Friday, October 7, 2016

The Six by Laura Thompson (The Utterly Fascinating, Scandalous Lives of the Mitford Sisters)

Nancy Mitford
1904 - 1973
Nancy Mitford was the eldest of the fascinating Mitford Sisters. Highly spirited, and with a relentless sense of humor, she was a terrible tease who loved to joke and play pranks. With her vitriolic tongue, she was a relentless bully to her sisters. Her passion was writing novels. Much of the humor that swirled about in their daily lives made its way into her book. Her most famous novels were THE PURSUIT OF LOVE and LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE. She also wrote a biography about the Sun King. Despite her great sense of humor and pretty face, her love life was a dismal failure. She fell in love with three different aristocrats - once with a homosexual, then a very smart but dull man, and finally with a French Officer who never returned her love.

Pamela Mitford
1907 - 1994
Pamela was the quietest sister with no scandals linked to her. She loved the country, was a passionate horsewoman, and was devoted to her dogs. Her husband was an enormously rich physicist and professor, . He loved her for a while, but they divorced after several years. She spent the rest of her life in obscurity as a companion to Giuditta Tomassi who died in 1993. 

Diana Mitford
1910 - 2003
The third daughter, Diana Mitford, was perhaps one of the most scandalous of the sisters. She married aristocrat and writer Bryan Walter Guinnes in the biggest society wedding of the year. Four years later, causing a great scandal, an with her two children in tow, she left him for British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley who was 14 years her senior. But Mosley was already married and he had no intentions of leaving his first wife. When Mosley's wife died, instead of devoting himself fully to Diana, he began an affair with his late wife's younger sister. Diana fled to Germany with her sister Unity. There she met and befriended Hitler, who had her chaufered about in a Mercedes Benz. Yet she continued to be Mosley's mistress, despite his philandering ways and numerous affairs. They were finally married in 1936 and Hitler was a guest at their wedding. As World War II raged, Diana and Mosley were interned at London's Holloway Prison, but Winston Churchill made sure their accommodations were as comfortable as could be. As Mosley's health failed, they were sent into house arrest until the end of the war. Diana continued to hold Hitler in high regard and remained staunchly Nazi until her death at the age of 93. She was one of the many elderly victims of the terrible European heatwave of 2003. 

Unity Mitford
1914 - 1948
Nicknamed "Bobo", Unity was the most notorious and disgraceful sister. She can be described as nasty, insufferable, and unpleasant who always got her way by being obnoxiously rude, and disagreeable. Described as eccentric, she loved to play games with people, hurting them, starting useless quarrels and dense arguments. During a debutante ball, she released her pet rat. Like her sister, Unity worshiped Hitler. Overly tall, and not as beautiful as her other sisters, she came across as crass and cold. Chastised by her parents, she ran to the security of her sister Diana where sunder the guise of learning German, where she relentlessly pursued Hitler until he "noticed" her. Of course he was was flattered to have an English aristocrat panting for him. He indulged her in very way, from providing her with an apartment with housekeeper, after throwing out the Jewish family that lived there. But Hitler's closest confidants despised her. She was rude and audacious, clearly arrogant, and they were concerned at the influence she exerted over their dictator. 

When she publicly sided with Julius Streicher because he gave her what she wanted, she faced ostracism. When war was declared by Britain against Germany, the German government ordered all Brits deported. Devastated to have lost all her possessions and pleasant life, attempted suicide by shooting herself in the head. She failed to kill herself and was left severely brain damaged. he was sent back to England with all medical expenses paid for by Hitler. The bullet remained embedded in her brain as doctors deemed it to difficult to remove. At the age of 33, she died when meningitis caused her brain to swell around the bullet. 

Jessica Mitford
1917 - 1996
Jessica's nickname was "Decca". When she was 19 years old, and underage according to the law, she eloped to Spain with Esmond Romilly, her cousin and nephew of Winston Churchill. Both sets of parents greatly disapproved. Her parents did everything to split them up. They even sent destroyer of the Royal Navy to bring her back. When she announced she was pregnant, her parents gave up the fight and allowed her to marry. Her father disowned her and even refused to see her while on his deathbed. 

When war against Germany was declared, Esmond joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was shot down in 1941 at the age of 23. Winston Churchill broke the news of her husband's death to her. Jessica spent her remaining years in the USA, working hard to support herself with office work. Later, she became an investigative writer and wrote her autobiography revealing much about her family. 

Deborah Mitford
Duchess of Devonshire
1920 - 2014 
And last but not least, was Deborah, the youngest daughter. No scandals here. She led an exemplary life. She married Andrew Cavendish who became the Duke of Devonshire. Together, the young couple restored his ancestral home, Chatsworth House, into its former glory as an elegant stately homes. Like her elder sisters, she also wrote books. She was the 10th Duchess of Devonshire and was considered the most perfect of them all. She was last surviving sister.

“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 stark—and very public—differences in their outlooks came to symbolize the political polarities of a dangerous decade. The intertwined stories of their stylish and scandalous lives—recounted in masterly fashion by Laura Thompson—hold up a revelatory mirror to upper-class English life before and after WWII.The Six was previously published as Take Six Girls.


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!