Friday, March 7, 2014

Book Review - The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell
Published by: W. W. Norton and Company
Publication Date: March 17th, 2003
Format: Paperback, 640 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

The Mitford sisters were the most dynamic family in England during the 20th century. They were front and center for world events, two of them even being so reviled in their own country that they were the subject of public scorn and debate in the houses of parliament. Despite a slightly unconventional upbringing with no medical care, little schooling, and constantly moving houses due to monetary issues, all six of the sisters would leave their mark on the world. Nancy as a great author, Pamela as a loving aunt, Diana as a notorious fascist married to Oswald Mosley and imprisoned with him, Unity who was in Hitler's inner circle and tried to kill herself when WWII was declared, Jessica who became the red sheep of the family with her Communist leanings as well as a noted journalist, and then Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire.

Such a clash of personalities and all in one family couldn't help capture the attention of the world. But this book explores not just the public image, but all the horrors of their lives; the marriages (7), the divorces (3), the children (14), the miscarriages (7+), the stillbirths (3), the lost children (2), the abortions (2), the deaths in the war (2), the attempted suicides (2), Cancer (2), the list goes on and on; because once you look into a person's life, you realize the sadness that is masked by the joie de vivre and the sparkling wit.

Very rarely have I experience this phenomena, but I am reading a book and I start to notice things, really just little things, but soon they gain momentum. The text is uneven, but obviously skewed purposefully. One section is lavished with attention, the littlest details are lingered on, while other sections are rushed through like an oncoming train, speeding past important details to get back to that other subject. The more you read the more obvious it becomes that the author doesn't love what they are writing. Why would you write something that you didn't love? Yes, I could go into contracts and all that here, but I won't. Instead, perhaps it's because there is one small aspect that they are fascinated with and were sadly saddled with the rest. They are not writing the book they want to write, and it shows.

The most obvious example I have is the book Fear of Music by Jonathan Lethem. This book is part of the 33 1/3 series that has an author cover an album track by track. Lethem did the Talking Heads album "Fear of Music." You can see that he loves this band, but you get the distinct impression that this isn't the album he wanted to write on. What happened with Fear of Music is that, aside from being the worst book I've ever read, is that there was this imbalance, like in The Sisters, where you could feel the author's discontent and it resulted in your discontent, which eventually escalated into rage, and then you and your book club are coining the phrase "rage reading" to signify how the book made you feel as you pushed through to the bitter end.

An unhappy author leads to an unhappy reader. Letham loves Talking Heads but didn't love the album he was saddled with, much like Mary S. Lovell loves Unity Mitford, while the remaining five sisters she couldn't care less about. Look at it this way, for 200 pages occupying 10 years of the 20th century, roughly 40% of the book, Unity is front and center. This book covers 106 years but 40% is in the war years. Yes, a lot did happen to the Mitfords during this time... but still... this leads to decades of Jessica and Nancy's lives being glossed over and we hardly know what Pamela was up to! If this book was equal in weight Unity should have only occupied about 16% of it. In simpler terms, Mary S. Lovell really needed to just write a biography on Unity and not have disguised it as a biography on "The Sisters." Therefore right from the start, the author was not the ideal candidate to write this book because she didn't have a love of the subject.

A lack of love can lead to many problems. Mainly you wouldn't care if you fudged the details, got some things wrong, moved space and time, because if it wasn't about that one slightly deranged Nazi loving Mitford, what does it matter right? Well, to us readers who wanted to read about the Mitfords, it matters a lot. Also it brings into question the whole idea of accuracy. If I can find errors in this book, big, obvious glaring errors, how can I trust anything that she is telling me? The first warning signal was when the author said that the Mrs. Simpson affair with the King was all the newspapers were talking about. NO! People might have been talking about it, but out of loyalty to King and country the story didn't break in the newspapers till literally DAYS before the abdication, not months, not early in the year, I believe the author hints at February, but DAYS before it happened, in DECEMBER! So right there, anything that she says might be a lie or wrong.

The author also distorts facts into her favor. She's loosey-goosey with dates having things timeslip to when it suits her. In the chapter about the year 1938 she has moved events that happened in 1937 to better fit her narrative (just check the footnotes to see what I'm talking about). Past, present, and future apparently can all happen when Mary S. Lovell decrees it. Borrow a bit from the future, add bit from the past and viola, this certain year was made a little more interesting, but a lot more inaccurate. Not to mention her other foibles of how she refers to herself in the footnotes... pick first or third person, stop switching it up already! Or that she assumes you know every minor celeb from the day, you know what they say about assuming... only, you're the ass Mary, not me.

So, I'm guessing by now I've pretty much turned you off reading this book, so my work here is done. The Sisters is a flat, skewed history that lacks the sparkling wit and vivacity of any of these amazing sisters. Yes, I might have learned a few new things about them, but I don't know if I can trust the source at all so it's really all hearsay. But then again, reading up on the Mitfords, they had a tendency to mythologize their own lives, so can anything we learn about them be the whole truth? Well, one thing is certain, you're not going to get any sort of truth in this book. And for such a literary family, it's a sin to pick up secondary source materials. If you want to know more about them read Nancy's books, pick up Decca's or Diana's autobiographies, choose from the vast books of Debo's. Why bother with anything else when you can get a first hand account? Sure they might be trying to make themselves look better or exaggerating a story for laughs... but it's how they would have wanted you to know about them, not through some hack writer, but through their own words... which Mary S. Lovell borrows freely to pad her book, which makes her own writing appear even more wane.


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