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virginia123

The Mitfords - Letters Between Six Sisters

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I am just coming to the end of this enchanting volume (more than 800 pages) and have savoured every minute of it. What is striking about this collection of letters which cover 78 years is that all the sisters write so well, with an idiosyncratic humour and vocabulary but also with an honesty and sometimes (particularly Deborah, the youngest) with wisdom. It made me think a lot about sibling relationships : the Mitfords are not always kind to each other (Nancy wrote to the authorities to insist that her sister Diana and her husband Mosley should be kept in prison) but when the chips are down they are very supportive and loving to each other. When Nancy dies a slow death from cancer over 4 years, all the remaining sisters spend time with her and support her. When their mother is dying from Parkinsons disease they all rally round. Their differences also comes over in the letters : Deborah is the practical 'doer' who runs Chatsworth and several other houses and enterprises; Jessica is the rebel right to the end of her life, determined to put people's backs up; Nancy is waspish and unkind but with a successful career as a novelist although her private life is sadly empty; Diana is the bookworm who can't understand why Deborah won't read Proust and Flaubert. Altogether a marvellous bit of editing by Diana's daughter in law Charlotte Mosley. I feel I really know those sisters now and I am envious of their support and love for each other.

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I enjoyed these letters too though I think Jessica Mitford's collected letters which weren't edited by Charlotte Mosely are more intrinsically intersting because her life had an even wider scope and was even more turbulant than her sisters and she's also a very witty writer. Nancy's letters with Evelyn Waugh which was the first book of letters Charlotte edited remains much the most entertaining imo.

 

I did get a slight scraping the barrel feeling about this book - no disrespect to Charlotte, it was the material she was working with. There wasn't enough of Jessica, there was a bit too much of Diana especially in her later life and frankly though the letters from Pamela had to be put in there for balence none of them was very interesting. I thought Charlotte was a wonderfully objective editor especially for putting in some letters which showed her mother in law in a distinctly unflattering light.

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A selection of the Waugh-Mitford Letters was dramatised on BBC some years ago, Timothy West reading the Waugh part. I have it taped it on old-fashioned cassette. Letters can be boring, but selected ones are often fun and full of insight into the everyday life and thought behind the public persona.

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