Either you love the jokes or you don't, with the Mitfords. The biting, ferocious 'teases', the flippancy, the apparent inability to take anything particularly seriously, are everything, not least because they encapsulate all that used to be good about Englishness, and all that is grotesque also. The jokes, always cruel, both charm and repel; without them, you're left with girls in pearls living borderline tragic lives, or with the po-faced, lumpen Unity Mitford - galumph, galumph - who, unlike her five sisters (in descending order: Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, Decca, Debo; there was also a brother, Tom), had little talent for levity. So the jokes are crucial. One occasionally gets the impression, from Mary Lovell's compelling, fluent and problematically sucker-uppy biography, that she isn't always entirely sure whether the jokes are funny or not: she quotes the tried-and-tested ones over and over and leaves out the new ones thrown up by Nancy Mitford's enormous, enormously funny correspondence, or by Jan Dalley's recent biography of Diana Mosley. You rather imagine her, nose pressed up against the glass, longing to roar along with the Duchess of Devonshire (whom, she informs us, she once met at dinner), but not quite knowing how.
LRB 3 January 2002 | PDF Download