The letters of Jessica Mitford.

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 2 2007 7:26 AM

Black Sheep

The letters of Jessica Mitford.

Decca - the Letters of Jessica Mitford

Although it is not uncommon for big families to produce a rebel or two along with the chip-off-the-old-block offspring, there are few that can lay claim to as much dissension within the ranks as the aristocratic clan of Mitford. This gaggle of wayward sisters (six in all, with one brother, Tom, who was killed in combat in 1945 at the age of 36) included Diana, the family beauty, who married the dastardly Oswald Mosley, head of the British Fascist party; Nancy, the family wit, whose novel The Pursuit of Love kick-started the proliferation of novels, memoirs, and biographies that would come to be called the Mitford "industry"; and the family madwoman, Unity, who went bonkers for Adolf Hitler and put a pistol to her head when Britain declared war on Germany.

Of these exotic renegades, none was more proud of going against the grain than Jessica, a black sheep who flouted everything her virulently xenophobic parents stood for by embracing communism over Blue Bloodism and then, adding insult to injury, the United States over England. Throughout her career, Decca (as Jessica was nicknamed) exhibited an undeviating delight in bucking the trend—an épater-le-bourgeoisie instinct which seems less a testament to a fiery social conscience or to deeply felt beliefs than a lifelong habit of enfant terrible-ism. How you feel about the woman once dubbed "the Queen of Muckrakers" for her scathing indictments of everything from a correspondence course for aspiring scribblers (Bennett Cerf's Famous Writers School) to a posh women's spa after reading Decca, a fat volume of her correspondence ably edited by Peter Y. Sussman, depends on your tolerance for a certain kind of d'haut en bas approach to human misery that eschews compassion for brisk vigor. It is symptomatic of her less-than-cuddly attitude that she appears in these letters to be more moved by the plight of Miranda, a pet lamb from childhood that she last saw a half-century ago ("I suppose that by now she must be dead? ... Miranda was the light of my life") than she is by the bipolar disorder her son Benjamin suffered from, the effects of which she characterized as "dreadful, absurd, disgusting manic episodes."

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Decca grew up in an imposing house named after the Cotswold village in which it was located; she refers to it in her first memoir, Hons & Rebels, as "a private lunatic asylum." She was schooled at home by her mother and then a series of inept governesses. Both her parents had whims of iron: Her father, Lord Redesdale (referred to as "the feudal remnant" or "the Old Subhuman" and sometimes as "Farve" or "the Male"), was given to bursts of rage against Huns and artists, and believed in the efficacy of unpasteurized milk, as well as the unchecked power of the House of Lords. "Muv" had her own pet peeves—Jews were among them—and odd affections (chicken-farming), and was firmly against medical intervention when anyone in the family took ill, being of the belief that ailments were best left to "the Good Body" to take care of on its own.

Jessica, the second-to-youngest daughter, emerged from this proudly insular background (outsiders, including other people's children, were shunned) with a durable feeling of entitlement; she first learned to make a bed after she was married and staying with her friend Virginia Durr in Washington, D.C. In 1937, after spending a finishing year in Paris, followed by a sightseeing visit to a Nazified Munich with her mother and sisters (this detail was elided from both her memoir and her letters), and coming out in the 1935 debutante season at Buckingham Palace, Decca shocked her family by eloping with Esmond Romilly under their ever-watchful noses. She had been squirreling funds since the age of 12 in a "Running Away Account" at Drummond's Bank in London expressly with an eye toward such a contingency. (According to Decca's memoir, her mother, upon learning of the account, murmured vaguely cautionary words in response: "Well, darling, you'll have to save up a nice lot; you have no idea how expensive life in London is these days.")

In the congenially interwoven way of the British upper classes, Romilly was Decca's second cousin and the nephew of Winston Churchill, who was widely rumored to be his father. Mitford had fallen in love with Romilly—whose exploits she had been following ever since he had grown notorious as a pacifist "Red Menace" while still at boarding school—practically within minutes of meeting him at a weekend house party given by her cousin Dorothy.  From the moment she joined forces with Esmond, Decca adopted his sense of outrage at social injustices and his impassioned political commitment. Decca became a member of the Communist Party in the early 1940s, and although she left it in 1958, she did so more out of boredom than disillusionment with its underlying principles ("I did find the so-called 'discipline' a bit confining and tiresome"), and claimed until the last to find it preferable to other systems. All the same, she was happy to draw on the cachet of her and Romilly's crested backgrounds when it suited her purposes after they came to live in Washington, D.C.—paving the way to invitations from Washington Post publisher Eugene Meyer to stay at his lushly appointed home in Mount Kisco, as well as to a long friendship with his daughter Katherine Graham—just as she sedulously played down her aristo credentials when she thought they would prove troublesome. (She presumably did not let her many radical friends in on her blue-chip origins or the fact that she had inherited a share of her family's private island retreat off the coast of Scotland upon her brother's death.)

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