Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

I've borrowed this image from Karyn, who reviewed it here: http://apenguinaweek.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/penguin-no-1738-hons-and-rebels-by.html (Hope that's ok, Karyn!)
I’ve borrowed this image from Karyn, who reviewed it here: http://tinyurl.com/qhpbmxc (Hope that’s ok, Karyn!)

It’s no secret that I’m a longstanding fan of the Mitfords – or, at least, of reading about them. Debo has an eternal place in my heart, but, even though none of the others quite made it there, I still adored reading the letters between all six sisters. The one whom I didn’t much like (besides Unity, obvs, though her regression after shooting herself is fascinating to see in letter-form) was Jessica. I was chastised. I was told I should read her letters and her books, and that thus I would come to like her more. Finally – FINALLY – I have read Hons and Rebels (1960). Do I like her more? Maybe.

I’ll get in there early: if I were writing a scholarly book review, whether or not I like the woman would be completely immaterial. And here, as with a novel, it isn’t the be all and end all. But if it is acceptable to cheer on a biography because you like the writer so much (heart you, Debo), then it’s equally acceptable to do the reverse. On the same page? Fabs.

In actual fact, Jessica (or Decca, as she was known) comes across very sympathetically. Partly this is because of my political leanings, I daresay. I don’t fall as far left as Decca, but I’m pretty much a lefty – and we can all agree to band against the Fascist and Nazi beliefs of Diana and Unity Mitford. There are some pretty extraordinary descriptions of Decca and Unity setting up their shared bedroom into a Fascist and Communist split, with posters advocating their own politics on either side. It would be amusing if Unity’s views were not so extreme.

I was expecting a biography of the eccentric Mitford childhood we (mostly) all know well. The sort of thing we found in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love – with the hons in the cupboard, the father hunting the children, and the various codes. Spoilers: it is not. We do see some of Decca’s childhood – but by the time she was around in the nursery, her older siblings were more or less adults. Just Unity, Debo, and Decca were left around – and it is the three of them who formed various bonds and antipathies.

This section of the book I loved, even without the full line-up of Mitfords. We see, for instance, them being dragged around by the Conservative Party – ‘Our car was decorated with Tory blue ribbons, and if we should pass a car flaunting the red badge of Socialism, we were allowed to lean out of the window and shout at the occupants: “Down with the horrible Counter-Honnish Labour Party!”.’ We get a child’s-eye-view of the various scandals Nancy causes. Mostly, we get a taste of Decca’s thirst for independence, particularly in her longing to go to school and her storing-up of a Running Away Fund.

That fund turns out not to be as whimsical as it sounds. Very young, she rushes off to the Spanish Civil War. For those who think the Mitfords were rich gentry who never stepped down from their thrones to put their money where their mouths were (to mix metaphors) – Hons and Rebels is an education. We are many miles from the Cotswolds as we see the intrepid Decca follow her cousin Esmond Romilly to Spain, facing hardship, opposition, and – yes – romance. It shows the extraordinary person Decca was, for better or worse.

But the Cotswolds get even further around as the book progresses – as Decca moves to America. Here’s an example both of her early sheltered life, and the wit with which she writes. It is often a very amusing book.

My own impressions of Americans had been culled from various sources, ranging from books read in childhood, such as Little Women and What Katy Did, to Hemingway and movies. I knew that they lived on strange and rather unappetizing-sounding foods called squash, grits, hot dogs, and corn pudding. On the other hand, cookies sounded rather delicious. I visualized them as little cakes made in the shape of cooks with sugar-icing aprons and hats. From seeing The Petrified Forest, I gathered that Americans often made love under tables while gangster bullets whizzed through the air.

I’ve given enough plot for this book, so shan’t tell you all that happens in America – but, suffice to say, Esmond and Decca go through some difficult conditions and she writes about them winningly and wittily. A stray and dispassionate footnote on the penultimate page alerts us to why this memoir is particularly moving – but I’ll allow you to find that out for yourself.

So, in brief – it is fascinating, and certainly well told. The only reason I didn’t love Hons and Rebels as much as I could have done is because I was expecting something else – I missed hearing about the rest of the family (who are more or less absent for the second half of the book), and wondered quite what they were thinking about her. The feeling I got from the letters, that she rather abandoned them, is quietly reflected here – not by what she says about them, but by the fact that they are seldom mentioned. And that is a terrible reason to put something in the ‘cons’ column of a book review. But, Mitford-fanatic that I am, I can’t help it, and thought I should warn fellow enthusiasts. But this issue aside (as it should be), Hons and Rebels is an extraordinary book. When I read the sequel (A Fine Old Conflict), I shall better prepare myself for the book Decca wrote, rather than the one I wish she’d written.

15 thoughts on “Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

  • September 2, 2015 at 7:28 am
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    Excellent piece Simon. I have a complex relationship with the Mitfords – I find them fascinating, but I deplore the right wing politics of some of them (like you). Having said that’s I have tons of their books on my shelves which I really must get on with reading!

    • September 4, 2015 at 10:43 pm
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      Thank you Karen! It is intriguing, to find such a fascinating and varied bunch – impossible to agree with them all, but definitely possible to find them all interesting!

  • September 2, 2015 at 9:33 am
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    I love all things Mitford, and when I read Hons and Rebels some years ago I found I liked Jessica more than I had thought I would. She was quite extraordinary and her story adds to all those other Mitford stories that we know so well.

    • September 4, 2015 at 10:42 pm
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      Absolutely! What an extraordinary group. I wonder how poor Tom coped with them all…

  • September 2, 2015 at 1:46 pm
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    Oh Simon, I’m glad you read it. I’m sorry you were expecting more Mitfords. But surely there is enough Mitford stuff out there to keep you satisfied? By the time I finished Letters Between Six Sisters, I felt I’d had more than enough (probably because once Nancy and Decca died, the letters were almost entirely Debo and Diana).

    (Did I chastise you? Sorry.) While I root for Decca, of course I can see she was incredibly prickly and difficult. (Well, weren’t they all, really?)

    Oh, I want to write more, but I have to dash off for a few days now, and I’ve not finished packing. I may go on later about Debo.

    • September 4, 2015 at 10:41 pm
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      It is unlikely that I’ll ever run out of Mitfordia! And there’s another book coming out about them soon, I think.

      You were not the chastiser I was thinking of, fear not! I agree that most of them were prickly in their own ways – but not Debo. Never darling Debo.

  • September 2, 2015 at 6:19 pm
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    As an American, my first Mitford was Decca because we read “The American Way of Death” in school. She was my only Mitford until Nancy’s books were reprinted in perhaps (?) the 1970s early 80s, and I only met all the rest in the last five or so years. So I have a soft spot, and admire her lefty leanings.

    I just read the jacket for “A Fine Old Conflict,” and it sounds like the same book as “Hons and Rebels,” covering the same ground? Shall have to look inside the book itself soon!

    • September 4, 2015 at 10:40 pm
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      I really want to read The American Way of Death, particularly after reading Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, all about the funeral industry.

      I *think* A Fine Old Conflict is supposed to cover the next period in her life, but couldn’t swear to it…

  • September 3, 2015 at 1:19 am
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    Excellent review, Simon. While I find Decca’s writing excellent, I’ve never managed to warm to her personally. To me, she’s always come across as a little…I don’t know, petulant perhaps? As though she feels she deserves more of the attention that her sisters received.

    • September 4, 2015 at 10:39 pm
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      Thanks Claire :) I do think one either loves Decca or loves the others (Unity apart), and perhaps it’s difficult to love both? And perhaps that’s because she wasn’t fond of being a Mitford herself a lot of the time.

  • September 3, 2015 at 8:37 pm
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    I’m absolutely entranced by the Mitfords, and read their biographies and letters, but somehow, I’m not attracted by their own books. The Pursuit of Love was on my wish-list for a while but every time I considered it and read the blurb, got the feeling it was too depressing and moralising!

    • September 4, 2015 at 10:38 pm
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      I definitely love reading about them, and their letters, above all! Which probably isn’t what they’d have wanted…

    • September 4, 2015 at 10:38 pm
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      Oh Alex. I have no stake in this, but The Pursuit of Love is the only one of Nancy’s books I thoroughly enjoy, and never would think of it as depressing and moralising. I urge you to skip the blurb and give it a try. If for no other reason than to meet Davey Warbeck, a terrific Hon and hypochondriac, but in the sweetest way.

  • September 7, 2015 at 6:43 pm
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    Decca is my favourite Mitford and (I’m whispering here) I’m not at all fond of Debo – I think the truth about her will come out in the posthumous biographies that are surely now being prepared…
    Fine Old Conflict is very much about her life in America in the 40s and 50s, with little contact with the rest of the family.
    I enjoy Hons and Rebels, but it is very interesting to see what Nancy Mitford says about it to Evelyn Waugh. (The collection of letters between Nancy and Evelyn is one of my favourite books of all time, and I think would be an ideal desert island book ie something that would endlessly entertain you.) They discuss H&R at fascinating length, and Nancy says that basically it’s a pack of lies. Now, Nancy a) would say anything for a good story, certainly never understates her case and b) was a lot older than Jessica, so isn’t really in a position to know everything.
    (Other people made bizarre comments like ‘Jessica always seemed perfectly cheerful when we visited her in her youth, how dare she say now that she wasn’t happy’ , which to me is quite extraordinary for all kinds of reasons.) I believe she gets a number of dates wrong, and the order of events, but that doesn’t seem like too serious a crime. I think it’s a charming and enjoyable book, but I do use a slight pinch of salt. Oh, Nancy also says that Edmund was the most horrible human being she ever met in her whole life. (Again, a little unlikely.)

  • September 13, 2015 at 5:46 pm
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    It’s funny how we perfer a Mitford based on what we encounter first, I read Hons and Rebels before anything, so Decca has always been my favourite – closly followed by Nancy. I found I began to lose interest in the book after she left her family, but that is because more than anything the weird world of this family is most interesting to me.

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