Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Review of The Mitford Society (Volume 1)

For siblings the Mitford sisters, the famous daughters of  David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and Sydney Bowles, were a diverse lot. They consisted of a renowned novelist and biographer, a devotee of rural life, a celebrated beauty who would become the wife of British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, a Nazi sympathiser, a Communist who became a celebrated author and activist in the United States, and a duchess who would save one of England's great houses. While the Mitford sisters were very different from each other, they also had several things in common. They were all beautiful, intelligent, articulate, and possessed a wicked sense of humour. They may well have been the most famous set of sisters of the 20th Century, alternately celebrated and vilified. One thing for certain could be said of the Mitford girls--they were never boring.

Given the fame and notoriety of the Mitford sisters, it should come as no surprise that there are a large number of people who continue to be fascinated by them to this day. Indeed, it was around 1979 that the the London Evening Standard coined the term "the Mitford industry" to describe the ongoing creation of books, documentary films, and even works of fiction centred on the Mitford girls.  Today there is even an online community dedicated to the study of the Mitford sisters and their lives. The Mitford Society recently published their first annual, The Mitford Society (Volume 1). The annual was edited by Lyndsy Spence, author of The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life.

Like the Mitford sisters themselves, The Mitford Society (Volume 1) cannot easily be described in a few words. It is perhaps simplest to describe it as a compilation of Mitford related articles, features, personal reminiscences,  interviews, photographs, and even a mystery short story. Miss Spence assembled an impressive array of writers for the Mitford Society's first annual, including Meredith Whitford (author of Jessica Mitford: Churchill's Rebel), Rebecca McWattie (who has had articles published in both Best of British Magazine, Vintage Life, and other publications), Victor Olliver (astrologer for The Lady Magazine and author of the novel Curtains), Willie Orr (author of Deer Forests, Landlords and Crofters as well as Discovering Argyll, Mull and Iona), and others.

Given its contributors it should come as no surprise there is a good deal of truly great material to be found in The Mitford Society (Volume 1).  Meredith Whitford's article on Jessica Mitford's first husband, Esmond Romilly, is a particularly revealing piece that explodes the myth that he was merely "a wastrel nephew of Winston Churchill". In "Understanding Unity" Meems Ellenberg offers a good deal of insight into the most controversial of the Mitford sisters. In "Laying the Foundations of the Mitford Industry" by David Ronneburg examines the question of whether the Mitford Industry developed through circumstance or it was created by design. The editor of The Mtiford Society (Volume 1), Lyndsy Spence, also contributed pieces to the book, including one of interest to classic film fans. "In The Pursuit of Love: The perils of a would-be film" Miss Spence reveals how The Pursuit of Love was almost made into a Hollywood movie in the Forties. What makes The Mitford Society (Volume 1) a much more remarkable book is the sheer variety of its contents. In addition to serious articles there are also pieces of a lighter and even more humorous nature. Written by Madame Arcati in séance with Victor Olliver, "Stargazing with the Mifords" gives the horoscopes of each of the Mitford sisters in Madame Arcati's humorous fashion. As mentioned earlier, there is even a murder mystery, "Murder in the Hons Cupboard" by Meredith Whitford and Lyndsy Spence. In the interest of full disclosure, I am obligated to mention that I contributed an article to The Mitford Society (Volume 1) on the impact of Jessica Mitford's book The American Way of Death on American pop culture.

There is very little with regards to the Mitford sisters that is not covered in The Mitford Society (Volume 1). The various articles deal with such subjects as their books, their fashion sense, their relationships, and their lives. There are interviews with authors Meredith Whitford,  Deanna Raybourn, Tessa Arlen, and  Judith Kinghorn, as well as pieces on those with a connection to the Mitfords, such as Mariga Guinness and Diana Skeffington. While The Mitford Society (Volume 1) is not a long book, it is certainly a comprehensive one.

The variety of pieces in The Mitford Society (Volume 1) and the detail with which they are written makes it a great addition to the library of anyone interested in the Mitford girls and must read for those positively obsessed with them. If the high quality of The Mitford Society (Volume 1) is any indication, one can hope that there are many more similar annuals in the years to come.

The Mitford Society (Volume 1) is available at Amazon and other places where fine books are sold. 

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