Visiting Lives

Early-to-mid 20th century British literature is a particular favourite of mine (The Rainbow is in my Top 10 of books). Thus, I've been meaning to read Brideshead Revisited for a long, long time now. I read this article earlier in the month, and was reminded, once again, of this glaring gap in my repertoire. So on Friday I went book shopping, picking up the latest issue of Bitch upon walking in the door, then heading over to the fiction section. Found Brideshead, then wandered a bit. Browsed the biographies, picked up, then rejected the latest Hardy bio. Looked up and saw a biography of the Mitford sisters.

The letters of the Mitfords have recently been compiled and published, and if I remember correctly The Globe and Mail reviewer was rhapsodic about the family* (the review is behind the stupid, outdated Globe paywall); I was intrigued. Since finances are a bit tight, I had to choose only one book. I've read nothing but fiction all year, so I decided to put Brideshead away, thinking that the Mitford story would at least be a change of pace. Of course, turns out two of the elder Mitford sisters were pals with Evelyn Waugh in their early years, and Brideshead is based on parts of their circle. So the next book up, should definitely be Brideshead. It's fate! Unless, of course, something in my library queue comes in.

Biographies can be really painful for me to read. They're not a genre I usually enjoy, though a well-written one is an excellent thing, so I continue trying them. The Sisters is one of those excellent biographies. I'm about 200 pages in having been reading only for a couple days. One might make the argument that it's the subject that can make or break a bio, and the Mitfords are very interesting subjects indeed. However, I once read an Ann Sexton bio and it took me almost a month of slogging to complete. Ann Sexton is beyond fascinating to me, but there was just something about the writing that didn't grab me. On the other hand, Rough Magic, a Sylvia Plath biography, was an excellent and intriguing read, and I actually dislike Plath for the most part. So for me, a good bio isn't really about the subject, it's about the skill of the writer. Mary S Lovell, author of The Sisters, is skilled at keeping things moving, and not getting too bogged down in the fine details. She's also fantastic at introducing a large cast of secondary -- and even tertiary -- characters, without losing the reader in complex family and social trees.

I likely won't go on and read the letters, however. Published letters hurt my brain more than biographies ever could. I've tried. I've read the letters of authors I love, and I never get more than 100 or so pages in, before I lose all interest.

Mitford sisters: from left, Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity, Pamela 1935
Image from

Guardian review of The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters
NYT review of The Sisters.

*There was also a blogger writing about the Mitfords recently, but I read so many blogs these days, I forget which one it was.


Kerry said...

Could the blogger have been me? I am obsessed with the Mitfords, and have been ever since I read the Lovell biography nearly five years ago. They're fascinating...

Panic said...

Very likely, Kerry! Yours is one of the blogs I read consistently.

Monitor de LCD said...
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