Friday, 2 September 2011

Penguin no. 1738: Hons and Rebels
by Jessica Mitford

One possibility occurred over and over again: I could pretend to have been suddenly converted to Fascism, accompany Boud to Germany, and meet the Führer face to face. As we were being introduced I would whip out a pistol and shoot him dead. Of course, I should immediately be felled by Hitler's guards; but wouldn't it be worth it? The awful thing would be if I missed and still died in the attempt. Unfortunately, my will to live was too strong for me actually to carry out this scheme, which would have been fully practical and might have changed the course of history. Years later, when the horrifying history of Hitler and his régime had been completely unfolded, leaving Europe half-destroyed, I often bitterly regretted my lack of courage.

Jessica Mitford was the second youngest member of an unusual and eccentric family. Her father Lord Redesdale was given to rages, and had an intense dislike of outsiders, choosing to keep himself and his family as isolated from social contact as possible at their home in the Cotswolds (and of course, his memory survives now as the Uncle Matthew of Love in a Cold Climate) . Her mother was suspicious of new ideas. Despite the privileges and possibilities of her upper class life, with its trips abroad and the house in London, her abiding memory of childhood was one of frustration and constraint, of being prevented from living the life she wanted, unable to attend University because an inadequate education, restricted from experiencing, learning about, or participating in the wider world. She remembers an overwhelming desire to get away from this dull life, and a constant wish for her childhood to be over, so that she could escape the confines of the schoolroom and the country house. And to this end she established a Running Away Account at Drummond's Bank.

And when she finally reached that longed-for threshold of adulthood, she abandoned all she had known, family and privilege, took her running away money and escaped to Spain with her second cousin Esmond Romilly, someone she had long admired but had only met the week before, and whose name had only ever been mentioned within the family in censorious tones. They lived on their wits for a few happy years, until the Nazis began their assault across Europe, and Esmond left to join the fight against Fascism. This book is her recollection of that frustrating childhood, and those early years of married life, poverty and adventure, and reads as a celebration of Esmond's short life.

It is a fascinating book, perhaps even more interesting than any novel could be, and it tells the most unlikely story. If it wasn't unusual enough to be a member of a family which inspired some well-read novels, and also the sister of some well-known siblings, she also had the dramas of the outside world played out within her own family and her own home, right down to the partitioning of an unused drawing room into Communist and Fascist sides, with occasional battles between the two teenage partisans.  And how remarkable that these two sisters could form these opposing passions in their teenage years, Boud (Unity Valkyrie) for Fascism and Hitler, and Decca for Communism and Esmond, cling to them all the more ardently in their opposition, and then both go on to realise them, with Unity accepted into Hitler's inner circle, and Jessica marrying Esmond.

Her perspective on the family comes across as that of an outsider, looking out at her older sisters from the confines of her schoolroom, or back at her younger sisters after the outbreak of war had severed any connection, but it is a view informed as no other outsider's could be. And despite Diana and Unity's enthusiasm for Fascism, it seemed to be Nancy with whom she was least comfortable. She portrays her as someone who liked to rebel but who lacked conviction, with little more to offer than a sarcastic comment; critical but ineffective.

This portrait of the Mitford family is only a small part of what this book has to offer. It is a memoir of all that Jessica Mitford experienced during those early years, and her unusual path provided her a unique opportunity to observe many aspects of 1930's life. And so she also gives a comprehensive account of the times, of both upper class and working class life, and of the concerns and expectations as war approached, the ineffectiveness of the government's preparations, and the differences between America and Britain. It was fascinating to read.


  1. Thank you for that beautiful review. The Mitford sisters are indeed an interesting family to read about. I think no matter how old or how young you are there is always something that will grab your interest; just by reading the entries in Wikipedia about them leaves a desire for more of understanding of what life was in the upper class in the 1930s and 1940s.

  2. They truly were the most bizarre family in a cosy sort of way, if that makes any sense. I have a hardcover edition of this but haven't read it yet. Thanks for writing about it!

  3. I've been meaning to read this for SO long, and have three different vols of her autobiography (this; A Fine Old Conflict; Memoirs of a Muckraker) but have yet to read any. I found Jessica the most difficult to warm to in the collected letters, so must try this to see if she can redeem herself!

  4. Hi Simon and Darlene,

    I'm sure you'll find she does redeem herself, as it is such a delightful book to read, although undoubtedly subjective. It is one of those books that distracts you until it is completed, both because it is written in an engaging style, and because the subject matter is so interesting. And thanks Simon for alerting me to those later books, written too late to be published as numbered Penguins.

    And Faisel,

    Thanks for your comment. It's impossible not to be interested when you already know an approximation of their story through her sister's books. But the aspect that made this story of the Mitford particularly interesting was the way she discussed them in the context of the events of the time. And perhaps because she doesn't take being upper class too seriously.

  5. I will definitely read this at some time in the future. I read her letters - she had such a fascinating life. I admire her as someone who went out and did, she didn't just talk. Though I think she might've been a bit difficult to get along with.



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