Saturday, 27 July 2013

Hons and Rebels ~ Jessica Mitford

In the years between the wars, the exploits of the Mitford sisters regularly created a stir in the English society. Nancy Mitford, the eldest of the six sisters, wrote her infamous (but brilliant) novels in which she portrayed the deviances and eccentricities of the upper classes through thinly disguised portraits of her extended family and acquaintances. Diana married Sir Oswald Mosley, the famous fascist, and later unabashedly supported their younger sister Unity Valkyrie (Boud) in her obsession with Hitler. Boud, obsessed with the Nazis, travelled to Germany in the thirties, and openly proclaimed her hatred for the Jews and her admiration for the S.S.. Jessica (Decca) was a communist, which coming from a peer family, in the twenties and thirties raised quite a few eyebrows; and ran away to Spain during the war with her second cousin Esmond Romilly -- passionate communist and the nephew of Winston Churchill -- only a week after being acquainted with him. She eventually settled in the U.S.. The eccentricities of the Mitford family, and the English public's preoccupation with it, is best summed up by the following remark of the matriarch, Lady Redesdale:

"Whenever I read the words 'Peer's Daughter' in a headline", Lady Redesdale once sadly remarked, "I know it's going to be some thing about one of you children."

Hons and Rebels is Decca's hilarious and poignant memoir of her family. It is hilarious because it shows the eccentricities and quirks of a peer family from the point of view of one of the members; and it is extremely poignant because it shows the steady decline and break-up of that close-knit family during a tumultuous time in history.

The endless schoolroom talk of "What are we going to do when we grow up?" changed in tone. "I'm going to Germany to meet Hitler", Boud announced. "I'm going to run away and be a communist", I countered. Debo stated confidently that she was going to marry a duke and become a duchess. "One day he'll come along, The Duke I love . . ." she murmured dreamily. Of course, none of us doubted for a minute that we should reach the objectives we had set for ourselves; but perhaps seldom have childhood predictions materialised with greater accuracy.

Lord Redesdale, or the Rt. Hon. David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, the patriarch, and variously called 'Favre' and 'the Old Sub-Human', has been immortalised by Nancy in The Pursuit of Love as Uncle Matthew; and if Decca's descriptions of him are to be believed, the Old Sub-Human, is every inch a copy of Uncle Matthew (or vice versa). He is conservative, prone to shouting, hates taking the drive to the House of Lords, and doesn't do any thing much otherwise. Lady Redesdale, or Muv has strict views about the upbringing of her brood. She refuses to send her daughters to school, and prides in the fact that she can bring up her six daughters on the income of her chicken farm. She refuses to allow any one to be vaccinated, remarking that it involves "pumping disgusting dead germs into the Good Body", and rigorously believes that any diseases or fractures would be taken care of by the Good Body itself. She wasn't a Jew, but her adherence to Mosaic diet laws closely emulated the ones of an orthodox Jewish household simply because Muv had observed that "Jews never got cancer". Hence the food which the latter thought were unhealthy for consumption (pork, shellfish, rabbit), must indeed be unhealthy.

Asthall, 1921. 
Left to right: Muv, Nancy, Diana, Tom, Pam, Favre
In front: Boud, Decca, Debo

Nancy was one of the Bright Young Things in the twenties. Her friends (including Evelyn Waugh), often came down to their country mansion, Swinbrook, much to the consternation of the elder Mitfords. Decca only passingly refers to Nancy, as one with a sarcastic tongue and acerbic wit. Nancy seemed to spend most of the late thirties running after her younger sisters and trying to rescue them from the devious paths they had chosen for themselves.

Pamela is the one sister who gets the least mention in the book, probably because she had shown little interest in the eccentricities of her other sisters. She had spent a considerable portion of her childhood trying to be a horse, neighing and rocking, but disappointed at the revelation that she could never truly metamorphose into a horse, she turned her attentions to farming.

Tom is the only brother in the all-female household, and if one wonders about the amont of love and affection showered on him, he/she is immediately corrected by Decca:

Tom our only brother, occupied a rather special place in family life. We called him Tuddemy, partly because it was the Boudledidge translation of Tom, partly because we thought it rhymed with 'adultery'. 'Only one brother and six sisters! How you must love him. How spoilt he must be', strangers would say. 'Love him! You mean loathe him', was the standard Honnish answer. Debo, asked by a census-taker what her family consisted of, replied furiously, 'Three Giants, three Dwarfs and one Brute.' The Giants were Nancy, Diana and Unity, all exceptionally tall; the Dwarfs Pam, Debo and me; the Brute, poor Tuddemy. My mother has to this day a cardboard badge on which is carefully lettered: 'League against Tom. Head: Nancy.'

Left to right: Lady Redesdale, Nancy, Diana, Tom, Pam, Lord Redesdale
In front: Unity, Jessica, Deborah

In fact, it is to these hilarious little incidents did I return to time and again while reading the later sections of the book. After Decca was estranged from the family, and her other sisters were embroiled in serious controversies, I thought of the 'Hons', the schoolroom adventures, the eccentric pets, the propaganda against governesses, and the good-natured thoughtlessness of Lady Redesdale. Yet, the later part of the book is special for its own reasons. In Hons and Rebels, Decca writes not just a memoir of her famous family, but also in her own way, pays tribute to and immortalises her first love and first husband, Esmond Romilly. They were eighteen when they met, made a ridiculous plan to run away to Spain during the height of the war using the money from Decca's Running Away Account, and thus began their three years of living in the height of adventure and travel (with very little money).

Esmond and Jessica

It is an uphill task for me to write about the Mitfords and Hons and Rebels without quoting every line from the brilliant book. If it is only one book that you will read this month, let it be this marvellously funny and sad piece of gem. If you cry only once this month, let it be for the brilliant but lost Esmond Romilly; if you reminiscence only once this month, let it be for the lost adventures of girls in that clumsy country house; if you laugh uproariously only once this month, let it be for a group of little girls called 'Hons', named not after the 'Honourables' that they are, but after their pet Hens, which were the mainspring of their personal economy. Oh, before I forget, the H of Hon, of course, is pronounced as in Hen . . . 

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