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Betty Smartt Carter

Sisters at War

The Mitfords.

Only an indulgent listener (someone who owes me money) would stick around to hear everything I've learned about the Mitford family. After reading the books listed below and watching some clips from the BBC, I can do a bad imitation of David, Lord Redesdale ("Stinks to merry hell." "I grabbed the doctor and shook him like a rat!"). More important, I can trace Lord Redesdale's daughters through 20th-century history like silk threads through a debutante's gown. A tug on those threads and you draw Evelyn Waugh near to Andy Warhol, Lucian Freud to Cindy Lauper, Joseph Goebbels to Maya Angelou. Forget six steps of separation: one Mitford, Diana, will get you from Winston Churchill's dining room to a fireside chat with Adolf Hitler in under a decade.

But most people barely have patience for my shorthand descriptions of the Mitford girls themselves, who are fascinatingly unlike each other, and yet oh so hard to keep straight. They include

Nancy, the novelist, whose semi-autobiographical fiction made the family famous.

Diana, the society beauty, who left her rich husband to marry Sir Oswald Mosley, the head of the British Union of Fascists, in the Goebbels' living room.

Unity, the Nazi-lover, who stalked Hitler until she became part of his inner circle and then shot herself in the head when England declared war on Germany.

And Jessica, who did what any nice communist does to get away from her fascist siblings: she eloped with Churchill's nephew, made her way to America, and found steady work in a New Deal agency. A natural writer and muckraker, Jessica Mitford became an icon of the American Left. Her memoirs Hons and Rebels and A Fine Old Conflict linked the Mitford universe of debutantes and Bright Young Things to the American Civil Rights movement and the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

In addition to the famous four, there were three Mitfords who rarely made the gossip columns: one brother, Tom, who died in the war, and two non-political sisters, Pamela and Deborah. ...

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