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Hons and rebels
June 7, 2014 12:28 PM   Subscribe

"Every history geek has some sort of fascination with the Mitfords. It’s like being an American politics nerd and obsessing over the Kennedys, it’s practically required." -- Bibliodaze ranks the Mitford sisters, from best to worst.
posted by MartinWisse (49 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
Those sewers.
posted by mynameisluka at 12:48 PM on June 7 [8 favorites]


I had never heard of the Mitford sisters before, and harbor a sneaking suspicion that I'm not alone in that on this side of the pond. Are they really as well-known in the U.K. as the comparison to the Kennedys would suggest?

They do seem to have been well placed to experience a very interesting period of history. And "Unity Valkyrie" is a totally badass name. Shame it wasn't borne by a better person.
posted by Nerd of the North at 1:52 PM on June 7 [4 favorites]


So interesting! And a little creepy. Never heard of them before either.
posted by Glinn at 1:57 PM on June 7


This giant American nerd went to the article hoping Jessica was #1. Her book, The American Way of Death, sadly remains an eye-opening and timely discussion about the funeral industry. Highly recommended.
posted by thebrokedown at 2:03 PM on June 7 [8 favorites]


I was pretty confident before clicking that Diana was going to come in last. She'd be near the bottom of an overall list of humans, let alone one family.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 2:03 PM on June 7 [7 favorites]


> I had never heard of the Mitford sisters before, and harbor a sneaking suspicion that I'm not alone in that on this side of the pond.

Probably the most famous Mitford in the U.S. would be Jessica, not least for her book The American Way of Death which was a best-seller in the early 60s and continues to be singled out as a landmark in muckraking journalism.
posted by ardgedee at 2:04 PM on June 7 [3 favorites]


Ditto on never having heard of them (my historian wife has, of course). And if a quick search of the IMDb can be relied upon, there's never been a big biopic of the family either as a feature film or a miniseries. Seems like a ripe subject for one.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 2:05 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


And what, no spoiler alert for the tag ordering in the sidebar? ;-)
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:12 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


Mitford sisters? How many divisions do they have?
posted by thelonius at 2:19 PM on June 7 [2 favorites]


My wife highly recommends The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters as being sometimes intentionally and often unintentionally hilarious. "They're all mad," she says.
posted by pharm at 2:20 PM on June 7 [9 favorites]


there's never been a big biopic of the family

Not directly, but BBC made a miniseries out of Love in a Cold Climate, which though a novel, was strongly influenced by her family's (mis-)adventures.

(I linked to the 1980 version. Apparently there was a more recent remake but I hear it's not as good.)
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 2:22 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


Ditto on never having heard of them (my historian wife has, of course). And if a quick search of the IMDb can be relied upon, there's never been a big biopic of the family either as a feature film or a miniseries. Seems like a ripe subject for one.

I always thought they would make an epic movie...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 2:22 PM on June 7


Mary Lovell wrote a biography of the sisters a few years ago that wasn't bad. Lots more focus on Diana, Unity, and Jessica than the others, of course, but it was an interesting family that seems to have fully experienced their times.

(In terms of non-fiction of the same era, I preferred Anne De Courcy's The Viceroy's Daughters, which is about Mosley's first wife and her sisters who were also super-connected. Mosley plays a big role in it because - before he left Cynthia (the first wife), he had affairs with one of her sisters and stepmother, tried to ride the coat-tails of their father, and was a big jerk in all things.)
posted by julen at 2:27 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


For a great fictionalization of the sisters, I recommend Jo Walton's Ha'penny. The Larks are not direct analogues of the Mitfords, but the inspiration is clear even if Walton hadn't discussed it.

Ha'penny is the middle book of Walton's Farthing Trilogy. It's not obligatory to read the others, but Farthing is very good and Half a Crown completes the sequence nicely. You can also read them out of order and not suffer.
posted by Bryant at 2:33 PM on June 7 [4 favorites]


Jo Walton's Ha'penny is another novel with thinly disguised Mitford sisters.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:34 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


(Oh, hello there Bryant, sorry, didn't see you.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:34 PM on June 7


I found out about the Mitfords while helping an older neighbor organize their books one summer. I'm not a huge history buff, but I was surprised at not having heard of them before given their entanglement in so many prominent bits of history.
posted by sio42 at 2:38 PM on June 7


I had completely forgotten about Pamela.

Pursuit of Love is one of my favorite books, laugh out loud funny at times, and then that devastating last sentence.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 2:39 PM on June 7


For Harry Potter people, the Black sisters are supposedly a magical take on the Mitfords.

I'm not sorry to see more people learn about the Mitfords, who are fascinating figures (as women or just as people), but "let's rank these women as human beings" just sits a little wrong with me.
posted by immlass at 2:50 PM on June 7 [2 favorites]


(Hi, library-dwelling corpse! Timing is everything.)
posted by Bryant at 2:52 PM on June 7


Love in a Cold Climate is on my desert-island booklist. I like all those books far too much to be able to rank-order them. All tied for first.
posted by jfuller at 2:53 PM on June 7


Unity Valkyrie? That poor girl never had a chance.
posted by palomar at 3:03 PM on June 7


Unity Valkyrie? That poor girl never had a chance.

And she was born in Swastika, Ontario!
posted by katemonster at 3:06 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


> [Pamela] seemed content to spend her days amidst the simple rural pleasures of farming and chickens.

Hon is hen in Honish. I have it on the best authority.
posted by jfuller at 3:07 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this, MartinWisse!

A friend of a friend spent some time with Decca (she lived her last years in Oakland) and thought she was great.

More fun:

Jessica Mitford interviewed by Christopher Hitchens
Nancy Mitford on BBC Great Lives
Jessica Mitford on BBC's Desert Island Discs
Jessica Mitford as a mom, remembered by her kids
Decca's son Ben gets pianos to Cuba despite US policy
posted by kristi at 3:27 PM on June 7 [3 favorites]


I don't know which book characters normal kids dreamed of being, but I remember reading Hons and Rebels at maybe 16 and just completely wishing I was part of that family (not that my own family weren't cool; it was my mum who gave me the book in the first place). I wished my sister and I fought over political ideology, rather than who had the remote control.

And yes, I subsequently discovered that at least certain subsets of adults in my life (urban, Australian, middle class, left-wing, radical-in-their-youth baby boomers, mostly) were totally fascinated with the family, and would talk about them as others might have Hollywood celebrities.

Anyway, I don't really know what my point is. If you have weird teenage daughters it is a book they might enjoy?
posted by retrograde at 4:15 PM on June 7 [2 favorites]


I'm kind of surprised that Maggie Gyllenhaal hasn't bought Decca's life story.
posted by pxe2000 at 4:48 PM on June 7 [2 favorites]


Everyone should definitely read Hons and Rebels. Jessica Mitford is one heck of a role model for girls.

I think she says in it somewhere their mother named them all quite prophetically. Their parents were eccentric, but I always get them mixed up with the Sitwells, who had an awful childhood with mad parents, whereas the Mitfordses, as far as I remember, believed in fresh air and no doctors which is still pretty English in a certain class of person.

Nicholas Moseley, the politician's son, has written a thoughtful couple of autobiographies. What a thing to have to live down. I remember a bit in the book where the household staff imply their mother died of a broken heart, and how much it was Diana's doing.
posted by glasseyes at 4:50 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


Great links, kristi, thank you.

From Mitford as a Mom: Mitford couldn't handle housework, rarely cooked and admitted to managing motherhood in a spirit of "benign neglect."

See, I said she was a role model.
posted by glasseyes at 4:58 PM on June 7 [2 favorites]


Decca was BFFs with Maya Angelou; they self-released an album of torch songs. Her letters are a fascinating read. Tough old bird, which is a bit of a so-so quality in a mother, but a damn useful one in a journalist and activist. She seemed like a lot of fun.
posted by Diablevert at 5:21 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


"let's rank these women as human beings" just sits a little wrong with me.

As does the ranking itself with me. What the hell? Jessica at the top?

Debo should head the list, not least of all for being the other nice one, kind hearts worth more than coronets and all that. Pam should not be tarred with a "may have been" anti-semitic label. Provide cites or shut your yap.

Nancy gets marks for the novels and the histories and the essays and most definitely for the letters with Evelyn Waugh (a nasty man who made her a better writer than she otherwise would have been).

Jessica, well....

There are a bunch of disquieting anecdotes about her in The Sisters. I cannot like her.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:37 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


Just a little further note on Jo Walton's Farthing trilogy. The books are an alternate history of the UK after it made peace w/Germany in the early 40s. The first volume uses a group loosely based on the Cliveden Set, who were an upper class, politically influential group that supported Hitler in pre-World War II Britain. The second volume focuses on an attempted coup, and features characters v much like the Mitfords.

Good reads. Walton won the Hugo for best novel last year, btw.
posted by bcarter3 at 5:59 PM on June 7


It is awfully odd that there's not been a Mitford sisters miniseries. It would seem right up BBC's alley. Maybe because one of them is still alive and well-connected?
posted by tavella at 6:35 PM on June 7


I remember my mother reading all about the Mitfords when I was in high school. I'm watching this thread to see which book about them might the best one to read.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:57 PM on June 7


..."Decca" is a nickname for Jessica? I'm pretty sure someone swapped out the real Britain for the over-the-top parody Britain.
posted by threeants at 7:24 PM on June 7


sorry, I mean the parozza Brozza
posted by threeants at 7:24 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


HURE

HARE

HURE

...

COMMENCEMENT

/mitford_nerd
posted by Sebmojo at 9:11 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty

I love this
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:41 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


I have some writer friends who are deliriously in love with the Mitfords, but I always thought they were a bunch of high-class Nazis and never had any interest in reading about them further.

But hey! It seems a couple of them were actually not only not Nazis-- but were actually decent (or decent-ish) non-fascist human beings. I'm still not going to run out to read the next bio about them, but it's good to know. *files fact away for later*
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 10:32 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


I'm kind of surprised that Maggie Gyllenhaal hasn't bought Decca's life story.

If you ask me she's slightly more flattered by Drew.

Nancy is the one I first learned about; the whole U-vs.-Non-U vocabulary debate was one of my introductions to what I guess you could call popular linguistics.
posted by dhartung at 11:41 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


I've never heard of these people, and I can't quite sort them out. I think I'll wait for them to be the subject of the inevitable "Stuff You Missed in History Class" episode.
posted by happyroach at 1:12 AM on June 8


As does the ranking itself with me. What the hell? Jessica at the top?

Well, yeah. Socialist, muckracker, damn good writer.

Debo should head the list, not least of all for being the other nice one,

Debo? No fucking way, she was the, erm, not very self reflective one who set out to become a duchess and did so. Nancy for all her faults was much more important and interesting than that.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:28 AM on June 8 [1 favorite]


It is awfully odd that there's not been a Mitford sisters miniseries.

You mean besides Love in a Cold Climate? (Which was actually based on a couple of Nancy's novels rather than being based solely on LIACC.)
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:50 AM on June 8


Yeah, Mary Lovell's book has inspired a range of reviews on Amazon. The 1-stars aren't a huge proportion but they do say things like this:

The poor dumbstruck bourgeois author is thoroughly star-stuck by the glamourous Duchess and my Lady Moseley, and so we get no insight, no judgment, and good deal of discreet mud-slinging at the Mitford sister who was indiscreet enough to marry a Jew

and I guess it won't be a book I'll be reading anytime soon.
posted by glasseyes at 3:16 AM on June 8


Decca was an enthusiastic Communist well past the point that Stalinism and Maoism claimed a body count that made Hitlerism look like small beer. How someone who cheered the Soviet tanks rolling into Hungary in 1956 deserves to be anywhere but number one on the "awful" list is beyond me.
posted by MattD at 6:12 AM on June 8 [1 favorite]


The Mitfords are fascinating, weird, and glorious, but yeah, Decca's long-term embrace of Stalinist slaughter puts her right down there with the Nazis. She has a lot more blood on her hands than pathetic, blinkered Unity.

Thirding recommendations for Jo Walton's Farthing books! I picked up one last summer, and tore through all three in a matter of days.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:14 AM on June 8


Living in the states, reading The American Way of Death as a teenager helped form my world view. But that's all I knew about these people until now.
posted by cda at 9:28 AM on June 8


I read Nancy Mitford's bio of Frederick the Great and loved it so I have to agree with the ranking of her near the top. Probably I should read her Voltaire bio next considering Freddie and Voltaire had such a tumultuous relationship and Nancy Mitford loves drama.
posted by spicynuts at 9:26 AM on June 9


How did this article sneak past my Mitford google alert? Anyway, off to read it now!
posted by Duffington at 10:14 AM on June 9


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