Sunday, October 12, 2008

Nancy Mitford and her sisters

Really, they each deserve a heading of their own, but I am making her siblings contingent on Nancy Mitford as I started off my interest with Nancy Mitford's biographies. A couple of years ago, I read, in an article about Voltaire and his works, about Nancy Mitford's book, Voltaire in Love, detailing Voltaire's relationship with the Marquise du Chatelet, an unusually scientifically-oriented woman for her time. I haven't read anything by Volatire except for Candide. However, Candide is one of those books that everyone has: "The Book (or one of the books) That Changed My Life."

(Some of the books to make that list for me is Camus' The Plague, Dylan Thomas' Selected Poems, Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures, Fareed Zakaria's Future of Freedom, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Elaine Scarry's On Beauty. These books aren't even necessarily the books I consider the best written books I have read, nor always the most sophisticated in terms of intellectual thinking, even though most of them are intellectually stimulating. Rather, they are books that converged with a certain pivotal moment when much was changing in my life and where the books crystallized a certain change in my own thinking.)

I read Voltaire's Candide multiple times for classes. Like Conrad's Heart of Darkness, it seemed to be required reading in every other class I took...possibly because I had such a fascination with the French Revolution during my college days. In all, there were four separate times when I read Candide. It says something about my lack of perspicacity that it took the fourth read for me to appreciate Candide and the notion of tending the garden at the end of Candide. That didn't happen until my second year in grad school where I was miserably not tending my garden, or more or less lackadaisically attending classes while uncertain of what to do with my life. Then, Candide hit me like a brick-of-walls revelation (it's for moments like this that the Joycean concept of epiphany seems the only apt description).

Reading Nancy Mitford's Voltaire in Love provided all sorts of biographical and historical details that are helpful in placing Voltaire in context, not only in terms of his personal and romantic life but also in terms of politics, his own oddly querulous but somewhat obsequious or provocative (in turns, depending on his position with the court) behavior towards the French court. The book is also good at giving colorful specifics on intellectual arguments, the back-biting between intellectuals, and the petty bickering that seems to be the grease of life everywhere and in every century.

Previous to reading Voltaire in Love, I breezed through Mitford's Madame de Pompadour about the beautiful mistress of Louis XV whose political intrigues are often blamed for the loss of the French monarch's popularity and as paving the populous road towards hate of the regency. The political action which Mitford cites as being the most unfortunate of Madame de Pompadour's well-intentioned but politically naive step was in being one of the primary instigators of France's alliance to Germany which led to the financially debilitating Seven Year's War. Interestingly, Mitford writes that Louis XV was very against war of any kind except in absolute need of national security. Along with other monarchs of that time, Louis XV saw war on the battlefield (not in the frontlines, but still he was on the battlefield unlike politicians in our time who visit soldiers at forts and bases but do not actually endanger their physical being) and appreciated that the sacrifice of human lives was enormous and not to be taken lightly. The other reason Madame de Pompadour is so notorious in history is that she was one of the rare commoners to become a monarch's lover, being born into a bourgeois family rather than an aristocratic one.

After reading both books, I became intrigued by Mitford herself. Both of the biographies have a light and funny voice that makes reading history fun rather than a tedious trudge through facts. While they might not be the books for serious scholars of French history or French intellectual history, they are perfect for a layman such as myself looking to learn more about Voltaire and Madame de Pompadour without committing myself to long tomes. From the sparkling wit of her tone, it was clear that Nancy Mitford must have been quite the social personality as well as being learned.

I had long had Mary S. Lovell's The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family on my bookshelf as a freebie from years ago when it was first published but knew little about any of the Mitfords, from the notorious Hitler-adoring Unity, Diana who married England's Fascist's party leader, to Jessica Mitford who literally fled her family to become one of America's top muckrakers and civil activist and Nancy Mitford who moved to Paris, in love with one of De Gaulle's advisors and sorting through various French archives for further research on other biographies, including one on Louis XIV and Frederick the Great. Among the lesser publicly famous sisters were Debo, the youngest sister who married into one of England's most prestigious families and helped restore the family's beautiful and stupendous estate, Chatsworth, and Pamela, known as the quiet Mitford or "The Woman," within the family, for her motherly ways.

Lovell's family biography is appropriate for Nancy Mitford as Lovell brings a human touch to one of the most tremendous times of the twentieth century when Facism and Communism were on the rise with Hitler remaking Germany after the financially disastrous Treaty of Versailles which held the ruined German government liable for the financial costs of the war to the allies. As a consequence, Germany lost its colonies (remember that this is still a time when colonies were deemed an appropriate holdings of a European nation) and ten percent of its own land. 12.5 percent of the German population suddenly found themselves no longer living in Germany. Furthermore, as the reparations continued, they crippled Germany's ability to recover from World War I. When Germany found itself so economically incapable that they could not continue reparations, French troops entered the Ruhr to demand payment. All these consequences of the first World War led to the downfall of the Weimar government and the rise of Hitler.

As Lovell's group biography capably shows, many in Europe at the time admired Hitler's ability to bring Germany out of such dire circumstances. Along with Hitler's command of Germany's domestic difficulties, the rise of Communism in Europe was seen as a threat by the wealthier and aristocratic British such as Tom Mitford, the one brother among the six sisters, who didn't agree with Hitler's virulent anti-Semitism but espoused Facism; he went so far as to do everything possible to be stationed away from Europe during World War II so that he wouldn't have to fight Germans.

It speaks to Lovell's abilities as a writer and her scope as a biographer that she is able to bring a perspective to why half the Mitford family actually liked Hitler. Besides the fact that Hitler's reign ended Germany's economic misery, they also knew Hitler personally. Unity, the fourth of the Mitford siblings, early had an infatuation with Hitler; once she was sent to Germany, as an attempt by her parents to get the disinterested adolescent girl engaged in her studies, she spent many hours in restaurants that Hitler frequented. Her efforts were rewarded by Hitler who finally noticed the tall Nordic featured girl who seemed to be everywhere he was and invited her to his table. Over the course of years, many members of the family, most notably Unity's parents and her sister Diana, were personally introduced to Hitler, dined with Hitler and held fairly normal conversations about the arts, food, and the everyday topics of polite discourse.

While Unity was in Germany swooning over Hitler (literally -- her contemporaries and friends have talked about Unity's body shaking whenever she saw Hitler), Decca (Jessica) Mitford felt smothered by the lack of stimulation on the Redesdale homestead (the Mitfords' parents were Lord and Lady Redesdale, in the confusing manner of British arisotcratic patronyms) and decided to run away with her Communist cousin, Esmond, who also happened to be Winston Churchill's nephew. All of the Mitfords were related, not by blood but by marriage, to Winston Churchill through their father who was Churchill's wife's cousin (David Freeman Mitford's aunt's -- on his mother's side -- daughter, Clementine, married Winston Churchill). Esmond began to harbor a hate of almost the whole Mitford family for their conservative politics as well as the Lord Redesdale's severing of ties with Decca during Esmond's lifetime (much as he had broken ties with Decca's older sister, Diana, for divorcing her husband, an heir to the Gusiness fortune, in order to have an affair with Sir Owald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF)). When Esmond died fighting on the British side of the war, Decca somehow came to believe that her sister Diana and her husband were personally responsible for the war and her husband's death.

Much as now, politics was personal intertwined with the ideological. Diana supported Fascism because her lover, later husband, was the leader of the BUF. Decca early sought out Socialism and Communism as a means of rebelling against her parents who, along with many aristocrats and commoners of that time, did not see any reason to send their daughters on for further education even as they sent their son to university. Nancy supplied information on Diana to the British government because she believed that the British must fight against the Germans. Lord and Lady Redesdale, split by ideological differences about the war (Lord Redesdale supported the war whereas Lady Redesdale insisted that Hitler was the nice man she had often lunched with while visiting her daughter Unity in Germany), eventually physically separated as well and never lived together again. Unity, whose adoration of Hitler was so overwhelming, came to believe that the purpose of her life was to unite Germany and Britain in diplomatic alliance somehow despite the fact that she was a young and naive woman rather than a diplomat and a politician. When war was declared, she shot herself in a suicide attempt that left her mentally impaired for the rest of her life.

It is inevitable that we look back towards World War II and see Hitler as a monster that, of course, should have been stopped. World War II, in retrospect, has all the force of all historic actions validated by historians. It was necessary. Yet, this is in hindsight, after the war has been won. During the Mitfords' time, when they were living the political uncertainties, the war was contested within the family with their individual ideologies, personalities, love affairs, passions and goals shaping how each understood the war. I recall reading a recent review of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke where Baker was criticized for his portrayal of Churchill as a war-mongerer. Yet, independent of Baker, Lovell talks about this as a commonly understood portrayal of Winston Churchill by his political contemporaries, that Churchill was impatient for war and wanted it when there were other politicians who were not as eager for war so soon after the first World War I (interestingly, one of Diana's lifelong defensive points about her Fascist husband was that he was a pacifist who fought in World War I and did not want war again).

In thinking about war as understood by a nation's citizens in the time of war as opposed to understanding a war after the war is won, I wonder how historians will understand the current American war in Iraq. I am one of many who think that the war has been an aggressive act to secure a foothold in the Middle East at the cost of many lives, American and Iraqi as well as those of nations fighting on both sides. In thinking about the Mitford sisters, their divided stances on politics, and the light that Lovell sheds on the uncertainty of the future in any political situation, perhaps the only thing one can say is that future historians' understanding of this current war will be shaped by how the war is won or lost rather than by the uncertainties that accompanied this era.

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