On November 6, the New York Public Library’s “Conservators Evening” for annual contributors of $1,500 will honor Charlotte Mosley, editor of the new Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters from HarperCollins. By far the most gifted of these siblings was Nancy Mitford (1904-1973), who produced droll, perceptive histories of France like The Sun King, Madame de Pompadour, and Voltaire in Love, as well as translations of the 17th century French novel La Princesse de Clèves and the modern stage comedy by André Roussin, La Petite Hutte.
Ever gracious to literary colleagues, Nancy Mitford also contributed an affectionate preface to Lucy Norton’s worthy translation of excerpts from Saint-Simon. Nancy’s sister Jessica Mitford, (1917–1996), by contrast, produced a now-outdated critique of undertakers, The American Way of Death, (1963) as well as a vast amount of now-faded radical polemics. The rest of the Mitford sisters achieved even less. Two were rabid adorers of Hitler, Unity Mitford (1914-1948) and Diana Mitford (1910–2003), the latter of whom was the worshipful wife of Oswald Mosley (1896–1980), the rabidly anti-Semitic founder of the British Union of Fascists.
Although Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters is being marketed by its publisher as a glamorous item penned by the “great wits and beauties of their age,” there is nothing either witty or beautiful about Diana’s and Unity’s ardent crushes on Hitler, with whom they socialized regularly in the 1930’s. In 1937 Unity tells Diana, “Nazism is my life,” while Diana replies, “I thirst for only a glimpse of” Hitler, and in 1938 informs Unity: “The Fuehrer is the kindest man in the world, isn’t he?”
Readers who dissent from this view will find astonishingly adamant defenses here of Diana by the editor Charlotte Mosley, her daughter-in-law. Charlotte is the wife of Diana’s son Oswald Alexander Mosley (born 1938), and as editor of previous collections of Nancy’s letters, Ms. Mosley repeatedly defended her mother-in-law, despite Diana’s being an unrepentant Nazi to her dying day. Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters amps up this unapologetic stance, accusing Nancy of “disloyalty” and “betrayal” because during World War II, she sensibly told friends in the British government of her concern that Diana was an “extremely dangerous person.” Moreover, Nancy pointed out that another sister, Pamela, was “anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, and defeatist.” Rather than applauding Nancy’s good sense and courage, Ms. Mosley equates Nancy’s passion for a French Gaullist officer to Diana’s and Unity’s doting on Hitler, writing that Nancy “became as indiscriminately pro-French as Unity had been pro-German.”
Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters mashes the sisters into a conglomerate, describing them as knowing “Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Hitler; [they] were friends of Lytton Strachey, Evelyn Waugh, and Maya Angelou.” This conjures up confused images of Hitler socializing with Maya Angelou. Historical mish-mash is a bad approach for a book dealing with six sisters of whom only one, Nancy, produced work that is as fresh today as when she wrote it.