Excentric Englishwomen

A neighbour put a box of books out with an invitation to take anything anyone wanted. Since my head is still soft, I fell for this gossipy thing, tabloid journalist Cecilia Hagen´s "De osannolika systrarna Mitford" (= the unlikely Mitford sisters). I can´t call this a serious biography, it´s more like a bound, lengthy magazine article.

Hagen is herself the character around which her story evolves: Hagen in pursuit of the Mitford sisters. There are pictures, mostly of closed doors to houses where one of them lived at some point. There is also one of Hagen going to have tea with the queen. She and a thousand other people. She makes comedy from the tribulations of having to wear a hat (something Swedish women never, ever have to do), and even managing to spill her tea on it!

Since this is not a learned biography with notes and such, Hagen instead tries to build some authority on stories about herself that proves that even if she is not upper class herself (she is related to the Bonnier family, though, who owns most of the publishing industry in Sweden, but even bona fide upper class Swedes never confess to being upper class, ever), she has hobnobbed with them from time to time. Her father was a diplomat and she herself spent some years in a boarding school. Writing about the upper classes has become Hagen´s niche, you might say.

She favours hacked off sentences. This can be a very efficient way to create Voice in a text, as a series of periods instead of commas creates... well, a louder rhythm. It´s like banging on a bigger drum with a harder stick. However, if you use this technique indiscriminately, it begins to look sloppy, and the Voice can become so loud that the story drowns in it. In Hagen´s case, I think she is aiming for comedy. She wants to create the illusion of sitting with the reader at a bar, with wine in their glasses, becoming rather tipsy and indiscreet and doing a lot of backhanded whispering. Sometimes she will write something and then half take it back, like "but I´m not saying that, just suggesting it - in between the lines". Which is nonsense, of course. Either you write it, or you don´t.

And what about the subject of the book, the Mitford sisters? There have been plenty written about them, and plenty will be written about them in the future. They wrote lots of letters, some of which have been published already. There were six of them, and one brother, who was killed in the war. Their father was the second Baron Redesdale, who married the daughter of Thomas Gibson Bowles, who founded Vanity Fair. Like all upper class English girls, they grew up in a very excentric household.

The oldest, Nancy, became a famous novelist. Her best known work is "In Pursuit of Love" and "Love in a Cold Climate". They have been adapted to television at least twice. I haven´t read them, but reading about her have made me so curious I got them for the Kindle. She never made anything up, everything she wrote was about the people she knew and what they did, apparently. I understand she was mean and witty, which is probably both good traits for a best-selling novelist.

The second, Pamela, was the kind, slow one, and she married a scientist, divorced him, and then lived the rest of her life with a woman (this last bit Hagen says nothing about - actually she says very little about Pamela - but according to Wikipedia she did).

The third sister, Diana, is perhaps the most famous one, as she married first into the Guinness family, then left her husband for Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist leader, who kept her on the side for years (along with a bunch of other mistresses) before he eventually married her. In Joseph Goebbels´ livingroom, with Hitler as a witness. Yes, really. She was the beautiful one, and to her dying day she always claimed that Hitler was a very nice fellow. She was the mother of Lord Moyne, who is known to all Swedes through the Trustor affair. The Mosleys were held in Holloway Prison during the war, and then settled in France.

The fourth, Unity Valkyrie (yes, that was her full name! and her parents claimed she had been conceived in the Canadian town Swastika, near where they had a mining-concession!), fell in love with Hitler of all people, and stalked him until he noticed her. When England declared war on Germany, she shot herself in Englisher Garten in Munich. She survived, but the bullet remained in her head and ten years later she died from complications. By all accounts, she was bad, mad and dangerous to know.

The fifth, Jessica, became an equally fanatical communist, moved to the US, where she made a great success of herself socially, and as a journalist. She and Diana never spoke to each other after the war on account of political differences. She married Robert Treuhaft, a lawyer who worked for a time for the Black Panthers, and he had a young Hillary Clinton as an intern.

The sixth, Deborah, is the one who fulfilled the hopes that the parents had for all the girls: she married a Duke. She is most known these days for the small industry she has created around her house, Chatsworth, which was the inspiration for Jane Austen´s Pemberley, and for being the grandmother of Stella Tennant, supermodel extraordinaire. She is still alive, at 92 years old.

I can´t say that I found it all that funny, though I imagine that´s what Hagen intended to do: write a funny, fun book. Reading about the Mitford sisters is a bit like reading about a high speed train accident. You can´t stop, can´t look away, but fun isn´t exactly what I´d call it. I have heard that Nancy Mitford´s books are very funny, though, and I´ll give them a chance. I think they might be the perfect holiday reading for this summer, as we have decided to go to Isle of Wight and Dover this year! (Hurrah!)


  1. "to her dying day she always claimed that Hitler was a very nice fellow"


    what a family! wouldn't it be fun to live in a house that was the inspiration for a jane austen book. sweet.

    1. It is on my list of places to see before I die: http://www.chatsworth.org/

      "Pride&Prejudice" from 2005, with Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen was filmed there.