; not of great cultural works but of great 'experiences', such as meeting Garibaldi or hunting buffalo. As for his German friendships – what blend of naivety and empathy drew him to Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the son-in-law of Richard Wagner and an intellectual influence upon Hitler?
As a lover of music, it was natural that Bertie should attend the Bayreuth Festival and take pleasure in the company of the Wagner family. He became extremely close to the composer's son, Siegfried, who married the English-born Winifred Williams; when Nancy visited Bayreuth in 1968 she was 'summoned to the presence of Frau Winifred' and told that the only photograph in Siegfried's room had been of Bertie Mitford. Winifred, the festival's artistic director during the war, had been an admirer of Hitler. When Unity fell ill in Bayreuth in 1938, then collapsed after insisting upon attending a Nazi march-past in Breslau, it was Winifred who took care of her (at Hitler's request). Unity's middle name, Valkyrie, was in tribute to the composer. Bertie had suggested it; despite the fact that Unity was born just as war was declared on Germany.
His friendship with Houston Stewart Chamberlain was probably founded upon their shared love of Wagner. It went sufficiently deep, however, to lead Bertie to write an introduction to Chamberlain's Die Grundlagen, or The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, published in translation in 1910. Chamberlain was English, but in 1916 became a naturalized German. When he died in 1927 (his funeral attended by Hitler and other Nazis), it was said that he had been the 'bitterest of anti-British renegades during the war'.
Yet before this, in The Foundations, he had set out theories that encompassed Britain in his conception of a pure 'Aryan' race. Such a race, he wrote, 'finally enables the most gifted individual to live for a super- individual purpose'. One can imagine this going down a storm with Hitler, and it is generally accepted that Chamberlain's theories supplied a philosophical foundation, or justification, of Nazi policy.
He was regarded in some quarters as the equal of Kant and Schopenhauer. Bertie Mitford was certainly an admirer, although a sceptical Times obituary of Chamberlain decreed that he had reduced history to a racial division of 'Teutonic and anti-Teutonic sheep and goats' – the anti-Teuton being the Jew. Of course the endgame of this kind of thinking was not yet apparent. And the grandiose ideal of a Teutonic alliance did find a response in Britain, which after all is deeply linked to Germany by early history, and by the ascension of King George I in 1714. It is not perhaps so surprising that Bertie Mitford should have fallen for Chamberlain's rhetoric, backed as it was by the stirring surges of Wagnerian opera. Nor is it beyond comprehension that certain aristocrats, including Bertie's son David, should in the 1930s have supported the Anglo-German Fellowship that sought to avoid another war between 'the Teutons'. Where the imagination does stumble is over the behaviour of Unity and, to a lesser extent, Diana. One merely notes that they were born into this mindset, the one that responded to the dark glories of Lohengrin and Faustus and saw Germany as a blood brother. Tom Mitford, to whom Diana was especially close, felt much the same way. Bertie's brother married a German girl, and in 1914 his son Jack had a lavish, highly publicized 'Anglo-German wedding' to an heiress named Marie von Friedlander Fuld.
Cosmopolitan though he was, Bertie Mitford still tended his country person's roots. That was natural to him. He was, for instance, a president of the Shire Horse Society (David later used a gold goblet made from the melted- down medals won by his father's animals). His presence is still felt in Moreton-in-Marsh – the nearest town to Batsford and built of the same beautiful ochre stone, the colour of Gloucestershire – with its Redesdale Arms hotel, the market hall for which he paid. He may also be present in other surprising ways: in 1962 Deborah sent Nancy a photograph from the Field magazine of a keeper at Batsford who looked exactly like their father. 'Thanks for Uncle isn't he amazing!' Nancy replied.
Bertie – or, as Nancy called him, 'Naughty grandfather' – had form in this respect. So too had his mother. It has in fact been suggested that Bertie himself was born on the wrong side of the blanket, and that anybody who wanted to 'look up' a Mitford girl should bypass the entry for 'Redesdale' and move on to 'Sefton'. The rumour arose very simply. When Bertie was four, his mother Lady Georgina Ashburnham (another pre-Conquest family) ran off with a son of the Earl of Sefton. There is absolutely no proof that Bertie was the lover's child, but that did not stop people thinking it, just as they believed Lady Diana Manners – later Cooper – to be the natural daughter of the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. 'I am cheered very much by Tom Jones on bastards,' was Diana's reaction. Bertie would probably have felt much the same. As his granddaughter wrote in 'The English Aristocracy': 'Shame is a bourgeois notion.' Certainly the hovering taint of scandal did not hold him back, either in his career or his private life. Soon after Edward VII took the throne in 1901, Bertie was reported to be 'dining with His Majesty' at Windsor, and his wife, Lady Clementine Ogilvy, was a daughter of the Earl of Airlie. This was a definite social leg-up – the Airlies had a proper castle, rather than a self-built one – which may have been the reason why Bertie's mother-in-law always addressed her daughter by her maiden name.
The Countess of Airlie, who died in 1921 aged ninety, belonged to the Stanley family whose letters Nancy would later edit. These two books, The Ladies of Alderley and The Stanleys of Alderley, were published in 1938–9 ('apart from a few rather irritating gibes about Munich, Miss Mitford has done her task in exemplary fashion', wrote a reviewer). An obituary of Nancy's father described him as carrying the 'redoubtable strain of the Stanleys of Alderley', which was certainly evident in Henrietta Blanche Airlie. When Nancy was four, Blanche instructed her – in the epigrammatic manner favoured in Downton Abbey – that 'there is nothing so inferior as a gentlewoman who has no French'. It was the sort of statement that made its mark on Nancy. She may also have been influenced by Blanche's admiration for Voltaire, with whom she herself became intensely fascinated (her historical biography Voltaire in Love was published in 1957). Blanche was not a joker like the Mitfords, but Nancy – whose côté snob was undeniable – would have relished her cultured grandeur, her friendships with Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold and Gladstone. As a girl Blanche had attended salons at Holland House in Kensington, where the last grand ball was held before the outbreak of war in 1939. A century earlier the great house had been the social, artistic and political heart of London, visited by everybody from Disraeli to Byron. When Nancy was dying, she joked bravely about the importance of getting into the 'right set' in heaven – might the Holland House lot suit?
Blanche, like Nancy, took inordinate pleasure in the company of clever men. It has been suggested that these included Bertie Mitford, and that first-hand knowledge of his womanizing was the real reason for the objections to his marrying her daughter.
Again, who knows? What is almost certain is that Bertie had an affair with his sister-in-law Blanche Hozier, whose daughter Clementine bore a strong resemblance to David Mitford. Blanche, who was unhappily married, had several affairs, but apparently admitted to a friend that Clementine was Bertie's child. This inter-familial bed-hopping may have continued in the next generation. Clementine's husband, Winston Churchill, was said to have had an affair with his sister-in-law Nellie Romilly, whose son Esmond – the future husband of Jessica Mitford – was rumoured to be Churchill's child. Esmond himself hinted at the truth of this (he did look like Churchill), but he may simply have got a kick out of doing so – the red-flag-waving scourge of the Establishment, son of the First Lord of the Admiralty! As Diana Mosley later quoted, in explanation of Esmond's provocative behaviour: 'He only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases ...'
Of course the Mitford sisters would not have batted an eyelid at any of this excitable misconduct. They were sophisticates, one and all. Their parents, David and Sydney, did not go in for adultery, but their maternal grandfather, Thomas Gibson Bowles, was made of similar stuff to Bertie Mitford. There was no doubt about his illegitimacy: he was the son of the MP Milner Gibson and his mistress Susan Bowles. Thomas's wife died young, after an abortion performed to save her from a fifth, life-threatening pregnancy (faint echoes here of the end of The Pursuit of Love), and he then took several mistresses. Among them was the family governess, Henrietta Shell, or 'Tello', with whom he had three sons. No attempt was made to shove this under the carpet. Sydney calmly acknowledged her half-brothers and Tello – who had another son, by a naval officer whom she met in Egypt – was friendly with the Mitford girls. She often stayed at Asthall. In 1894 Thomas Bowles had appointed her editor of The Lady, the magazine that he founded: this capable, free-spirited woman held the position for twenty-five years. In 1930, when Thomas's son George was general manager, The Lady gave Nancy one of her first writing jobs, a weekly column on social events like point-to-points, satirical in tone but actually as mild as honey. This connection did not launch her career: she was already doing bits and bobs for Vogue, and her first novel Highland Fling – published in 1931 – caused family disapproval, if anything, for being 'awfully indecent' and for drawing attention to its pretty young author (there was, for instance, a large photograph of Nancy in the Sunday Dispatch). Probably the Thomas Bowles and Bertie generation would have been broader-minded. Probably, too, their literary leanings gave Nancy the idea that she too might write, and that it would be easy to get published. ('I never had any trouble,' she later said. 'Luckily, because if I had it would have put me orf completely.'
Excerpted from "The Six"
Copyright © 2015 Laura Thompson.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
The Mitford Phenomenon 1
PART I. 27
PART II. 115
PART III. 207
PART IV. 287
Select Bibliography 369
Picture Acknowledgements 387
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Attempting to write a biography of six sisters in one book is an ambitious undertaking for any writer. The subject matter, the Mitford sisters, is interesting but the book jumps all over the place, one sister to another, backwards and forwards in time, and back to ancestors. It's a very dense and confusing read. The author also assumes that you already know a lot about the Mitford clan, particularly all novels written by Nancy Mitford. She not only jumps all over, referencing all and sundry - but she references real people to fictional characters in Nancy's books - casually and constantly. Interesting subject, ambitious attempt at corralling it, but it was, ultimately, too dense and disjointed for my taste.
The Six is a very ambitious biography/memoir steeped in historical detail and family heritage. To biographize all six sisters into one book was likely not an easy task. The author provided a complete family tree, which helped keep track of the various personages included in the book. As a writer myself, I have to applaud the efforts made by the author to write six different biographies demonstrating how the sisters interacted with each other and how their decisions affected their family. The way they were raised was fascinating and troublesome, and it is no wonder that they were each affected by it. A poignant memoir for sure!
The Six was not a simple read, but an attempt to properly biographize the Mitford family seems like a formidable task. I need to add that this is my first Mitford biography; therefore I'm not able to make comparisons with other chronicles. Laura Thompson found it necessary to present and investigate the Mitford family tree. I did appreciate seeing the actual diagram and referred back to it several times in my reading. I had to take notes and sometimes felt a yoyo effect as my reading time frame wound forward, then backward. I did regain my sense of time but I frequently had to take a reading break, to reset my perspective. The cast of characters went on and on and the use of their own private names and vocabulary left me once again with a list. Pamela is woman, Unity is Bobo or Boud, Jessica is Decca. You get my drift. In an attempt to introduce a complex family narrative, I'd say: Pamela, the rural Mitford, seemingly not politically involved, although she married a Fascist sympathizer. Nancy, a best selling author Jessica, the Communist Diana, a Fascist politician's wife Unity, obsessed with Hitler, shot herself in the head when Britain declared war on Germany Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire. Their lives were unorthodox, reckless, radical, experimental. Their sisterly relationships often came through to me as restless and so chameleon that I couldn't remember who felt what toward whom. The front cover of my ARC depicts stylish sisters. Your copy will have an additional 16 pages of black and white photographs. Laura Thompson refers to the Mitfords as "a variant strain of the Downton Abbey Syndrome." She also notes "The Mitfords were remarkably good at classless displays of class." There are humorous elements to be found. In reading The Six, you'll get more than enough details on Mitford lives and the times. Relationships and events are explained in detail. Reviewing the note section was definitely helpful in my reading experience. My ARC had 367 pages that I read, but the amount of historical information was almost overwhelming to me. Do give this Mitford saga a chance. What was almost overwhelming to me might be just right for you. 3.5 ★