Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Book review: The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, Laura Thompson (2015)

I was bored out of my brain watching TV, since my home contents has been packed up due to the fact that I’m moving house, and so I walked to Glebe and bought some books, this being one of them. It turned out to be a good choice as my state of mind – feeling a little vulnerable and uncertain due to the change underway – consoned with traces of anxiety the book communicates.

It’s difficult to write a biography about six women like the Mitford sisters because of their connections with Nazism, but Thompson has done us a great service by indulging in her personal fascination with her subjects. This is a magnificent biography.

It’s a thorough exposé of a period of time so different from today but, also, so similar in many respects, not the least of which is the reason for notoriety of the women under examination. The fact that so much is known about them, due to the survival of a large number of private letters and also due to the existence of published works of fiction (and memoir), adds richness to Thompson’s account.

She had to become acquainted with some of the darkest parts of history in order to write it. I applaud her gumption and recognise the worth of her approach, which mingles the personal with the public in a thrilling manner. The way the sisters related to their parents, to each other, to significant others, and to the public provides a view that is at the same time microscopic and broad. 

The title is stripped back and modern, matching the subject matter. Reading the book it’s actually easy to see why some of the Mitford sisters responded to the call of the siren, but I wonder if Thompson might not have realised how nihilism made them liable to succumb to fascism and Communism in the absence of other, equally rewarding, inputs. Nancy, who went on to become a successful novelist, seems to have remained least liable to respond positively to the lure of the political extremism that animated the era, though even she did so at some points. 

Jessica went the other way from Unity and Diana, and became a Communist. And while Thompson remarks from time to time how difficult it is, now, for us to understand people living then – almost a century ago now – she is reticent about going the next step and making proclamations that might explain why some of these youthful sisters (and, indeed, their parents) cleaved so strongly to fascism. In my mind it certainly had something to do with youth, but it was more complex than that, and I alluded to some of the things that were in action at the time in a review of another book, which I read in May

Again, it’s germane for me to say that Thompson has done us all a favour at the same time as she indulged her own fascination with these women. I strongly recommend this book to people who are curious about the 1930s or to people who want to understand more about our own times, with its violent public sphere and extreme views.

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