Unity Mitford: An Enquiry into Her Life and the Frivolity of Evil
by David Pryce-Jones
Dial, 292 pp., $9.95
Unity Mitford was the fourth of the six remarkable Mitford sisters. The eldest, Nancy, who immortalized her parents, Lord and Lady Redesdale, in The Pursuit of Love, married the original of Evelyn Waugh’s character Basil Seal. The youngest married the present Duke of Devonshire. The third, Diana, married the leader of the British Fascist movement, Sir Oswald Mosley, was imprisoned with him during the war for three years as a security risk, released by Churchill when the threat of the invasion of Britain had clearly passed, and has just written a vivacious memoir entirely unrepentant and complaining of being uncomfortable in prison. Jessica (“Decca”) is the best known in America for her books on morticians and prisons: now married to the labor lawyer Bob Treuhaft, she first ran off with Churchill’s nephew, Esmond Romilly, to fight on the Spanish Republican side in the civil war.
It was Unity’s distinction to win notoriety on the other side as the unbridled supporter of the Nazis and the personal friend of Hitler, whom she often saw when she lived in Munich during the 1930s. On the outbreak of war in 1939 she shot herself through the head in a Munich park, was invalided back to England, and died nine years later a wreck. She was a big, beautiful blonde, but far from dumb. As with those other sisters, the Brontës, the intensity of their family life made the Mitfords create a world of their own. For them the family resembled a fortress from which they made assaults on the society of their youth; and they were greatly set up when they managed, each in her own way, to shock it.
Last fall a storm broke in the teacup of London literary society. The rest of the nation can hardly be said to have noticed it, the fall of the pound was not noticeably accelerated, and the fabric of English life, somewhat threadbare these days, withstood the strain. But if one listened to the pungent rumors and delectable gossip which flew around as the storm raged, the shores should have been strewed with the wreckage of reputations and friendships. The typhoon struck Mr. David Pryce-Jones’s biography of Unity Mitford, and the Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding the whirlwind were the three surviving Mitford sisters living in England.
They declared that the biography was unauthorized, inaccurate, and unfair. They denounced Mr. Pryce-Jones for going around and passing himself off as persona grata with the family, when in fact he was not, and on those grounds inveigling many of Unity’s acquaintances to give him information which he then twisted to suit his thesis. When his informants complained and asked to be shown the proofs of what they were alleged to have said, Mr. Pryce-Jones then—so the indictment read—either forgot to send proofs or left in offending passages which he had agreed to delete. His book was tendentious, unimaginative, and insensitive to the tragedy which befell Unity Mitford’s parents …