Tag Archives: J. K. Rowling

Meet The Mitfords

Last week, I was at the library and noticed a new book about Nancy Mitford, this one about her relationship with French politician and diplomat, Gaston Palewski. I opened the book to a random page and not only recognised the anecdote being related, but knew at once where the quotes had come from. At that moment, I realised I’d read far too many books about the Mitfords and didn’t need to read another one. But then I considered that perhaps readers of this blog might be interested in some of the Mitford-related books I’ve read. Hence this post.

The Mitfords were what Wikipedia1 accurately calls “a minor aristocratic English family”. None of the famous Mitford sisters, with the possible exception of Jessica, ever had any effect whatsoever on political events or world history. They are mostly remembered because they were rich, good-looking, opinionated aristocrats who knew a lot of famous and influential people during a fascinating period of history. More importantly, they were writers, so we have detailed records of their thoughts, observations and jokes. But I ought to introduce the Mitford siblings properly, so here they are:

'The Pursuit of Love' and 'Love in a Cold Climate' by Nancy Mitford1. Nancy (1904 – 1973) was the author of the wonderful comic novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, as well as several other novels and biographies, and numerous essays and newspaper articles. She was unhappily married to Peter Rodd, but the love of her life was Gaston Palewski and she moved to France to be with him after the Second World War. There are several published collections of her letters, including The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, edited by Charlotte Mosley. Life in A Cold Climate by Laura Thompson is a fairly good biography of Nancy, provided you can cope with the biographer’s prose style (sample sentence: “Yet there is a quality to her voice, as she lingers on their paradisiacal images, that reveals what was always there, and what constitutes so great a part of her appeal: the yearning soul within the sophisticate’s carapace: the imagination that can take illusion and make it into something real.” Oh, how Laura Thompson loves colons! And also, hates feminists. But then, so did Nancy.)

2. Pamela (1907 – 1994) was married to physicist and RAF pilot Derek Jackson, but she divorced him to spend the rest of her life with female ‘companions’. Not that you’ll ever hear a Mitford sister using the word ‘lesbian’ to describe Pamela. Pamela seemed the most sensible and practical of the sisters, and enjoyed breeding poultry and cooking elaborate meals.

3. Thomas (1909 – 1945) was the only boy and the heir to the title, and seems to have been adored by everyone. At school (Eton, naturally), he was the lover of Hamish St Clair-Erskine (to whom Nancy was once, disastrously, engaged) and James Lees-Milne, although Tom seemed to have preferred women in later life. He joined the British army and was killed in Burma during the war, having refused to fight against the Nazis in Germany.

'Diana Mosley' by Anne de Courcy4. Diana (1910 – 2003) was the beauty of the family. She married Bryan Guinness at the age of eighteen, but dumped him when she fell in love with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. She married Mosley in Berlin in 1936, at a ceremony at which Adolf Hitler was the guest of honour, then she and Mosley were imprisoned without trial in Britain for several years during the war. After the war, she supported Mosley’s various unsuccessful attempts to re-enter politics and they hung out with other rich Fascists. Anne de Courcy’s biography, Diana Mosley, provides a good account of Diana’s life, although it’s a rather biased one (“I came to love Diana Mosley,” gushes the biographer in her introduction, while also describing Diana, despite all the evidence to the contrary, as “the cleverest of the six Mitford sisters”). Diana also wrote a self-serving autobiography, A Life of Contrasts, which is interesting due to the sheer, gobsmacking awfulness of her opinions. Hitler, according to Diana, was a lovely man and the Holocaust wasn’t his fault at all. No, it was due to “World Jewry” and their “virulent attacks upon all things German and their insistent calls for trade boycotts, military encirclement and even war”. Also, the number of Holocaust victims was exaggerated, and anyway, Stalin and Mao killed far more people. She also spends a lot of time boasting about her social life (“At Mona Bismarck’s Paris Christmas dinner parties, I was always put next to the Duke [of Windsor]”) and going on about Mosley’s “brilliance”, and, with an apparent lack of irony, writes of her enemies, “This is typical of many people who reject truth in even the most trivial matters if it conflicts with a prejudice”.

5. Unity (1914 – 1948) was the one who was obsessed with Hitler and shot herself in the head when war broke out. A lot of her attention-seeking behaviour seems to have been due to a childish desire to shock people, but she was in her twenties when she met Hitler, surely old enough to know better. Was she emotionally or intellectually immature, or simply caught up in the political excitement of the 1930s? Her biography, Unity Mitford: A Quest, by David Pryce-Jones, doesn’t really help to answer this question. The biographer has clearly done a lot of research, interviewing more than two hundred of her acquaintances, but the result is a very dull and disorganised account of her life, with little attempt at analysis. I really can’t recommend this book (unless, of course, you happen to be writing a novel that includes Unity as a character).

6. Jessica (1917 – 1996) ran away as a teenager to the Spanish Civil War with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s Communist nephew. A lot of very sad things happened in her personal life – her baby daughter died of measles, Esmond was killed in action during the war, her elder son died at the age of ten – but these are all glossed over in her memoir, Hons and Rebels, because Mitfords were brought up to put on a brave face in public. Jessica married Robert Treuhaft in 1943, and the two of them were active members of the American Communist Party and passionate civil rights campaigners. Jessica also wrote a number of books based on her investigative journalism, including exposés of the American funeral industry and prison system. Bonus fact: J. K. Rowling so admired Jessica Mitford that she named her daughter after Jessica.

7. Deborah (1920 – ) married Andrew Cavendish, who became the Duke of Devonshire, and then she turned Chatsworth, the Devonshire family home, into a thriving business and tourist attraction. She also had terrible things happen in her life – three of her children died at birth, and her husband turned out to be a philandering alcoholic – but as Charlotte Mosley observed, Deborah was a Mitford, and therefore used to hiding her “vulnerability behind a lightly worn armour of flippancy and self-deprecation”. Deborah is usually portrayed as the apolitical Mitford, but is a proud Tory, was close to Diana, and “adored” Mosley. She has written several books about Chatsworth and her life, the most recent of which is Wait For Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister.

'The Mitford Girls' by Mary S. LovellThere have also been a number of books about the whole Mitford family. I think the best, most balanced, family history is The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell, although it’s been a while since I read it. There’s also The House of Mitford, by Jonathan Guinness with Catherine Guinness, or, as Hermione Granger would call it, A Highly Biased and Selective History of the Mitfords. The authors are Diana’s son and grand-daughter, so Diana is portrayed as a saint and Jessica as the devil incarnate. It also starts with a very long and boring section about the Mitford sisters’ ancestors. Still, it includes a lot of fascinating family photos that you won’t find in other books. However, my favourite Mitford-related book would have to be The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley. Yes, she’s Diana’s daughter-in-law and she seems to have done some very selective editing when it comes to Diana’s letters from the 1930s, but she has also done an excellent job of writing introductions and explanatory footnotes (which is vital, when the letter writers use as many nicknames as the Mitfords do) and of arranging all the correspondence in a way that makes sense. To quote J.K. Rowling again, “The story of the extraordinary Mitford sisters has never been told as well as they tell it themselves”.

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  1. Wikipedia once noted in its ‘Mitfords in Popular Culture’ section that “Unity Mitford appears as a minor character in the last two books of Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals trilogy”, but this sentence has now disappeared. Wikipedia also fails to mention the most famous popular culture reference to the Mitford sisters – that is, Narcissa, Bellatrix and Andromeda Black in the Harry Potter books, who bear a strong resemblance to Diana, Unity and Jessica Mitford.

Same Book, But Different

There’s an interesting post at The Readventurer about the significant differences between the North American and Australian editions of Cath Crowley’s YA novel, Graffiti Moon*. The reviewer, who has read both editions, concludes that the American version “felt a bit…sanitized, which I didn’t like.”

Interesting. Especially as there didn’t seem to be anything particularly edgy or controversial in the Australian edition of Graffiti Moon, as I recall.

American publishers do tend to change spelling and punctuation when they publish Australian YA books, and they also change any vocabulary that might prove confusing to American teenage readers. I remember reading the American editions of some YA novels by Barry Jonsberg and Melina Marchetta, in which the settings were clearly Darwin or the inner western suburbs of Sydney – yet the characters talked about ‘dimes’ and ‘sidewalks’. Even J.K. Rowling’s first book was subjected to Americanisation, with her American publishers making more than eighty changes to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, including the title. (And some of the changes seem pretty silly to me – surely American readers could work out that ‘multi-storey car park’ means the same as ‘multilevel parking garage’.)

For the record, the North American edition of A Brief History of Montmaray is very different to the Australian edition. Apart from a much-needed structural edit (for example, I completely re-wrote the final chapter), I spent a lot of time wrangling with my American copy-editor over words such as ‘biscuit’ and ‘jersey’. This was complicated by the fact that my narrator spoke a posh 1930s British version of English. But The FitzOsbornes in Exile and The FitzOsbornes at War are pretty much the same (apart from the spelling), wherever you buy a copy in the world. Maybe my American editors figured that readers who’d made it through the first book in the series would be able to cope with the characters eating ‘biscuits’ rather than ‘cookies’, and using ‘torches’ rather than ‘flashlights’, and so on. Or maybe my editors just got tired of arguing with me.

*Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link to the Graffiti Moon discussion.

Hermione Granger Rules The World

I love the Harry Potter books, but I also agree with Sady Doyle’s feminist criticisms of them. Ms Doyle discusses the REAL hero(ine) of the books in her article, In Praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger Series, and follows this up with The Further Adventures of Hermione Granger. Both articles are well worth a read, if you’re interested in either Harry Potter or the way girls are portrayed in popular culture.

(Thanks to Read Plus for the link.)

Letters of Note

One very nice (and unexpected) result of becoming a published writer has been that I now receive letters from readers. Yes, actual letters, written in pen or pencil on pieces of paper, sealed inside fancy envelopes and delivered by my friendly postie. Of course, it’s lovely to receive readers’ e-mails, too, and I must admit it’s much easier and quicker to reply to e-mails – but there’s something special about a personal letter, perhaps because they’re so rare now. When I open my letter box these days, I generally find electricity bills and reminders about dental appointments and pamphlets from politicians who are desperately seeking my vote in the upcoming State election – but hardly ever do I receive letters.

The lost art of letter writingThat’s why I so enjoy browsing through Letters of Note, an on-line collection of letters to and from famous people. It includes adorable letters from J. K. Rowling and Dr Seuss and David Bowie to fans; an indignant letter from Enid Blyton to Robert Menzies demanding that he stop calling her books ‘immoral’; a completely illegible letter from King Henry the Eighth to Anne Boleyn; a hilarious ‘personal letter’ from Steve Martin; a letter from an exasperated schoolboy to President John F. Kennedy and much, much more. Go and have a look, it’s fascinating. It’s like finding a dusty box of letters in your attic – assuming you’d lived the same house as Albert Einstein, Yoko Ono, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf and Freddie Mercury.

P.S. As much as I adore receiving letters, I can’t answer them unless they include a return address. Harriet, thank you so much for your lovely letter, but you forgot to include your address. If you contact me by e-mail or post, I promise I will write back.

Happy Birthday, Severus Snape!

Birthday greetings to Professor Snape, everyone’s favourite Potions Master, who would be fifty-one today if he hadn’t been involved in that unfortunate incident with Nagini in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. He’s a Capricorn, and therefore unlikely to attend his own birthday party because Capricorns “despise wasting [their] valuable time and resources on fun and levity that yield no tangible returns.” (Oh, what a coincidence, I’m a Capricorn, too. Of course, I don’t believe in all that astrological rubbish, because we Capricorns are consistently logical and rational.)

I’ve been a fan of Snape’s since the first book, because I figured anyone who was that mean to poor little Harry had to have some very good reasons for it and must secretly be on the side of Good. Then ALAN RICKMAN was cast to play Snape in the films (oh, that voice)! Is it really any wonder that Snape is now one of the most popular characters in the Harry Potter fandom?

To celebrate, why not dress up as Severus Snape, bake a Severus Snape birthday cake, knit your own ‘delightfully grumpy’ Severus Snape doll, purchase a Severus Snape LEGO keychain or hack into his Hogwarts e-mail inbox.

Happy birthday, Severus! We love you, even if Lily didn’t!