by Laura Thompson
This family couldn’t be made up. No one would believe it. The family line went all the way back to the Norman Conquest of England, and every member had a diamond hard unshakeable confidence that whatever they decided to do was not only appropriate but did not need to be explained or excused to anyone.
The six sisters and one brother were born into upper class, country house privilege and were prominent as “bright young things” in the high society of 1930s London. Then each sister took a very different path, some of them a very dangerous path.
Above – left to right: Unity, Tom (their brother), Deborah, Diana, Jessica, Nancy, Pamela
Nancy – became a famous novelist, was a friend of Evelyn Waugh, and spent many years in France after World War 2, following a divorce.
Diana – the most beautiful of the sisters, and adored by many men, married the heir to the Guinness fortune and had a life of immense wealth in Belgravia. She gave all that away as well as her social standing to have an affair with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascist Party. Later she married him. A Hitler sympathiser, she visited him and other Nazi officials in Germany many times in the 1930s. Both she and Mosley were interned during the war and were social pariahs after it.
Pamela – probably the most ‘normal’ and also detached of the sisters, she became a solid country woman who bred poultry.
Unity – what a strange girl! She was part of Mosley’s Fascist party, and became totally obsessed by fascism and Hitler himself, basically stalking him until he took notice of her. He liked her and indulged her. It’s hard to understand what her thinking was, it’s tempting to think she was mad as nothing else seems to explain some of her behaviour. When war broke out, she was still in Germany and so upset by the thought of war that she attempted suicide by shooting herself in the head. She survived, Hitler actually allowing her safe passage to neutral Switzerland. She made it back to England, but was never the same again, her health severely affected by a bullet in the brain that could not be removed.
Jessica – married a Communist, and became a fervent one herself, and went to live in America where she became a well regarded journalist and writer. She totally distanced herself from everything her family was and wrote a controversial memoir about them.
Deborah – the youngest, and apparently the most well adjusted, married and became well known as the Duchess of Devonshire for her efforts to save the ancestral home of her husband by opening it to visitors.
This was a very well written and researched book, which was gripping and engaging due to the incredible variety of the sisters’ lives and allegiances. As characters however, they were not likeable all, their arrogance was breathtaking, specially Diana, who insisted on praising Hitler even after the war. A comment she made in response to a critic perhaps sums up the whole family, “Shame is a bourgeois notion”.
A fascinating insight into another world and into a supremely dysfunctional family, not that they would have seen themselves that way. 4 ⭐️