Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Review: 'The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters' by Laura Thompson

Non Fiction is a tricky genre because if the reader isn’t intrinsically interested in the topic up for discussion it takes an amazing author to make the reader care for their chosen topic. On the other hand, if the reader is interested then the author has to make sure not to bore their reader out of loving the topic. Luckily for Laura Thompson, I am easily fascinated by interesting historical ladies. Although I had never heard of the Mitford sisters before The Six, the blurb caught my eye anyway and I’m very glad to have been introduced to these six sisters. Thanks to St. Martin's Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 06/09/2016
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
The eldest was a razor-sharp novelist of upper-class manners; the second was loved by John Betjeman; the third was a fascist who married Oswald Mosley; the fourth idolized Hitler and shot herself in the head when Britain declared war on Germany; the fifth was a member of the American Communist Party; the sixth became Duchess of Devonshire. 
They were the Mitford sisters: Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah. Born into country-house privilege in the early years of the 20th century, they became prominent as “bright young things” in the high society of interwar London. Then, as the shadows crept over 1930s Europe, the stark—and very public—differences in their outlooks came to symbolize the political polarities of a dangerous decade. 
The intertwined stories of their stylish and scandalous lives—recounted in masterly fashion by Laura Thompson—hold up a revelatory mirror to upper-class English life before and after WWII. The Six was previously published as Take Six Girls.

Biographies need a good subject. Although every life is interesting, not all of them make for a good book. Thompson didn’t have to worry about that since the Mitford sisters provide plenty of material. Living in the constantly changing 20th century, these six women were born into nobility and therefore into privilege. With a name and good looks, many doors were open to them despite their gender or the time they lived in. What makes them even more interesting is the different paths they chose, ranging from author, to socialite, to communist and fascist. Their story is also the story of 20th century England and Europe, of the decline of nobility and the rise of all kinds of ideologies, of the start of women’s rights. And all of this is enhanced by the glitter and glamour of the sisters’ celebrity.

Thompson runs into the same problem that many biographers do in The Six. Where do you start and how do you keep going? Birth might seem a natural beginning but unless you’re Mozart not a lot of interesting things happen in the first few years. Thompson starts The Six with a general discussion and introduction to the sisters, an overview of who they are and how the “Mitford cult” started. It makes for slightly confused reading at times, especially since confusing the sisters is a serious issue. What fascinated me the most were the close ties that a number of the sisters had with the Nazis, especially Unity who personally knew Hitler. It is this dark side of the sisters, covered in a sauce of English charm, which makes them fascinating.

There is a poignant relevancy to the sisters’ fascination with extreme ideologies. At a time where European teenagers from all walks of life run off to join ISIS in a bid to give their life meaning and do something “relevant”, it is both enlightening and terrifying to see that this isn’t something new. Thompson paints her six women with a sympathetic brush, trying to both show them for what they were while also showing their struggles. It can be difficult to read about the rich and fabulous having problems, but The Six does succeed in making the Mitford sisters feel like real women with real lives. There is something that feels English about country houses, dances, coming out balls and elopements, and it explains the continuing fascination with the Mitfords. They represent, in some way, a final hurrah of the upper classes, and they make for a fascinating read.

I give this book…
3 Universes!

I really enjoyed The Six and how Thompson shines a critical yet kind light onto these six women. It would have been too easy to stereotype them or to completely follow the glossy celebrity image of the sisters. I'd recommend this to fans of Non Fiction, biographies and women's Writing.

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