The Mitford Girls: the biography of an extraordinary family

Mary S Lovell <em>Little, Brown, 611pp

Mary Lovell, who wrote an absolutely superb book about the Burtons (the Victorian Arabist and his wife, rather than the film stars), has turned her attention to the six famous Mitford sisters. Some people will wonder whether this is not a slight waste of her time and talent. After all, the Mitfords have been quite good at publicising themselves and, in addition to their own autobiographies, there has been no shortage of material from others, not least Nicholas Mosley's tormented work of semi-fiction about his father, Oswald Mosley. His second wife, Diana Mitford, who is still alive, was the most beautiful and intelligent of the sisters. Jessica (Decca) was not exactly a shrinking violet. From her schoolgirl elopement as a communist to her noisy old age in America, hardly a year passed without her amusing the fans with some evocation of her family's foibles - often to the irritation of those who actually knew them. Jonathan Guinness, Diana's son by her first marriage, wrote an entertaining history of the Mitford family, on which Lovell draws. Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, is frequently on TV and in the newspapers. Nancy Mitford's fictional evocations of her parents and their brood of daughters in the Cotswolds have survived as very good comic novels. The only one who did not enjoy the limelight was Mrs Jackson - Pamela, known to her sisters as "Woman". John Betjeman, who was in love with her and wished to marry her, called her "the most rural of the Mitford sisters".

David Pryce-Jones undertook the not very difficult task of demonising poor Unity Valkyrie Mitford who, having been conceived in the Canadian town of Swastika, became a devoted supporter of National Socialism, and of the Fuhrer in particular. Pryce-Jones's book was full of mistakes, but one suspects it played its part in the gestation of one very good novel. His imputation that many of the English upper class were fascist sympathisers was perhaps one of the promptings of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. After all, however funny Nancy's novels, however stupendously charming the Duchess of Devonshire, however amusing Jessica's book on American funeral customs, what truly fascinates and horrifies is that two of these larky and hilarious women befriended Adolf Hitler. If the mix of nuns and Nazis made The Sound of Music a bestseller, the combination of beautiful English aristocrats and Nazis is a rich zuppa inglese, which few could resist.

Yet Lovell has produced a book that can be heartily recommended. There is new research here - based largely on the enormous Jessica Mitford archive. The sisters were, and are, frequent letter writers, as well as hoarders of other people's letters. Given that, between them, the Mitfords have known many of the most interesting people of the 20th century, any account of the family will cast an extraordinary, and almost always very funny, light on the period. Unlike some of the others who have decided to write about this family, Lovell has few prejudices. She is scrupulously accurate; when matters of fact were in doubt, she took the trouble to check with the surviving two sisters. She is also fair-minded.

My own guess about future historians of Britain is that they will see Oswald Mosley (nicknamed Uncle Cyril by Debo Devonshire) not as a sinister imitator of the Continental dictators, but as a flawed visionary. He made cataclysmic mistakes (primarily, not purging his movement of anti-Semitism), but before, during and after the Second World War, he got some major things right. He was the only politician in the 1930s who wanted Keynesian solutions to the disastrous unemployment problem, about which neither the Labour Party nor the Tories had a clue. He wanted peace, not mass slaughter, in the 1940s; and thereafter he wanted "Europe a Nation".

In so far as his wife Diana supported him bravely, and went to prison for four years in consequence, she is politically and intellectually the most interesting of the sisters. Out of loyalty to their many followers, who also suffered for their beliefs, and out of loyalty to Oswald, Diana will never (publicly) admit to errors of taste or judgement - which is perhaps why this charming, beautiful and original person is, or has been, to use Lovell's words, "the most hated woman in England".

The best thing about the book is that Lovell does not fudge her portrait of Diana. It will remain a useful source book for the future.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The war that Bush cannot win