It’s all OK…take it from England’s Mitford Sisters

When rich people make you feel better about your own life.

Whenever you’re feeling a little bit tired of your life, I recommend a good dose of the writings of the Mitford sisters to make you happier with the life you have. 

 At least they do for me.  Along the way, they are hugely entertaining, especially if you are an American, or maybe that’s just me.  I don’t particularly admire the Mitfords, except maybe their joie de vivre.  But when I get in the right mood, I do enjoy either reading about them or reading their work.

If the Mitfords were American, I think they would be considered downright offensive.  Most of the sisters were either ardent Fascists (Hitler and Mussolini) or Communists.  I don’t think that’s something we really joke about in the US.

Americans aren’t generally ok with people just kind of refusing to work, but then again, we don’t have an aristocracy. 

The Mitfords’ lives and writings turn a lot of the dreadful stress that you come across in so many novels of the era on its ear…because yes, there is pressure to improve one’s fortunes through marriage, but then when it goes wrong, well, it doesn’t seem to be that big a deal.  For either side.  No one gets ruined, they just go on.

So if the Brontes are too intense for you, and you aren’t in the mood for Austen’s happy endings, and if Wharton is just taking it all too seriously, try either reading the Mitfords, or read about them.  Your choice.

I don’t want to tell you too much because that would ruin the fun, but believe me, by the time you finish this post, you will get the idea.

There are two collective biographies of the Mitfords with almost the same title.

I’ve read this one and found it engaging and enjoyable; it reads like a novel.

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This one is more recently published, and usually new nonfiction books are better because there is more evidence. Also, the last of the six died in 2014, which is another reason that more information might be available.

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Previously, Laura Thompson also wrote Nancy Mitford’s biography.

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Or, if you prefer, you can get the story first hand through the sisters’ letters.

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Puddle Jumper

Hons and Rebels is a good counterpoint to Nancy Mitford’s novels. It is a memoir of the gang of sisters growing up in “genteel poverty” meaning their father had land but not much money.

In England, the landed gentry can’t just go out and get a job the way that Americans can. Or they won’t?

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After the war, Jessica Mitford went to the U.S. and wrote the famous expose of funerals in the U.S., and the outrageous price of them, in The American Way of Death. Below is her revised and updated version.

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Poison Penmanship is a collection of short articles in which Jessica Mitford sends up various aspects of American culture from the mid 20th Century, all in the spirit of good journalism, of course!

A more lighthearted sampling of J. Mitford’s work, and you don’t need to read it all the way through.

And it’s a good chance to laugh at yourself, if you are an American. I’m telling you, she speaks the truth.

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Puddle Jumper

The youngest Mitford, Deborah, unexpectedly became the Duchess of Devonshire when her brother in law died.

If you pay attention to these things, you know being a Duchess is big. It’s the highest title in the peerage…after Dukes and Duchesses come the royal family.

So if you are serious about Downton Abbey or the British Royal Family, stop here.

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If all of this has confused you too much, take in Kristen Richardson’s (American) study of debutantes before you go on…even if you think you know because you’ve read all the novels, the truth is better. Her chapter on Antebellum Southern (pre Civil War) debutantes is far more interesting than the stereotypes, and she explains the origin of those same stereotypes.

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More from The Lois Level:

Downton Abbey: The Real Americans who married into the British Aristocracy

Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle: What Jane Austen would have written the 20th Century


(Most of) Nancy Mitford’s fiction in print.

The language in these books isn’t especially challenging, and they are all relatively short.

I’ve posted a lot of them because I find the cover photography so entertaining and gives an amazingly good idea of what you will find in the book.

The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate are her most famous books, and if you’ve read either one of the collective biographies or Hons & Rebels, N. Mitford’s sources will be obvious.

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Don’t Tell Alfred is the third in the trilogy and is the story of the narrator of all three, Polly.

Note: See below for the biography of the real person who the character of Polly’s mother, “the Bolter” is based on. Truth is stranger than fiction.

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Wigs on the Green is a spoof of Mitford’s sisters enchantment with Fascism. It caused a rift in her family, so it was out of print for decades, at Nancy’s request.

Fascism was pretty big in Britain in between the wars. To understand it better, read this article from Slate: “Why Former Suffragettes Flocked to British Fascism”

The Mitford sisters, at least two of them, had to take it further and go to Germany to hang out with Hitler…yes, that Hitler…and that’s just the beginning.

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The Blessing is a bit connected with the first three novels above and draws on N. Mitford’s years in France.

So in this one, we get to laugh at the French and the English.

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These two are earlier writings, if you need still more.

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Puddle Jumper

And in these two, Mitford takes on two over-the-top French figures in biography with pretty much the same style she used for fiction.

The narrative voice is different than what you might expect in a normal biography and is very strong and subjective, which would make both of these books great choices if you tend to find biography/nonfiction a bit dry.

Just to give you the idea, here is the first sentence of Madame de Pompadour: “After the death of the great King, beautiful Versailles, fatal for France, lay empty seven years while fresh air blew through its golden rooms, blowing away the sorcery and bigotry which hung about the walls like a miasma, blowing away the old century and blowing in the new.”

Is this a biography or a fairy tale? Whichever, it’s fun.

The long time mistress of Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour (who she mentions at least once in her novels)….

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And her dual biography of Louis XIV and the building of Versailles.

Again, more fun with making fun of the French! Just that outfit!

Note: If you’re an American, you might be shaky on your European history. Marie Antoinette was married to Louis XVI, if that helps you out.

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The promised biography of the real “Bolter”, aka Polly’s mother, who had to go all the way to Africa because she was so much trouble (Have you ever seen a less PC photo in your life?)

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If all that weren’t enough, this band of undereducated and perhaps (but enjoyable so) overly outspoken sisters are so popular that there is a series of mysteries about them, set at their family home.

This series is written by Jessica Fellowes, niece of Julian Fellowes, who created Downton Abbey.

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So now we are full circle, back to Downton Abbey. To finish this off, I have one of his books (do those bells look familiar?) about a modern-day commoner who makes a marriage beyond her dreams…???

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If you have more suggestions for reads like these, add them below or to our Facebook Page The Lois Level.

Cover Photo Credit

A wall from the Swan Inn at Swinbrook, the village in the Coltswolds where the Mitfords grew up, showing some Mitford family photos. judy dean

A wall from the Swan Inn at Swinbrook, the village in the Coltswolds where the Mitfords grew up, showing some Mitford family photos.

judy dean

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