Sunday, June 2, 2013

An Interview with Lyndsy Spence, Author of The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life

Few sets of sisters have ever attained the notoriety that the Mitford Sisters did. The daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and Sydney Bowles, they included a famous novelist (Nancy Mitford, author of the books The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, among others); an eccentric scientist's wife who preferred a quiet, rural life (Pamela Mitford); the controversial wife of a noted Fascist (Diana Mitford, a leader in the 30's social scene who married Bryan Guinness, 2nd Baron Moyne and left him for and later married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists); a Nazi sympathiser (Unity Mitford, best known for her friendship with Adolph Hitler); a muckracking journalist (Jessica Mitford, commonly known as Decca, whose book The American Way of Death shook up the American funeral industry); and a duchess (Deborah Mitford, the only surviving Mitford Sister, who married Lord Andrew Cavendish, later to become the 10th Duke of Devonshire). Always intersting and often provocative and even controversial, the Mitford Sisters remain famous to this day.

On 1 August 2013 in the United Kingdom and Europe and on 1 November 2013 in the United States The History Press Ltd is publishing a new book on the Mitford Sisters, The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life. It is the first book by author Lyndsy Spence. Miss Spence operates The Mitford Society, an online community devoted to the famous sisters, and the Margaret Lockwood Society, an online community dedicated to the legendary British film actress. With Adam D. Harris she wrote the screenplay for the film short "The Flower Girl", set to make its debut later this year. Following is an interview I conducted with Lyndsy Spence.

How does the Mitford Girls' Guide to Life differ from books on the Mitford Sisters published in the past?

First of all I will tell you how the idea came about, as that really is the basis of how the book came to be written. My friend had just read Letters Between Six Sisters and was full of Mitford lingo. I said, wouldn't it be great if somebody was to write a book in their language, i.e. 'I die for you', 'How Non-U' etc but do it like a Mitford A-Z of modern life. We laughed about it. And then as I read more and more about the girls, not just their own works but books by their friends and contemporaries I realised the Mitfords really were a unique project. I don't know anyone else who behaved like them. I think, maybe Daphne du Maurier and her sisters were quite similar in the way they had nicknames for everyone and lived in a sort of dream world, but the Mitfords really were unique. So I started reading more and more about them and I discovered how relevant their individuals stories were. I mean, you have all of the elements of modern life...and I looked at their individual lives in terms of the trivial aspects i.e. love, jobs, money, etc and decided I would write my own version of their life but divided into sections. So that is how my book differs. The original title was A Formidable Tease, but my editor persuaded me to change it to The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life.

How did you come to be interested in the Mitford Sisters?

I was about 16 and Love in a Cold Climate was on the telly. The original 1980s version. I watched it and immediately ordered Nancy's book. I read it and was sort of hooked, but at that time I had so many interests, mainly old film stars. A short time later Hitler's British Girl was on TV and I became interested again. Especially in Diana, she seemed so intriguing. I really only knew about Nancy and Diana. Until I watched The Lady & The Revamp, I really had little knowledge of the others, but after seeing Debo on the channel 4 documentary I was smitten. I've been trying to find out everything about them ever since!

Do you have a favourite Mitford Sister?

I like them all for different reasons. Of course, they have maddening traits but they also have moments of sheer genius. I have to say Unity annoys me, I found her letters to be very irritating, but I think we all have a Unity character in the family. I really became fond of Pam, the more I learned about her the more I thought she was terrific. Nancy is good for a laugh but I imagine she'd be quite a bad friend, but of those people who riles you but you can't help but like. I'm most interested in Diana, she's the most complex and causes the most discussion when her name is mentioned. I am interested in her 'behind the scenes' story.

How did you go about researching the book?

I read everything about them, I scoured their letters for small details and elaborated on that. I then made notes of what I wanted to discuss and filled in the blanks from their letters, essays...I wanted it to be in their own words. I then contacted Leslie Brody (author of Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford) who put me in touch with Dinky (Decca's daughter). My good friend Ste also did a lot of detective work which resulted in his friend telling me personal stories about Pam. Once people realised I was working on the book they started to come forward. It's a celebration of the girls, so info was fairly easy to come by. I also owe Fiona Guinness, whose father Bryan was married to Diana, a great deal. She gave me the bulk of the photos which are used in the book.

In your research did you learn anything new about the Mitfords that you did not already know?

Yes, I learned a lot about Sir Oswald Mosley and Diana, and that perhaps it wasn't a great love story. I can't help but feel she made a massive error in leaving Bryan. However, she was so restless and extremely young. Younger than me in fact when she ran off to be with him. Judging from the sociological aspects of the time, I can't help but feel she knew fairly early on it had to be all or nothing, so she chose to throw herself completely into Mosley's life. I also wonder if it hadn't been Mosley it would have been someone else. I also learned of Nancy's kinder side when she helped Jewish refugees during the war, and of Decca's real political leanings. I discovered that Unity was in fact barmy, and I also found out how loyal Farve could be to his daughters. I've used a lot of 1930s and early 1940s newspaper articles and interviews to highlight this.

Have you observed any differences between the American perception of the Mitford Sisters and the way they are perceived in the United Kingdom?

There are more Americans in The Mitford Society than British people. I think the Americans really go in for the aristocratic side of their story, but at the same time they have the same perception as British people on Diana. I can't help but feel Diana has been misquoted and vilified in the press. I am not defending her meetings with Hitler, but I have it on good authority that she did not say half of those infamous quotes about being unrepentant. I have it on tape from an archived interview where she said she was sorry for her actions and in hindsight she was foolish. It's in the book.

Why do you think the Mitford Sisters continue to fascinate people to this day?

I think it is because they are one part mythology (a media creation) and one part human. Nobody, who has not researched their lives in depth, will know the truth about them. They're so caught up in the trivia and media stories. And given their vast age difference, two different generations really, Nancy born in 1904 and Debo in 1920, they lived through every important event in the 20th century, had an opinion it, often a first hand experience, and as Joseph Dumas (friend of Decca and author of the foreword to my book) says, every event of the past century can be approached through the girls.

Are you working on any projects at the moment?

Yes. I now have an agent. I am represented by Diane Banks Associates and they're guiding my career. I have a first draft of a Margaret Lockwood bio but my agent has advised me to begin my latest project Mrs Guinness: The Rise & Fall of a Socialite which we both agree is a great follow up to The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life and then follow that up with the Lockwood biography. I would like to write fiction based in the 30s, that's something my agent is also anticipating.

The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life is available for pre-order on Amazon UK and Amazon U.S.

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