The literature generated by the Mitford “gals” (or “gels,” as they were known in English circles) is of two types. The first is nonfiction memoir written by them. The second is histories or novels written about them.
Very first in the first category is Hons and Rebels, the uproarious yet deadly portrait of family life and family politics written by Jessica Mitford and published in 1960. (Since the expression Hon was itself a private joke, this book was long published in the United States as Daughters and Rebels until, in 2004, The New York Review of Books resuscitated the original title with—interest declared—an introduction by your humble servant.) It evokes the atmosphere of the 1930s with more feeling than almost any other book of the period. Later volumes, such as 1977’s Fine Old Conflict (this title being annexed from Jessica’s mishearing of the line about “the final conflict” from the Communist anthem “The Internationale”), provide further hilarity allied with equally mordant seriousness about political questions in the post–World War II and Cold War epoch.
Jessica’s older sister Nancy seduced the middle-class readership of England with somewhat more feline recollections in novel form, most notably Highland Fling, Wigs on the Green, and The Pursuit of Love. The second of these contained an acid portrayal of the British Fascist movement, whose leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, had married Diana Mitford in 1936 in Joseph Goebbels’s drawing room. (Hitler was guest of honor at the wedding and gave the happy couple a signed photograph of himself.)
Of the many accounts written by historians who saw the Mitfords as an allegory of British society in the age of appeasement, the best general one is probably The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family (2002), by Mary S. Lovell, and the best specific one Unity Mitford: A Quest (1976), by David Pryce-Jones. Unity Mitford, nicknamed “Boud,” conceived a passion for Hitler; in 1939, believing her feelings insufficiently requited, and herself perhaps unworthy, she shot herself in the head and became a pathetic invalid.
More recently, Jan Dalley was able to draw upon considerable access in order to produce, in 2000, an eponymous biography of Diana, who lived as an unrepentant Nazi in Paris until she died in 2003, and who was (as well as being the dedicatee of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies) one of the most beautiful—and one of the most unpleasant—women that England has ever produced.
A nice contrast is afforded by Deborah Mitford, the last surviving sister and the current Duchess of Devonshire, whose work on flower gardens in general and the gardens of her husband’s ancestral home in particular is a great source of refreshment.
For those who essentially prefer Jessica, though, the treasure-house of her occasional journalism is contained in Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking (1979). This anthology of gleefully pursued feuds and hard-wrung exposés will remain a classic for as long as there is such a genre.—C.H.