Force-Ranking the Mitford Sisters -The Toast

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The Mitfords According to Nicole

1. Jessica: “You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.”

2. Nancy: “If I had a girl I should say to her, ‘Marry for love if you can, it won’t last, but it is a very interesting experience and makes a good beginning in life. Later on, when you marry for money, for heaven’s sake let it be big money. There are no other possible reasons for marrying at all.” (Christmas Pudding)

3. Pam: “She had a great way with animals and introduced the Appenzeller Spitzhauben breed of chicken to Britain from Switzerland. She knew all about the mysteries of home-made yoghurt, compost heaps, ‘curing one’s own hams’, ‘making soup out of one’s head’, and growing rare varieties of vegetables long before such things became fashionable.”

4. Debo: STILL ALIVE. [victory lap]

5. Unity: Mentally ill Nazi sympathizer.

6. Diana: Nazi sympathizer without the excuse of mental illness.

The Mitfords According to Mallory

Nicole, gird yourself for controversy: my list reverses the order of Pam and Debo.

Mine feels like a very basic list; there is little that is contrarian or even original in it. Of course I like the acerbic novelist and the runaway Communist the best; I also like vanilla cake and bookstores and English accents. I am not a special person. I thought about going for broke and putting Unity at the top just for being so interesting, but that seemed needlessly provocative.

Anyhow, when it comes to ordering the Mitfords, I think almost everyone does the same thing, namely picking whoever’s life you’d most like to have led (or failing that, the life you think you’d most likely have chosen at the time). I would have liked to have been a Jessica, and sometimes I fear I would have ended up a Pamela with a Nancy’s heart.

Then again, Pamela lived to be almost 90 years old and changed the face of chicken-rearing in England, so I should be so lucky. Pamela is nothing to sneeze at.

1. Jessica: Jessica GOT OUT, you know? More than any of the rest of her sisters, I think she was able to shake the Mitford mystique and think about what kind of life she really wanted to live. I assume the character of Sybil on Downton Abbey was at least 70% based on Jessica. Also, Jessica and I both live(d) in Oakland and find funeral homes interesting. According to Wikipedia:

In addition to writing and activism, Mitford tried her hand at music as singer for “Decca and the Dectones,” a cowbell and kazoo orchestra. She performed at numerous benefits and opened for Cyndi Lauper on the roof of the Virgin Records store in San Francisco. She recorded two short albums: one contains her rendition of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Grace Darling,” and the other, two duets with friend and poet Maya Angelou.

Pretty solid stuff. Christopher Hitchens was a great fan of her work, but you can’t hold that against her.

2. Nancy: Who among us is not Nancy? Nancy is nearly perfect; the only thing that keeps me from clasping her to my bosom and declaring her “My own!” is the same thing that keeps me from clasping Dorothy Parker to the same. She was determined to be unhappy in love, no matter how much work it took. Surely there were heterosexual men to marry somewhere in the whole of Paris. It’s a big city. She just refused to look.

You have almost certainly, if you are bothering to look at a list of the Mitfords, read Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love multiple times. (Sidebar: I believe that it is only the RANKEST SEXISM that keeps The Pursuit of Love from being as popular and highly regarded as The Sun Also Rises. You cannot tell me that this:

“But I thinks he would have been happy with him,” I said. “He was the great love of her life, you know.”

“Oh, dulling,” said my mother, sadly. “One always thinks that. Every, every time.”

is anything less than the complete and total equal of “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” End sidebar.)

But have you read Nancy’s CONTROVERSIAL NOVEL ABOUT FASCISTS, Wigs on the Green? Possibly you have not! It was never reprinted while she lived, due to aforementioned controversy and fascists, but luckily for us she is now dead and we can read it again.

It is quite funny, but it is nowhere near as good as P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters, which also satirized fascists in general and Diana’s husband Oswald Mosley in particular, in the person of Roderick Spode.

“Roderick Spode is the founder of the Saviours of Britain, a fascist organisation better known as the ‘Black Shorts.'”
“When you say ‘shorts,’ you mean ‘shirts,’ of course.”
“No. By the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left. He and his adherents wear black shorts.”
“Footer bags, you mean?”
“How perfectly foul.”

It is not sexism’s fault that Wig’s on the Green is less famous than The Code of the Woosters. You should read both of them, if you have not already.

3. Debo: She has had the least surprising life out of any of them, which is probably a bit surprising in its own way. Duchessing, and so on. And she’s still alive! Good for Deb.

4. Pam: Pam holds the distinction of being the only female Mitford sibling not to have her own Wikipedia entry. Try being an entity sometime, Pam.

5. Unity: Middle name Valkyrie. There is, I think, a lot of glamor (even by Mitford standards) and humor around her story, because it seems so ridiculous that this English debutante went swanning about Berlin in massive black gloves and boots, staking out Hitler’s favorite coffee shops and trading dramatic suicide attempts with Eva Braun. But she also wrote “Out with the Jews! Heil Hitler! P.S. please publish my name in full, I want everyone to know I am a Jew hater” in a German newspaper, so it’s not really that cute. David Pryce-Jones wrote a biography of Unity that was subtitled The Frivolity of Evil, which I think is just tremendous.

6. Diana: Nazi sympathizers go on the bottom of every list. Unrepentant Nazi sympathizers go below Nazi sympathizers who died of self-inflected gunshot wounds. Did you know that one of Diana’s first boyfriends, James Lees-Milne (one of her cousins who went on to basically single-handedly establish the National Trust), also had a torrid affair with her brother Thomas when they were at Oxford together? Let’s talk about Thomas instead of Diana.

Sometimes I like to think about Thomas Mitford and Branwell Brontë meeting in the Elysium of Lesser Brothers and having a quiet drink together (cocoa for Bran, of course). I also wonder sometimes how different England would have been if the Mitford sisters had been men.

I also also wonder if there is any good gender-flipped Mitford fan art out there.

Works Referenced:

Mary S. Lovell, The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family (Indiebound | Amazon)
Deborah Mitford, Wait for Me! (Indiebound | Amazon)
Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels (Indiebound | Amazon)
Nancy Mitford, Christmas Pudding (Indiebound | Amazon)
Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (Indiebound | Amazon)
Nancy MitfordWigs on the Green (Indiebound | Amazon)
P.G. WodehouseThe Code of the Woosters (Indiebound | Amazon)

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