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.

Stuck-in-a-Book’s Weekend Miscellany

Hope you’re all having a good weekend! Mine is disappearing all too quickly… and I’ve read only 20 pages of the book I was intending to finish. Oops.

Slightly different from usual this week, as I’m going to be entirely egotistical in this miscellany… these things are all me elsewhere.

1. I wrote about Jeeves in the Offing by P.G. Wodehouse over at Vulpes Libris.

2. I made a cake to celebrate the 400th Very Short Introduction book.

3. And I appeared in this Oxford Dictionaries video (see the post for answers):

Mrs. Harris Goes to New York – Paul Gallico

(image source)

I’ve finished so few books lately, and have been so dissatisfied with the number of reviews I’ve been able to post, that I have turned to the small pile of books I finished months and months ago, but never quite got around to reviewing.  So I’m looking back over the hazy mists of time, trying to remember not only what I thought about a book, but what on earth happened in it.

Lucky for me, Paul Gallico’s 1960 novel Mrs. Harris Goes to New York has a little synopsis right there in the title.  The sequel to his charming novel Flowers For Mrs. Harris (published in America as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, and republished together recently by Bloomsbury, with its aspirate in place), Mrs. Harris Goes to New York does, indeed, see Mrs. Harris travel off to see the Empire State.  This time, though, it’s not with a dress in mind, though – she and her friend Violet Butterfield (familiarly Vi) are off to reunite a mistreated adopted boy with his long-lost American father.

In case you haven’t encountered Mrs. Harris before, she is a no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth charlady, who (in the first book) unexpectedly develops an all-abiding passion to own a Christian Dior dress like the one she has seen in the wardrobe of one of the women for whom she works.  Mrs. Harris is a wonderful creation – speaking her mind, with its curious mixture of straight-talking and dewy-eyed romance.  Romance for adventure, that is, not for menfolk – Mr. Harris is good and buried before the series begins. 

I mentioned in the ‘strange things that happened in books I read this year’ section of my review of 2012 that I’d read one book where somebody went door-to-door searching for people called Mr. Black (that was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and one where somebody went door-to-door searching for people called Mr. Brown.  That was Mrs. Harris Goes to New York – since she did not know exactly who might Henry Brown’s father, she needed to go and visit every Mr. Brown in New York…

Few native New Yorkers ever penetrated so deeply into their city as did Mrs. Harris, who ranged from the homes of the wealthy on the broad avenues neighbouring Central Park, where there was light and air and indefinable smell of the rich, to the crooked down-town streets and the slums of the Bowery and Lower East Side.
It’s a fun conceit for a novel – I wonder if Jonathan Saffron Foer was deliberately mimicking it? – and Mrs. Harris is an excellent character to use repeatedly in first-encounters – it shows how Cockney and brazen she can be, as well as the endlessly charming effect she has on everybody she meets.

Paul Gallico’s novels often hover on the edge of fairy-tale.  The first one I read, which remains easily my favourite (and is on my 50 Books list over in the right-hand column) was Love of Seven Dolls, which is very much the darkest of his books that I’ve read – but was still very certainly mixed with fairy-tale.  That was what saved it from being terrifyingly sinister.  The two Mrs. Harris novels I’ve read are much more lighthearted, and Mrs. Harris herself is very much a fairy-tale creation.  She enchants everyone she meets – and I mean that almost literally, in that she seems to be a fairy godmother, changing their lives for the better through Cockney wisdom and irrepressible optimism.  And perhaps a little bit of magic.

There are quite a few other Paul Gallico novels on my shelves, waiting to be read – including the next two in this series, Mrs. Harris, MP and Mrs. Harris Goes To Moscow, which Bloomsbury also publish and kindly sent me.  I’m also excited about reading The Foolish Immortals and The House That Wouldn’t Go Away.  I’ll report back on all of these as and when I manage to read them – but, for now, for when you want to be a little charmed yourself, you could do a heck of a lot worse than spending an hour or two in the delightful company of London’s finest, Mrs. Harris.

Letter-Shaped Living

Oh, but you’re good. Well done to everyone who correctly identified The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, whichever method you used to spot it. It feels a bit fraudulent to label a book you May Not Have Heard About, but it’s so good that it’s going on my 50 Books nonetheless.

I read The L-Shaped Room back in 2001, having bought it on a whim for 10p, and utterly loved it. It was with some trepidation that I returned to it in 2008 – after all, though seven years may not seem like a very long time, I only really started reading Proper Books in 2000, so it’s a long time for me. I needn’t have worried – this 1960 novel of Jane Graham, unmarried and pregnant, moving into her L-shaped room, was still brilliant. I was just as gripped this time, though I knew (in surprisingly close detail) what would happen throughout the novel.

Jane is thrown out by her father when he finds out she is pregnant, and she must become independent. She chooses “an ugly, degraded district in which to find myself a room… in some obscure way I wanted to punish myself, I wanted to put myself in the setting that seemed proper to my situation.” Determined not to engage with the other occupants of the building, to suffer her solitude, she cannot help learn about them and grow to like them. There’s John, a kind, black jazz-player in the room next door; Mavis, an elderly spinster with a mania for collecting ornaments; Doris her constantly indignant landlady; even the prostitutes on the basement floor. Most importantly, there is Toby – a writer who hides his Jewishness and is irrepressibly friendly.

Banks’ strength is her characters – all of them had stayed in my head from 2001, and it was like greeting old friends. None are stereotypical (which makes it difficult to describe them, above, truth be told) and none are too nice, either – they are real people, with real motives and emotions and consequences. You love them for it, but it makes their trials and tribulations all the more traumatic for the reader.

I’ve read the sequels, The Backward Shadow and Two Is Lonely, back in 2001/2, and remember them both being good – though not as good. Last night I watched the film. I do love a black and white film – it makes one feel effortlessly intelligent. If I hadn’t just read the book, I’d probably have really loved it – but there are so many deviations. I can cope with a film missing out bits of the book, time constraints and all, but this one changed all sorts of details needlessly. Jane was French (actress can’t do an accent, I expect), her mother wasn’t dead and we never get to see her father, such an important aspect of the book. And why they gave her a baby girl instead of a boy, I can’t imagine. Still, the actors are brilliant – each looks and acts just right. Shame about the writing.

If you’ve not read The L-Shaped Room, do get a copy. Lots cheap on Amazon. And it’s also in print, which is rare enough for the books I recommend as favourites! Jane Graham will stay with you for years, as will her L-shaped room.