Monday, March 6, 2017

Sink, Empire, and So Shall Come New Days

Last year, my friend Kathleen recommended that I read a biography of the Mitford sisters, because the adventures of those six women in the 20th century are a truth far stranger and more interesting than fiction. I had never heard of the Mitfords. Their celebrity didn't reach the areas of mid-20th century culture I know best (music, Hollywood), and their biggest celebrity was in Britain, not the States.

In December I began listening to an audiobook about the Mitfords, The Sisters by Mary S. Lovell. I didn't last long. The beginning of the book is about the sisters' childhood, which rollicked with wit and fun, entailing private jokes and humorous catastrophes and, generally, growing up in genteel, intelligent poverty in Britain between the wars.

These stories and circumstances were so light as to be frothy, and I grew frustrated. Since the election, my Facebook feed had become a wailing wall. Everyone seemed to be yelling at everyone else. The ideological landscape of my country was changing, publicly, painfully, and paying attention to the multiple nicknames each Mitford sibling garnered by the time she was two became impossible.

It's funny. This is funny. Because I am the first person to say I'm not sure art and politics relate to each other comfortably. I've been trying to sort this out since 2002, when I watched two Pontecorvo films and found them just very bad, anti the opinions of the textbooks and the professor. The politics were the point. His art, explicitly political, was deemed good art because it was explicitly political, and I couldn't agree. The films were dull and meandering and even (literally) out of focus. From that point I examined explicitly political art on artistic merit, not political merit, and often found it wanting.

Now I am less certain about the purpose of art than I was then. I still believe that art ought to be artistically sound first, not second or third or last. But I've learned that politics and art are often, if not usually, inextricable, and that "pure art" with no political implications is more uncommon than I thought. (It took a lot of historical exploration and education to learn this, so forgive me if it sounds naive.) Plenty of filmmakers and visual artists and writers and singers primarily played artistic roles and secondarily played political ones, but nevertheless, politics creeps in to the strangest corners of art. The personal is political in many more contexts than second-wave feminism.

Still, for me to say this book isn't political enough is incredibly funny. I couldn't read a pundit's book if you paid me. Generally, I believe in the long term, the broom of history sweeping and sweeping us all into the dustpan, and my current sense that everyone in America with any kind of platform is using every possible opportunity to rail politically drives me nuts. And disappoints me. And depresses me. And lots of other effects. I have been watching funny animal gifs and posting beautiful things on Facebook as much as I can, because I cannot be the only person who wants frequent breaks from The American Situation.

But the Mitfords were too much fun for me. I got so mad at their frippery that I abandoned the book for a few weeks. Soon, though, I'd had enough of Benjamen Walker's doomsaying, and organizations saying they needed my voice (and my money) "now more than ever," and I went back to it. Thereafter, the book ventured into the mid-1930s, and its tenor changed completely.

Two of the sisters, Unity and Diana, became close friends with Hitler. Unity spent much of the 1930s in Germany. One of the sisters, Decca, was a radical Communist, and eloped with her husband to Spain at nineteen. These different viewpoints estranged Decca from the family on and off for the rest of her long life, even through her testimony before HUAC and her authorship of The American Way of Death, a book I'd certainly heard of.

Unity attempted suicide on the day Britain declared war on Germany, shooting herself in the head. Diana, until the end of her 93 years, refused to change her opinion of Hitler personally. She abhorred the actions of his regime, once she learned of them, but she didn't encounter Hitler in that context, and personally she found him charming company.* Even though Diana's husband was the leader of the British fascist party before the war, neither of them was particularly anti-Semitic; fascism and evil were not intimately linked at the time. Decca emerged as an eye-wateringly complicated woman, and two of the sisters barely emerged at all. As the Duchess of Devonshire, Debo completely revitalized Chatsworth, one of the greatest estates in England, and in order to keep it afloat, merged nobility with commerce in a way old families had been reluctant to do.

There's more. It's an interesting family.

Clockwise from upper left: Unity, Decca, Diana, Nancy, Debo, and Pam. Click to embiggen.

My feelings about this book changed so many times as I listened to it. The chapters about Britain and Germany during the 1930s were valuable, rich, accumulating in meaning as I compared them with The American Situation. I watched as the entire British servant system fell apart in the face of munitions factories, conscription, and the Blitz. Royalty was forced to adapt to the needs of non-royalty instead of the other way around. The empire sagged to its knees. Is this an unfortunate set of movements, or a satisfying one? Can the fall of an empire - sacrifices untold entailed - ever be nailed down as a plus or a minus for the people and the nation? How long will it take for us to know?

What I walked away with: reinvigorated fascination for the 20th century. Respect for English mettle. Determination not to ignore The American Situation, but to maintain my belief that human life is drawn in small circles, described in details at eye level, not necessarily in galactic movements. "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives," says Annie Dillard. The Mitford sisters wrote uncountable letters, raised children, loved their husbands, traveled Europe, followed their own lights. What parts of their days, of their lives, mattered most?

*From the introduction: "She liked and admired him as a man when she met him, and she still believes that 'It is not a question of right or wrong, but the impressions of a young woman in the thirties. Of course it would be easy just to deny these, but it would not be very interesting, or true.'" I find this courageous. To dismiss those early impressions and claim that she knew he was evil, and faked friendship, is the kind of hindsight activity that is unhelpful in attempts not to allow ugly histories to repeat themselves. 

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