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.