cover image The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

Laura Thompson. St. Martin’s, $29.99 (480p) ISBN 978-1-250-09953-2

English writer Thompson (A Different Class of Murder) reveals how the six “posh-feral” Mitford sisters (the oldest of whom was born in 1904) became British cultural touchstones through their unabashed devotion to their respective causes—including fascism, Communism, and Elvis Presley—allowing them to embody the breadth of 20th-century conflicts within one remarkable aristocratic family. Thompson astutely compares wry contemporary assessments and countless often-brutal newspaper articles on the Mitford daughters to self-sufficient Nancy’s more benign fictional version and expat Jessica’s heavily embellished tell-all. With a reliance on sometimes-intrusive amateur psychology and an initially scattered chronology, this book reads more like an examination of personalities and sibling interplay than a traditional narrative; Pam’s penchant for the rural life means that she barely registers, but the obsessive Unity and heedless Diana leap off the page. Deborah, the most conventional, remained firmly of the upper class, becoming the Duchess of Devonshire. Thompson proves her case that the fearless siblings helped shape one another, sometimes through encouragement, but also through sharp barbs and betrayal, leading to extremism in an already highly politicized era. Non-British readers may take longer to understand the sisters’ lasting appeal, but Thompson successfully shows how this group of six captured the zeitgeist by being utterly committed and completely “shame-free.” B&w photos. (Sept.)