Sunday, February 2, 2014

Reading Other People’s Mail: The Mitford Sisters

“Steph, you have everybody’s letters,” my husband observed the other day. He really doesn’t know the half. The letters he was talking about were on the Kindle. I have other volumes of letters spread around on many shelves. (Hefting the correspondence between Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis has done wonders for my shoulder muscles.)

Though I know that many notable people are probably writing for an audience in addition to the letter’s recipient, I never get over the feeling that I’m reading something I wasn’t meant to see. And I miss letters. Much has been written about the disposable nature of e-mails, but I’ve never really equated e-mails with letters. Sending an email is something I do rather than making a phone call.

Mitford mail makes up a nice sized portion of my collection. Here are the Mitfords in a nutshell: Nancy was a novelist. Pamela raised poultry. Diana was married to Oswald Mosley who was the head of the British Union of Fascists (Hitler was among the wedding guests), Unity Valkyrie loved Hitler and shot herself in the head some days after England declared war on Germany. (She did not die). Jessica was a Communist and muckraking journalist and Deborah (still living at 93) made her estate at Chatsworth a working farm. And these ladies had time to write letters!

Here’s a brief look at the collections:

Love From Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford edited by Charlotte Mosley. I bought this when it came out years ago and saved it for my Christmas/New Year’s read. Well, I had been invited to a New Year’s Eve party but these letters were so engrossing I called my hostess and tendered my regrets. I could not imagine that anyone at the party (and I include myself here) could be as fascinating as Ms. Mitford. I do regret that she so loathed Americans. One of her pet peeves was that on being introduced to her, Americans addressed her as Nancy. She seems sharp and witty with a host of correspondents. She moved to Paris and wasted her affection on Gaston Palewski, a member of De Gaulle’s staff who did not return the intensity of affection, but the lady’s not a whiner and letters are very entertaining. If you want a somewhat smaller collection, Charlotte Mosley (Diana Mitford’s daughter in law) has also edited a collection of letters between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (he also detests Americans).

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, edited by Peter Y. Sussman. Jessica is the Mitford sister best known to Americans because she lived here. She distressed her family greatly when she ran off with Esmond Romilly, a Communist and a young man rumored to be the illegitimate son of Winston Churchill. She’s best known for The American Way of Death, a book that made generations of Americans wary of funeral industry. Members of the Kennedy family had read it and had it in mind when they went looking for a coffin for JFK. She was also involved in the labor movement and the Civil Rights movement. She married Bob Treuhaft, a labor attorney who, at least for a time, employed the young Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is also the sister most distressed by the politics of Unity and Diana. Both Diana and Oswald Mosley were imprisoned In England during WWII and when they were released, Jessica protested to Winston Churchill. This collection provides a marvelous look at what it was like to be involved in some of the great issues of the day.

In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Charlotte Mosley. Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the Mitford sisters, turned her estate into a working farm. Patrick Leigh Fermor is a sort of scholar-adventurer and thought by many to be the best travel writer ever. His many adventures are thrilling (his capture of a Nazi general on Crete was the basis for the film, Ill Met by Moonlight) and as I read about them I felt I was there. Deborah Devonshire has witnessed a lot of history and was close to the Kennedys. Her husband became Duke of Devonshire when his brother (and Kathleen Kennedy’s husband) was killed during the war. No matter how many names are dropped you never forget that she knows a lot about livestock and chickens. The letters are warm and funny and well worth reading.

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley. So I just looked this up on Amazon and noted that a line from the review I wrote of this book has been highlighted: “For a special chill, read the letters between Diana and Unity written during World War II.” Might I add that it is distressing to see Hitler described as “sweet.” The collection as a whole is fascinating and Mosley does a great job of providing context through her footnotes.

All in all these books are a great reminder of how wonderful letters are and I’m so grateful that these ladies held on to theirs. Thank God that these women were frequently miles away from each other and that phone service was expensive and frequently lousy.

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson


  1. I agree with you. Emails are not a real substitute for letters.... and phone calls do not satisfy me. Something about the phone brings out the pugnaciousness in me!

  2. Understood! I promise never to call you! My problem is that my job requires being on the phone constantly so at home I tend to ignore the phone

  3. Absolutely fascinating, Steph. It seems letters are better than memoirs, since they are written in real time, whereas the memoirist is thinking back over, perhaps, a very different emotional landscape. I wish I had the time to read them all.

  4. It is amazing. I have old letters that describe events I don't remember. For example, in my senior year of high school I directed a one act Chekov play. Do I remember this? VERY vaguely.

  5. Aha, I hope someone will do a whole blog on "emotional landscapes! "tjs