Gotham Diary:
Take Six
November 2016 (III)

14, 15, 18 November

Monday 14th

After reading a few chapters of The Pursuit of Love, Lady Redesdale, the author’s mother, wrote to another daughter, Jessica Mitford, drily and dismissively, “This family again.” She was wrong. Yes, Nancy Mitford had written another novel based on her family. But this time it was different: Nancy had grown as a writer. And she did not so much write about her family as reinvent it. The Mitford Sisters Phenomenon as we know it originated with The Pursuit of Love; fifteen years later, it was given another big boost by Jessica’s Hons and Rebels, a purportedly factual account; Nancy would claim that Jessica presented the world of her childhood through the lens of Nancy’s own creation. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that almost everyone who takes an interest in the Phenomenon — who has been entertained by it — begins with one or the other of these two books, both of which are great good fun.

The Mitfords again — but not quite again. An avid consumer of Mitfordiana, I justified the purchase of Linda Thompson’s The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters on the score of its being the first book to appear since the death of the Duchess of Devonshire — Deborah, the youngest of the girls — in 2014. Still, when I opened the box in which it was shipped, I wondered ruefully what it could possibly have to say that I hadn’t already heard. I sat right down, of course, to find out. Long before the halfway point, I understood that this is an entirely new book. For one thing, it is an essay, not a collective biography. (For that, there is Mary Lovell’s The Sisters.) It is a meditation on the complexity of perspectives that arises, Rashomon-like, when several highly independent, strong-minded people remember a common experience.

In 1946 Diana had written to Nancy that she had seen a performance of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, the story of a stern matriarch with five daughters, whose lives she controls and whom she confines to her house: “It is all about Muv and us.” This was a joke, but it was another kind of truth. Sydney [Lady Redesdale] was the dominating force in the family. Her daughters had eluded her, but their mother remained inescapable. What Nancy and Jessica thought of her is yet another truth; so too what Diana thought; so too what each sister thought about the other. The interpretations of the play multiply, and in the end none is definitive, although, given the nature of the Mitford girls — the capacity for conviction that lay within them all — they probably believed that they alone had it right. (331)

The nature of the Mitford girls also included a way with words. Four of the six girls published books, several books each. Nancy and Jessica were financially successful writers, and not just because they mined their juvenile antics. Jessica wrote a muckraking classic, The American Way of Death, that manages to be funniest when it is most gruesome — that leaking vault! — while Nancy’s studies of Louis XIV, Mme de Pompadour, and Frederick the Great are important aristocratic appreciations of the ancien régime. Diana wrote a very good book about her friend, the Duchess of Windsor. Deborah’s stunt was to capture the everyday nature of her extraordinary domestic situation. All this book-writing, however, dates from the third period of the sisters’ lives, when their independent positions were firmly established. The Phenomenon was by this time an historical relic that the surviving sisters found rather annoying. Each had her own life and her own views, and while they remained, for the most part, on sisterly terms, they preferred not to do so in public. Their sisterhood, like their family history, was an intimate matter, and nobody else’s business. This was true of Nancy and Jessica despite their entertaining disclosures. What they had to say was intended as the last word on the subject — not, as inevitably happened instead, the beginnings of a discussion.

What made these four women something more than ordinary sisters — more than successful people who happened to be related — was their experience of the earlier periods of their life, an eccentrically idyllic childhood that did nothing to prepare them for adult life, followed by the troubled, and one case fatal, entry into adult life (This part Deborah was spared). It was the first phase that everybody wanted to read about later on, but the second that had made three of the girls more or less notorious by the end of World War II. At a tender age, Jessica ran off to Spain with a cousin; she was rescued by government intervention. Later, she and her young man, married by now, would run off again, this time to America, where Jessica joined the Communist Party. Diana and Unity leaned the other way politically. After a few years of apparently contented marriage to a scion of the Guinness family, Diana left her husband for Sir Oswald Mosley, a political maverick who would launch the British Union of Fascists. Unity, whom Diana regarded as the only unusual Mitford, decamped to Munich, where she stalked Hitler, met him, and chatted with him — on some 150 occasions. When war broke out, she shot herself in the head, but lived. Hitler arranged for her to be carried to Switzerland, whence her family brought her back to England. The following summer, Diana and her husband were detained, and then imprisoned, probably because Unity herself was an invalid. When the Mosleys were released, at the end of 1943, there was a demonstration in Trafalgar Square: “Put Him Back!”

There were seven Mitford children: Nancy (1904), Pamela (1907), Thomas (1909), Diana (1910), Unity (1914), Jessica (1917), and Deborah (1920). All seven were photographed for The Tatler at the Heythrop hunt in 1935 — the early part of the second period. A doctored version of the photo appears on the jacket of The Six (Tom has been removed and the crowd in the background dimmed). I have no idea how much thought went into placement, but the configuration is interesting. At the ends of the lineup stand Unity (to the left) and Pam (to the right), and they are indeed the outliers in the family. I have already said enough about Unity to make that clear; just for form’s sake it might be noted that she was the only one who never married. If I haven’t said anything about Pamela, that’s the reason why she is an outlier: Pam is the sister who never did anything newsworthy. (She is the subject of a new biography that I shall probably wade through, simply to marvel at its mere existence.) Flanking Unity to her left is Deborah; Nancy stands to Pam’s right. These are the sisters who most appreciated convention. (Nancy, it is true, would go in for French convention, while Deborah was every inch an English sportswoman.) In this regard, Nancy and Deborah were counterweights to the radical sisters at the center, Diana and Jessica. In 1935, most of these distinctions were not yet at all clear; although Diana had left Bryan Guinness by then, she would not marry Mosley until 1936 (not only in Berlin, but in the Goebbels’s apartment). Deborah was fifteen; in the photograph, she is dressed for riding (and she has not fully grown). It is hard to say whether Jessica is retiring behind Nancy or Nancy is blocking Jessica. Diana’s arm is linked in Deborah’s, and these two have also crossed their ankles, doubtless in some sort of private joke. Joking, however, seems to be the last thing on the future duchess’s mind. I used to wonder why Deborah always looks so dour and grave in her youthful photographs; then it occurred to me that she had (perhaps rebelliously) taken to heart the venerable precept that nice people don’t make faces for the camera. Unity and Pam aren’t smiling, either. Jessica and Nancy are perhaps whispering “cheese,” but Diana is grinning like a madwoman.

Laura Thompson devotes most of The Six to the second period. As I say, it is not really a group biography, and anyone unfamiliar with the Phenomenon will be treading water once the book gets going. And yet her book is indispensable because it grapples with the moral questions that so much of the girls’ behavior raises. In Hons and Rebels, Jessica presents her escapades as heroic acts; to Thompson, they were selfish and thoughtless. Was Unity mad? Did she know what she was doing? She wrote a letter in which she described her new Munich flat as previously occupied by a Jewish couple that had “gone abroad.” How much responsibility must be heaped on the shoulders of this strange girl, who could seem selfish and thoughtless all the time? And what about Diana, who was infinitely cleverer — arguably the family intellectual?

The sordidness of the whole thing [Diana's period between husbands, during which she aborted a child by Mosley] is overwhelming, so too the temptation to travel back in time and say to Diana, what in hell do you think you are doing? (145)

And yet, pages later, when Diana is interrogated by the Advisory Committee that will determine whether to imprison her, the excerpts given by Thompson (who compares Lady Mosley’s performance to that of Anne Boleyn) make one cry out for a complete transcript. Asked whether, now that Britain and Germany were at war, Diana believed that her country was wrong, she retorted, “Not my country. I absolutely differentiate between my Government and my country.”

Thompson, who has written a biography of Nancy, declares that The Pursuit of Love did “more than any public recantations could ever have done to remove the taint on the family name.” (296) This is a central fact of the Phenomenon. In the Thirties, Lady Redesdale was said to tremble whenever she read the words “peer’s daughter” in the newspaper, and that would become part of the Mitford Joke — once Nancy made it funny. In fact the girls’ conduct was often egregious, and of course they got special treatment, as the daughters of a peer, right at the moment when the general public’s disapproval was making special treatment a gold mine for reporters. Thompson assumes that we know the Joke and have all had a laugh. Then she takes it away, the humorous frame confected by Nancy and Jessica. They made everything seem funny, a great wheeze; Thompson approaches the scandals with dead earnest. The glory of the book is that she can be as funny as her subjects, if in a different way. She has a fine nose for hypocrisy and self-contradiction, as well as for the quips that were not made public, such as Nancy’s attempt to console Jessica, who was worried that her daughter, traveling in Mexico, might have been injured in a major earthquake there.

People like us are never killed in earthquakes & furthermore only 29 people were, all non-U…. (22)

It’s staggering, but I’m afraid that I’m the sort of person who laughs at this sort of thing because it is so outrageous. Nevertheless: what in hell did they think they were doing? When Mary Lovell’s book came out, I wrote,

Individuals give rise to legends, but true mythology requires a cast of characters. That’s what makes ‘Bloomsbury,’ ‘The New York Intellectuals,’ and Camelots ancient and modern more interesting than most of the constituent personages would be if considered individually.

This plurality (soluble in a common lingo) is what makes the sisters interesting as a group, even when the mythology is scrubbed away.

It is frankly therapeutic to think of Diana, shaking helplessly with ill-suppressed laughter at the hey-nonny-nos of the folk singer “who had so kindly come to Holloway to amuse the prisoners but had not meant to amuse them quite as much as that.” (23)

The Six makes three-dimensional women out of fabulous characters, and grounds them in a set of mismatched parents. By the time Unity arrived at home from Germany, David could no longer bear to live with Sydney. Their fun days were over: he had gone through all his money (to an almost Wodehousean degree, he had a negative head for business), and she had become remote. They disagreed violently about Hitler; on this subject, Sydney was almost as nuts as Unity. So David retired to a cottage with the housekeeper, a woman whom the sisters found unbearably dull and mean. On her own, Sydney seems to have become a mother at last. She nursed Unity for nearly ten years (washing her incontinent child’s bed sheets every day), visited Diana in prison whenever she could, and performed epistolary cartwheels to keep an open channel to Jessica. Nancy, who claimed that her mother didn’t love her, never put this to the test; she enjoyed perfect health and independence until about six years after her mother’s death, in 1963. I think an argument might be made that Sydney was the oldest of the sisters, rather than their mother. Her youth, from the death of her own mother when she was seven, was devoted to keeping house for her father, the publisher of Vanity Fair and The Lady. The cleverness came from her, or at least the irony, which the writers among her progeny amplified to comic levels.

In the end, that is what will keep the Mitfords alive: writing. They were superbly verbal. They shared a peculiar dialect of understated exaggeration, so that, especially when they are writing to one another, it is easy to confuse writer with recipient. And yet, not least because they had very different views of the facts, there was plenty to write about. And of course they will be written about. Now that they have all died, and sunk somewhat back into their large families (at the time of her death, Diana had forty descendants), what remain are the words. Whether the words remain funny it may be too soon to tell. Nancy grappled with the problem in The Sun King, writing about Mme de Montespan, the mother of so many of Louis XIV’s bastards. She and her brother and her sisters were exponents of “the Mortemart wit.”

They had a way of talking which has unfortunately never been precisely described but which people found irresistible. Their lazy, languishing, wailing voices would build up an episode, piling unexpected exaggerations upon comic images until the listeners were helpless with laughter. Among themselves, they used a private language. [Jessica spoke one nonsense language with Unity, and another with Deborah.] They were malicious, but good natured; they never really harmed anybody; they liked laughing and had the precious gift of making other people sparkle. (43)

Perhaps the Mitfords’ way of talking requires no precise description; one need only read it.

I caught two really dreadful mistakes in The Six, which I am sure would have been pointed out as such by each of its subjects. First, it would have been impossible for five surviving sisters to meet in 1980. Second, Dr Johnson did not travel to Scotland with anyone by the name of Samuel Boswell. Do admit, yourself.

***

Tuesday 15th

Although something terrible has happened in this country — voters have put an amateur entertainer in the White House, and the Republican Party in charge of just about everything else — I am hoping that the moment will have come for something very good: the liquidation of the Democratic Party. This is something that I have been looking forward to since the Nineties.

When I was a boy, the Republican Party was high-minded and boring. It was all for business development and polite civil behavior. The Democrats were a sleazy bunch, tarred by the barely-literate slum-dwellers who supported them. Miraculously, they had produced FDR, but that was just the problem: witchcraft must have been involved. The Democrats were a coalition party, combining union workers in the North with landowners in the South. (Blacks, if they voted at all, voted Republican, the “party of Lincoln.”) These groups could work together only because they didn’t live anywhere nearby.

Then the fight for Civil Rights began in earnest. Black Americans began to struggle for change. It was quickly insinuated that their demonstrations were fomented by Communist infiltrators. I like to think that it was LBJ who had the great idea of pre-empting those infiltrators by granting civil rights himself, and putting an end to the struggle. In any case, something like that is what happened, very quickly. Who knows what would have happened next, if it hadn’t been for the stupidity of our misadventure in Vietnam? LBJ skedaddled. While blacks won real, if marginal, gains during the following decades, American political life was dominated by military and economic problems. The Democratic Party took the view (shared, with a smirk, by the Republicans) that the civil-rights problem had been taken care of: the laws were on the books, and compliance was all that was needed. Also, the civil rights of abortion displaced awareness of racial problems, at least among whites.

When civil rights for blacks came up at all, it was often related to the twee, Alice-in-Wonderland issue of “affirmative action,” which quickly became a scholastic plaything that enabled a handful of whites to claim that they were being subjected to unfair discrimination. Meanwhile, thousands of blacks who had never entertained thought of higher education were sent off to prison instead, under a “law and order” régime that was designed to keep people who didn’t know their place in place. When this project began to cost too much, local police began to see themselves as the first line of defense in the protection of law-abiding whites from unruly blacks. Being black while driving became strangely dangerous, and too often fatal.

Throughout this history, it was hard to tell that the Democratic Party had lost all of its Dixiecrats. Democrats did little or nothing to object to “law and order”; they didn’t have the courage to appear “soft on crime.” They did nothing to make the integration of the people of the United States a political reality; they simply passed laws and hoped for the best. Gradually, the party’s leadership and the party’s “base” changed, just as the Republican’s did, but something organizational about the old Democratic Party, its penchant for short-term fixes, perhaps, persisted. It remained the back-room party, as Hillary Clinton’s trivial but embarrassing email problems indicated. Not to mention her accession to the nomination! It was her turn — come hell or high water. By the time Donald Trump came, it was too late.

I don’t mean to say that the Democratic Party is somehow worse than the Republican Party. Republicans have nothing to do with it. What I mean to say is that the Democratic Party is no longer a legitimate advocate of the political objectives that most of its supporters share.

***

I am not calling for a third party — not unless I’m also calling for a fourth, a fifth, why not a fiftieth party. Fifty parties would be good. You think that’s a bad joke. But consider: the Republicans have attained control of national affairs through control of statehouses. Rather than try to engineer a national party to reverse all these local victories, why not launch an anti-Republican party in each state? New York could certainly use a party that extended the appeal of a progressive, or cosmopolitan, or humanitarian platform to voters upstate and on Long Island, eventually wresting the State Senate from the Republicans who have controlled it forever. Sometimes it’s a matter of speaking the local accent, and sometimes there’s a program of local interest, but whether the draw is stylistic or substantial, the locals probably know best. Locals are certainly better listeners. If nothing else, they could make sure that New Yorkers — I mean the city-dwellers here — knew more about the issues that matter, both upstate and in the suburbs. Who knows how much would be accomplished if only the people outside the city had no reason to resent our inattention?

***

Friday 18th

What next? I wondered, after finishing The Six. It didn’t take long, somehow, to settle on The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, edited by Charlotte Mosley. I’ve had the book for years, and dipped into it often, but I’ve never read it through. Even this time, being me, I couldn’t begin at the beginning, with the spate of letters from 1944. (The two writers had known each other, if not well, for many years; in 1929, as Laura Thompson so drolly puts it in The Six, Waugh spent his mornings reading Vile Bodies to Nancy’s sister, the expectant Diana Guinness, perched on her bed “like a prospective doula.”) I began instead with Part III, comprising letters written in 1950-2, during which period the frequency of the correspondence reached its peak. By the time I got through these, I was so densely engaged with the rhythms of the exchange, and so familiar with the stock company of friends-in-common, about whom Mitford and Waugh liked to make such amusing if unflattering comments, that I simply kept on going. I shall have to go back to the start when I am done, which will be soon. I have reached the beginning of 1962 (during which the letters flew back and forth again, after a late-Fifties slump); Waugh’s demise, in 1966, is about fifty pages away.

At one point, Nancy declines to accompany Evelyn on a trip to India because “we should quarrel.” She was always mad to see him for a dinner, if they could get together in the same city (which doesn’t seem to have happened often), but she had the wisdom to grasp that this was a friendship that would keep best at the other end of a mailbox. The Letters quite literally embodies the relationship. Both were writers, both were wags. Evelyn was an Olympic misanthrope who loved to say unspeakable things, while Nancy was a socially conventional woman who had moved to France largely to escape the loud boorishness of Bullingdon boys. (“What is your definition of Barbary? Outside the range of Randolph [Churchill]‘s voice?”) She would rather shriek over Evelyn’s letters at her writing table than wince in a room full of embarrassed people.

The letters have a dashed-off, sporting feel. From the standpoint of composition, they are as far from Lord Chesterfield as one can go without becoming incoherent. Questions often go unanswered — I was quite disappointed that Nancy never explained “Mrs Simpson’s Neptune,” and that Evelyn couldn’t be bothered to discuss rumors that Lady Mary Grosvenor was turning into a man. Nancy repeats favorite jokes. Every year, she spends a week or so with an old lady, a Mme Costa, at her house in Artois. Mme Costa is in her eighties, and she spends “up to 8 hours a day in the chapel, the rest of the time she plays bridge & talks about Dior and déclassé duchesses.” Two years later, and it is eight to ten hours on the old lady’s knees; the curé worries that all that prayer may be boring le bon Dieu a bit.

My favorite theme is Americans. Waugh was condescending about Americans, but they had their uses, and, in his view, New York was a great health spa, where he could bustle about for days on end without meeting any of the natives. Mitford, who never crossed the Atlantic, simply hated Americans, because all she saw were tourists. All she heard were tourists. Here she is on Torcello, in May 1956:

Between 2 boats there is a flood of Americans dangling deaf-aids & asking each other where they live in America. What difference can it make? The word duodenal recurs. I mingle with them, hating.

Both of them greatly disliked the familiar tone that Americans took in those days (it was much worse than today). Both had a tendency to tear up letters from Americans, but Waugh usually read them first.

Every once in a while, Evelyn lectures Nancy, either about Catholic dogma, which he so painstakingly explains that Nancy never quite gets it, or about grammar, for which Nancy sought his help. (Characteristically parsimonious with commas, Nancy was so anxious to please that she once produced a sentence in which nearly every third word was followed by some sort of punctuation.) Nancy was always trying to persuade Evelyn to leave England, for either France or Ireland. He replied that France no longer existed — the France with which Nancy was besotted was the spectre of a dead magnificence — and that Ireland was populated by spiteful peasants; its priests were “not suitable for foreigners.” (Nancy’s Madame de Pompadour was banned in Ireland, she wrote, simply because of the title.) Nothing that Waugh said was ever entirely trustworthy, but nothing tickles me more than his obvious humbugs.

It is not a sin to cheat over taxes in most modern states. Don’t worry your head about the theology of this. Just take it from the theologians. (22 October 1953)

[Waugh's] Children come flooding in by every train. It is rather exhilarating to see their simple excitement & curiosity about every Christmas card. “Look, papa, the Hyde Park Hotel has sent a coloured picture of its new cocktail bar.” (18 December 1954)

As I read on, however, I began to feel a strange sadness. The world that they wrote about, a world of which I had tiny glimpses from my elementary-school desk, has become more appealing than ever, not least because of the modern conveniences that didn’t then exist. (Waugh refused to have a telephone in his house.) Reading their letters, it is easy to overlook all the bad parts. Neither Waugh nor Mitford was a feminist, quite the contrary, and yet, there they are, a man and a woman exhibiting the respect of equals over a very long term. Of course, they wrote everything out in longhand; I could never bear that. And I’d have died at least ten years ago if not earlier with even the best medical care of that time. But it’s really the language. I forget the enormous impact that Waugh’s novels had on my adolescence: I took to him like a drug. By the time of the correspondence, he had mellowed considerably, but there is the occasional sparkle.

I am quite deaf now. Such a comfort. (March 1953)

And there is even one moment of reflection that I feel obliged to endorse personally:

I can only bear intimacy really & after that formality or servility. The horrible thing is familiarity. (10 February 1953)

Of course, I should use different words, “friendship,” “deference,” and “presumption.” I should retain “formality,” however, and that is what makes 1953 feel much closer right now than the day after tomorrow. Formality has been forgotten; only the very luckiest children are taught anything about it. Everyone associates formality with the rich and the privileged, but it operates at every social level — except, lamentably, at the top, where it has been replaced by a clumsy and often irritating professionalism. The idea of formality has been lost. New York City thrives in no small part because of the immigrants who have brought their native formality with them, but perhaps it is too much to hope that their children will retain it as they melt into American society. It is true that formality has a tendency to crystallize in hardbound codes; instead of doing away with it altogether, perhaps we might simply bear in mind that the point of formality is to treat strangers with respect.

The correspondence between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh fell off because Waugh retreated into Catholicism, where his old friend could not follow him, and because Mitford suffered a terrible blow to her joie de vivre when the man in her life, Colonel Gaston Palewski, arranged to be made the French ambassador in Rome. He did this in part, it seems, because he was having a complicated relationship with a married woman who lived near Nancy in the Septième. Later, of course, he would deal her a much bigger blow by marrying yet another woman. Because of my unsound medical conviction that this betrayal launched the cancer that killed Nancy at the age of sixty-nine, I am not a great fan of ‘Col.’ But I like the virtual friendship that sprang up, mediated entirely by Nancy, between him and Waugh. It has every appearance of being motivated by the desire to be kind to what her family called “the French lady writer.”

Bon week-end à tous!