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I’ve said a lot about the Mitford sisters and my current obsession in this post here, so plan just to plunge into my thoughts about this book without much explanation.
A collective biography must be one of the most difficult things to write. How do you decide how much space to give to each of the individuals concerned? How can you be fair to all points of view when the individuals themselves have such different recollections of the same events?
The Mitford Girls is a prime example of the problems inherent in trying to write this kind of biography. Mary Lovell has done (I think) a really good job here but it isn’t (and probably never could be) perfect. The amount of time spent on each of the sisters is dictated by events, and the years before and during the war were always going to be dominated by Unity (with her Nazi sympathies and suicide attempt), Diana (with her marriage to Oswald Mosley and her imprisonment in Holloway) and Jessica (with her elopement, Communist views and move to America). Nancy dips in and out between these stories with her books, her affair with Palewski and her life in Paris. Deborah and Pamela don’t seem to get much of a look in when compared to the other four.
And I think that’s a bit of a shame, especially in Pam’s case. In some respects she’s the one that interests me the most simply because she seems so ordinary compared to the others – well as ordinary as an eccentric member of the aristocracy can be. I would love to have known more about her, especially the period after her marriage broke up and she made a life with one of her female friends. Others have commented how Mary Lovell dismisses without any real exploration the idea that Pam was gay. But for the most part I really just wanted to know what Pam felt about the rest of them.
And Debo; well she is the baby and comes into her own in later life as the doyenne of Chatsworth but I didn’t feel she came across as strongly as she did in the letters where her personality really shone through.
It was disappointing that the period after 1955 takes up so little time as one of the fascinations for me about the sisters is how they grew old and mellowed (or mostly didn’t mellow). Again that’s something that comes across most strongly in the letters.
Don’t get me wrong, everything I’ve said above is really quibbling about the detail of what was an enjoyable read, but I suppose with hindsight that I probably should have read this before I read the letters, as the biography stops in 2000 when Diana is still alive and the letters go on further and so may have satisfied my curiosity a bit more. All I could see here were the gaps.
And my Mitford mania hasn’t diminished at all (though I may give it a rest for a bit…….)
Despite a TBR list that is in danger of constituting a library in its own right I haven’t stopped buying books, although I’m about to enter the pre-Christmas moratorium where the Book God and I swap our wish lists and sit on our hands until Santa has been.
And in advance of that looming date I really have been unbelievably bad on the purchasing front:
- The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse – “It’s 1928. Freddie Watson is still giving for his brother, lost in the Great War. Driving through the foothills of the French Pyrenees, his car spins off the road in a snowstorm. Freddie takes refuge in an isolated village and there…..” I have her two previous books but haven’t read them yet, and this looks like it might be fun (and is far less chunky than the others)
- Nancy Mitford: The Biography by Harold Acton – “This intimate biography draws a witty, real-life portrait of Nancy, based on the letters she intended to use for her autobiography…….” Sparkling and irresistible, apparently, and totally part of my current obsession with all things Mitford.
- Changeless and Blameless by Gail Carriger – novels of vampires, werewolves, dirigibles and afternoon tea…… Again I have the first one in this series about Alexia Tarabotti but haven’t read it, so this is a bit of a chance, I suppose (what if I hate it??).
- Blue Eyed Boy by Joanne Harris – “Once there was a widow with three sons, and their names were Black, Brown and Blue. Black was the eldest; moody and aggressive. Brown was the middle child; timid and dull. But Blue was his mother’s favourite. And he was a murderer.” Couldn’t resist it.
- Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates – it’s a new book of short stories by the great JCO so of course I was going to get it.
- Dreadnought by Cherie Priest – the sequel to Boneshaker which I got for Christmas (I think, may have been my birthday, too close to call) and still haven’t read. But I feel that I’m going to enjoy it when I get there.
- Plain Kate by Erin Bow – I saw this on another blog but can’t remember whose (sorry); loved the cover and bought on impulse when in Forbidden Planet with Silvery Dude just after Hallowe’en (I bought The Unwritten 2 at the same time)
- Decca edited by Peter Y Sussman – see Nancy above. I’m sure I’ll grow out of this at some point….
- Coco Chanel by Justine Picardie – there was absolutely no way that once I’d got my hands on a copy I would be able to walk out of the bookshop without it. It’s important to recognise one’s limitations….
- Tamara de Lempicka by Laura Claridge – “Born in 1899 to Russian aristocrats, Tamara de Lempicka escaped the Bolsheviks by exchanging her body for freedom, dramatically beginning a sexual career that included most of the influential men and women she painted.” Irresistible.
I seem to have an awful lot of reading going on at the moment; some of these books have been sitting on my table for months (if not longer) and I will at some point have to decide whether I am going to persevere or give up, but not just yet, I think:
- The Mitford Girls by Mary S Lovell – “‘I am normal, my wife is normal, but my daughters are each more foolish than the other‘ bewailed Lord Redesdale, father of the Mitford girls. Part of my Mitford obsession as mentioned briefly here.
- The Sicilian Vespers by Steven Runciman – “On 30 March 1282, as the bells of Palermo were ringing for Vespers, the Sicilian townsfolk, crying ‘Death to the French’, slaughtered the garrison and administration of their Angevin King.”
- Bone Song by John Meaney – “Tristopolis. Death’s City. Countless dead lie in the miles of catacombs beneath its streets.” Zombies and stuff in noir crime story.
- The Women of Muriel Spark and Muriel Spark – reading these as background to the great abandoned but about to be resurrected Reading Muriel Project
- Growing by Leonard Woolf – an autobiography of the years 1904 to 1911, set aside for some reason I can’t quite fathom
- The Nightmare Factory by Thomas Ligotti – to be dipped into, prose is very, very lush.
- Jigs and Reels by Joanne Harris – forgot all about this one, must finish it as I’ve enjoyed the stories I’ve read so far
- Small Avalanches by Joyce Carol Oates – another dipper
- O, Beloved Kids by Rudyard Kipling – Kipling’s letters to his children, which was intended to kick-start a Kipling fest after I visited his house in the summer; still something I want to do…..
And sad to say I’m still reading some of the books on this list, namely:
- Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk – as recommended by the Book God after an excellent lecture on engaging with China which we attended at the British Museum
- The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks – vaguely unsettling what to do if they were real guide-book
- The Virago Book of the Joy of Shopping, edited by Jill Foulston – which called out to me by name when shopping in Blackwell’s on the Charing Cross Road for a present for Silvery Dude
I have always had a mild obsession with the Mitfords; I’m not exactly sure when it started, but it has been kicking around for a long time. My first exposure to them was probably picking up David Pryce-Jones’s biography of Unity Mitford at a point when I was interested in what made an upper-class young woman fall in withe the Nazis. This led me not so much to Diana Mitford but to Nancy, and I read a couple of her novels and her book about Madame de Pompadour, and thus was I hooked.
I have piles of books by and about the Mitfords all over the house and at some point I will pull together a post about the ones I’ve read and the ones I’m going to read, and probably astonish myself with how many there actually are.
But for now it’s all about Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley; and what a task that must have been, deciding what to include and what to leave out from a mountain of correspondence over not quite eighty years (the first letter is from 1925, the last from 2003). I’ve had this for a while but decided to pick it up after seeing the Duchess of Devonshire at 90 exhibition when I visited Chatsworth last month. And I have romped through what is understandably a pretty chunky book, over 800 pages including the index, but I just couldn’t put it down. The complex relationships between six women with strong personalities and equally strong views is totally absorbing, the feuds and alliances and misunderstandings and misrememberings all entirely fascinating, often funny but moving and sad as well. One of the things I loved most was the sisters’ use of nicknames, which seemed so specific to their world until I looked at some of my e-mails to friends and realised that I do exactly the same thing.
If like me you are drawn to reading letters and diaries then you will find this really enjoyable, even if you don’t know much about the family itself. Loved it and am heading off to find the joint Mitford biography which is skulking on a shelf somewhere…..
Well, I have always had rather a soft spot for good old Alice, and having watched and enjoyed the re-imagining that was Tim Burton’s movie earlier this year, I was really up for having a punt at Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars.
So Alyss is being trained to become Queen of Wonderland after a period of horrendous civil war which saw her parents defeat her wicked Aunt Redd. Things go totally pear-shaped on her birthday and she is forced to flee to our world in order to save herself. There she becomes Alice and tells her story to Charles Dodgson who uses it as the basis for the books we know and love.
But can Alice really find happiness in the arms of Prince Leopold or will her destiny reclaim her?
Well, we all know what’s going to happen here.
I thought I would probably like this but wasn’t prepared for how much I would love it and how quickly I would read it. I loved playing spot the character: some of them pretty straightforward correlations to our Alice (Hatter M being the most wonderful to my mind) but others a little more difficult to fathom.
I liked the conceit of Alice being a foundling brought into the Liddell’s home and how no-one believes her fantastic tales, so much so that she begins to doubt them herself as she grows older. I loved the idea of her becoming Queen Victoria’s daughter-in-law. I loved how she got here and how she gets back. And I adored the monstrous figure that is Redd and the havoc that she unleashes.
And then, of course, there is the violence…..
I enjoyed it so much that I now have the two sequels and the first of the Hatter M graphic novels, and will indulge myself at a suitable point.
Really very clever indeed.