Mitford Sisters' Letters Collected in New Book The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters looks at 80 years worth of letters written by the Mitford sisters, who were born into British aristrocracy. The sisters' lives were bound up with many of the great upheavals of the 20th century.
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Mitford Sisters' Letters Collected in New Book

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Mitford Sisters' Letters Collected in New Book

Mitford Sisters' Letters Collected in New Book

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The Mitford Sisters - Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah - were drop dead gorgeous, spoiled yet starved for maternal affection, brilliant but perhaps a little undereducated, loyal, rivalrous, witty and playful. They loved each other, ratted each other out, and stayed devoted to one another with a couple of exceptions.

The range of their friendships were staggering - from Winston Churchill to Adolf Hitler; from Maya Angelou to Evelyn Waugh. Their lives reflected the passions and torments of the 20th century. The sisters became writers, a muckraker, a fascist and a communist. One became a poultry expert. And now, some of the correspondents between them has just been published - grand, chatty letters that were written from country estates, war-torn capitals and a prison. "The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters" - it is edited by Charlotte Mosley, a publisher and journalist and daughter-in-law of the late Diana Mitford. She joins us from New York.

Mrs. Mosley, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. CHARLOTTE MOSLEY (Editor, "The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters"): Thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: And we're also very pleased to be joined by the last surviving Mitford sister, Deborah the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Yes, I did have…

Duchess DEBORAH CAVENDISH (Dowager Duchess of Devonshire): That's sounds so much such a mouthful.

SIMON: I had a little fun with that, too. Well, Duchess, thanks you so much for being with us.

Duchess CAVENDISH: It was a great pleasure.

SIMON: Mrs. Mosley, what struck you about so many of the letters?

Ms. MOSLEY: It's a unique correspondence. It spans a period of 80 years between these six, as you said, controversial, beautiful, talented and very, very funny women and, above all, sisters.

SIMON: Duchess, had your read the letters over the years?

Duchess CAVENDISH: I've read them all over the years. And I've - Charlotte and I and my sister, Diana, looked at them all before they were published, of course, as well.

SIMON: You read through the letters, you had a hundred different nicknames for each other, didn't you?

Duchess CAVENDISH: I know, but that was spread over years, and it sort of happened phonetically more than anything else or they reminded us of something at the time.

SIMON: Now, you were the youngest. One of the nicknames for you was Nine.

Duchess CAVENDISH: That's right. That was my sister, Nancy. She was a supreme tease, and she always said I never got beyond them until the age of 9.

Duchess CAVENDISH: And so, she - long after I was married, she used to introduce me to her smart French friends, this is my little sister age 9.

SIMON: Yeah. Charlotte Mosley, how did you see the relationship between six sisters play out as you went through the correspondence?

Ms. MOSLEY: What's interesting is that you see how the alliances shift and change over the years. When they're young, they have a certain close friendship with one of the sisters, and then as they grow older, that evolves and changes. But I think the most interesting thing and the most moving thing about the letters is how, in spite of their political differences, in spite of their very dissimilar lives, the very strong bonds that united them - except in the case of Jessica and Diana - stayed with them throughout the whole of their lives.

SIMON: Jessica and Diana, we should explain, had a real falling out. Jessica became a communist and then, after leaving the party, a leftist activist. And of course, Diana Mitford was - along with her sister Unity - two of the three most prominent English-speaking fascists in history.

Ms. MOSLEY: I think that'd be correct to say. But what's interesting - and this points out the complication of the relationship between the sisters - is that Jessica cut off all relations with Diana before the war and yet she remained in touch with Unity. And when - just shortly before Unity tried to commit suicide, when war was declared between Britain and Germany, she sent a letter to her mother, and in that letter, she sent very particular love to Jessica.

SIMON: Maybe I've overlooked Nancy and Pamela.

Duchess CAVENDISH: Well, my sister, Nancy, was brilliantly clever, very quick, a terrific tease, but she and my father were the instigators of all the jokes in the family. They were absolutely killingly funny.

SIMON: Let's also just stipulate that Nancy wrote some very well-received books.

Duchess CAVENDISH: She did. The big success was "Pursuit of Love" in 1945, which was inspired by her - the Frenchman who she adored. And she was able to earn her living through these books and through a lot of the other books she wrote afterwards, which still sell.

SIMON: And Pamela?

Ms. MOSLEY: Pamela, well, we all loved her. She was called woman in the family because she was thought to have all the womanly virtues. She was not so quick as my other sisters, but she was terribly kind with all the rest of the family, and we all just loved her very much. But Nancy teased her mercilessly, but she just laughed. She didn't, I imagine, take any notice.

SIMON: I wonder - and Mrs. Mosley, is there a letter you want to draw our attention to?

Ms. MOSLEY: There are so many; I wouldn't know where to begin. But since we've got Deborah here, there's an exchange of letters that I enjoy very much when Diana and Deborah were the two surviving sisters. And Diana is writing to Deborah, saying how much she regrets that she's not a reader, that she'll never know the joys of seeing the world through the eyes of geniuses like Turgenev and Flaubert and Tolstoy and Proust. And Deborah writes back, oh, well, I realized that it's my loss and what can you do? And then she ends, oh, Proust, shall I try or is it too late? Oh, I do hope it's too late.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOSLEY: It was too late.

SIMON: Duchess, I would like to ask you about a period in the '40s, there's a considerable exchange of letters from you to your sister Diana.

Duchess CAVENDISH: Yes.

SIMON: Diana, maybe for - we need to explain once more to an American audience - was married to Oswald Mosley who was the principal fascist leader of Britain. They were, at one point, imprisoned as threats to the nation, then put under house arrest ultimately. There are a hundred different questions to ask about how perhaps your sisters found themselves being, not just casual acquaintance, but, well, they repeatedly called Hitler sweet - my sweet furor.

Duchess CAVENDISH: I know.

SIMON: That's a startling thing to read.

Duchess CAVENDISH: Well, it was all on a personal level. It was actually - my sister, you know, got to know Hitler fairly early on. And she was very unsophisticated and it was like religion for her, and that's how she was. She was somebody who threw herself into whatever she was interested in a hundred percent, and nothing would have changed that.

SIMON: But I - may I - I have to press you a bit on it. They knew of the bigotry and anti-Semitism and seemed absolutely to accept it?

Duchess CAVENDISH: Yes.

SIMON: At one point, they even talk about - I guess it was a proposal to take them to Dakhau because they were so - the Germans wanted to show them what they were doing there.

Duchess CAVENDISH: Well, you see, this is the same, really, with my sister, Jessica, who was communist in America at the time when communists were pretty - were having a pretty rough time in America. She was just as devoted to that side and yet there was Stalin in Russia doing these unspeakable things to thousands and millions, actually, of people.

SIMON: Yeah.

Duchess CAVENDISH: But that didn't seem to dim her enthusiasm at all.

SIMON: Mrs. Mosley, I'll bet these are questions you've dealt with.

Ms. MOSLEY: Well, I think in the case of Diana, one has to say that her attitude to Germany and to Hitler was very closely bound up with her love for Mosley. Really, love and politics were entwined in her life, as they were in Jessica's who married Esmond Romilly, her communist cousin.

SIMON: How was it for the family - war begins and Unity Mitford, your sister, Duchess…

Duchess CAVENDISH: Yes.

SIMON: …attempts to take her life? What was…

Duchess CAVENDISH: Well, imagine how terrible it was. She was, in fact, unconscious, I think, for five or six weeks. And my mother and I went out to fetch her home, and the shock of seeing her for the first time since she tried to kill herself was something I shall never forget. She was completely changed. Part of her brain was damaged because the bullet had gone in, but it hadn't killed her. And her hair was matted, she couldn't bear her head to be touched; the bullet was still there. And she was a different person. She couldn't really speak properly. She couldn't walk. It was a shock that you can imagine if you'll think of your brother or your sister being in that position. It was simply awful.

SIMON: And how long did she last?

Duchess CAVENDISH: She died in 1948 when the bullet in her head moved. They never could take it out because it was too close to a part of the brain which would have killed her in the operation, so they didn't. And eventually, that's what happened, but until then, my mother devoted her whole life looking after her.

SIMON: Charlotte Mosley, when Diana Mosley and Oswald Mosley were in prison, his health began to deteriorate. They were ultimately let out by Winston Churchill. It was Jessica who wrote a letter saying, I think it's a bad idea to release them.

Ms. MOSLEY: Yes, she did. She wrote that releasing them would be a betrayal of the people who'd been killed in the war. But she wasn't the only sister, Nancy also went and denounced Diana and said that, in her view, she should not be let out of prison, which was actually the second time that Nancy had been to the authorities. When - in 1940, when Mosley was first imprisoned and it was -there was a question of Diana being also imprisoned, she told the foreign office that, in her view, Diana was a dangerous person who should be locked up. I think it was the way that Nancy did it that perhaps is shocking because at the one hand, she was writing to Diana friendly letters - to her in prison. And as soon as Diana was released from house arrest after the war, Nancy went to stay with her, wrote the end of her novel "The Pursuit of Love," and was as friendly and as sisterly and as concerned about her as you might imagine.

SIMON: Charlotte Mosley, what do you think the experience of being a Mitford has to tell people?

Ms. MOSLEY: There have been masses of books about the Mitford the family, but this is one that takes them all the way through their lives rather than just focusing on the period when their lives intersected with historical events, and to see how these women changed and softened and became much more human as they got older. Experience taught them that things aren't black and white and that there's matters of shades of gray. And, really, one of the things that I've learned as editor and as knowing the family is about human ambiguity and how impossible it is to label people as good or bad, black or white.

SIMON: Duchess, may I ask? Is it hard to be without your sisters?

Duchess CAVENDISH: It's very hard. I still pick up a pen to write to Diana. You don't think that's quite dotty because she died four years ago, but that's how I feel.

SIMON: Duchess, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

Duchess CAVENDISH: Thank you very much.

SIMON: And Charlotte Mosley, thank you very much.

Ms. MOSLEY: Thank you very much.

SIMON: Charlotte Mosley and Deborah Mitford, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. "A Collection of Correspondence" - let me say that again, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire.

Duchess CAVENDISH: I know. It's a bit of mouthful. It's a ridiculous name, but…

SIMON: "A Collection of Correspondents Between Six Sisters."

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