Monday, May 19, 2008

Jessica Mitford, Red Sheep

Like many people who are intrigued by the 1930s, by British aristocrats, by women who defied expectations, I have a healthy interest in the six Mitford sisters. A few years ago I read eldest sister Nancy's comic novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, inspired by her family's history but with names changed and roles reassigned. And yesterday, I finished next-to-youngest sister Jessica's memoir Hons and Rebels.

Jessica Mitford, known as "Decca," called herself the "red sheep" of the family--an ardent Communist among conservative English aristocrats. Her older sisters Diana and Unity were famously attracted to Nazism, making Decca's position even more remarkable. At the age of 19, she used the money that she had saved for years in a "running-away fund" to flee to Civil War-riddled Spain with her second cousin Esmond Romilly. The young anti-fascists got married soon after, though their time together was cut short by Esmond's death in World War Two (Hons and Rebels stops a little before this point).

I knew the outlines of Decca's story but very much enjoyed reading it in her own words. For instance, most sources simplify things by saying that Decca and Esmond "eloped to Spain," but she tells it a little differently. She'd had a crush on the intriguingly rebellious Esmond from afar, but had never met him due to family disapproval. In 1937, Esmond was in England recuperating from an illness contracted in Spain, and by chance a mutual relative invited Decca to spend a weekend at the country house where Esmond was staying. Esmond said he planned to return to Spain in about a week and Decca begged to go with him--not as a lover, but as a fellow anti-fascist. Esmond and Decca concocted a plan and ran away together just a week later; only when they got to France did they admit they loved each other. The chapters of Hons and Rebels surrounding Decca's escape are absolutely thrilling even if you know the outcome--because of the many ways her plan could have failed, and the very romantic idea of young lovers on the run.

Hons and Rebels can be divided roughly into three sections. First, Decca discusses her isolated childhood, her eccentric family, her growing frustration, and the birth of her Communist beliefs. The Mitford parents had strange ideas about raising children, to say the least; e.g. they prohibited all doctors and medicine, except surgical operations, because of the "biblical sanction in the passage 'If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out'" (40). Decca describes the Mitford children's made-up language, their brutal teasing games, and her relationships with each of them. For a long time she is closest to her two Fascist sisters--Diana, beautiful and charming when she's not supporting Hitler, and Unity, as eccentric and frustrated as Decca, but channeling that frustration into the opposite political philosophy. This section of the book also looks humorously at upper-class traditions, a few months spent in France, and a Mediterranean cruise; Mitford has an eye for the telling detail in all these situations.

The second section of the book is the aforementioned running-away and its aftermath, which thrusts Decca into a totally different milieu. She doesn't actually spend a lot of time in Spain, but she and Esmond learn to live on not much money, first in France then in England (though Esmond has an awful weakness for get-rich-quick schemes). They have a hard time reconciling their lingering aristocratic upbringing with their downtrodden, working-class surroundings, though, and they become frustrated that they cannot do more to stop fascism.

Eventually, English snobbery and pessimism overwhelm them, so they move to America. This means no more funny Mitford anecdotes, and Decca spends a bit too much time praising the warmth and generosity of Americans as compared to Britons, but there are some great scenes in this section too. Her stories of how she and Esmond supported themselves (selling Scottish tweeds at the World's Fair, selling stockings door-to-door, bartending) are hilarious.

Decca ends the book by summing up some of the people in her life, especially Esmond and Unity. She shows an admirably nuanced attitude to her beloved older sister, wondering how "a person of enormous natural taste, an artist and poet from childhood, [could] have embraced [the Nazis'] cruel philistinism" (273). And Decca admits her own faults, as well: "[Unity] was always a terrific hater--so were all of us" (273) and "The qualities of patience, modesty, forbearance and natural self-discipline that the worker brings to his struggle for a better life, the instinctive respect for the fundamental dignity of every other human being [...] were on the whole conspicuously lacking in [Esmond and me]" (280).

Still, after reading Hons and Rebels, I admire Decca's courage, resilience, humor, and sheer nerve. I must say, though, that I identify more with Nancy: as I noted yesterday, I'm an aesthete, not a revolutionary. Nancy doesn't always come off well in Hons and Rebels--Decca has no patience for aesthetes, and describes Nancy's personality as "astringent," "cutting" etc.--though she admits that Nancy had enormous strength of character to stand up to their parents: "She had broken ground for all of us, but only at terrific cost in violent scenes followed by silence and tears" (29). I suppose it's rare that the eldest daughter is the greatest maverick in a family; so in a way, Nancy cleared a path for Decca to become the Communist rebel she always knew she'd be.

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