Books October 2006


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.

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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