Non-Fiction Claxon! Non-Fiction Claxon!
There can’t be many middle-class women in the UK who AREN’T fascinated by the glorious Mitford sisters – six wild, errant aristocratic sisters from the early twentieth century who lived assorted lives of literature, politics and adventure with a delicious insouciance. The most famous sister is probably Nancy, novelist of the brilliant The Pursuit of Love – but the others are a fascinating bunch of rebels, Fascists, a Communist, Nazis, and even a Duchess. Having strolled around the scented, tumbling, wildflower filled garden of one of their Gloucestershire homes a few weeks ago, I knew I needed to find out more about the motley crew.
Hons and Rebels is the autobiography (up to age 25ish) of the penultimate Mitford sister, Jessica – the Communist who eloped with her cousin, a stranger, to the Spanish Civil War at the tender age of 19 never to return home. “Decca”, as she’s known within the family, balances the narrative well between the juicy family life details that Nancy brings to life so brilliantly in The Pursuit of Love, and her adult adventures. Thus we get plenty about Boudledidge and Honnish (two different child languages), their mother’s eccentric belief about illness (don’t treat it, don’t segregate when sick), terrorising ineffectual governesses, and little Decca scratching hammer and sickles onto windowpanes. We also get a clear sense of stifling loneliness and boredom of growing up in a family who refused to socialise with anyone but family, and not even all of them, and who refused to send their girls to school.
One downside to the true insider perspective is that the novel is very much the tale of a much younger sister – peeping through the banisters at the more glamorous and raffish Nancy (novelist and bright young thing) and Diana (society girl and fascist) who were some years older.I feel I’d need to read another book to get more of a sense of those two. (The other older sister, Pam, seems to be entirely unremarkable and barely gets a mention). Decca offers little insight into their lives, seeing them instead as exotic, brittle, remote older creatures. Jessica focuses instead on the 3 younger sisters (Boud (Unity), Debo (Deborah) and Decca herself – but that does mean we get a great personal account of the growing Fascist vs Communist rivalry between Unity and Jessica, amusingly accounting of the line down the middle of their room, with communist flags and little red books on one side and swastikas and Nazi memorabilia on the other. Less amusing but intriguing is the account of Unity’s growing personal relationship with Hitler ending ultimately in her botched suicide at the outbreak of war.
The book makes a clear turn on Decca’s elopement, with the inevitable loss of the distinctive Mitford world, but Decca’s portrait of husband Esmond Romilly is affectionate and engaging and more than fills the eccentric-hole in the narrative at that points. A revolutionary, charmer and a gambler, Romilly turns his hand enthusiastically to whatever comes his way – whether that’s selling tights door to door or becoming a barman. The couples’ detachment from the real world – despite their ideals – is ripe for humour; at one point they have to leave a flat and go into hiding from the electricity company, having racked up a large bill not having realised that it needed to be paid for.
A distinct Mitford-ism is the overt lack of emotion or sentimentality; there is little talk of love, the death of a baby (though mentioned with tender sadness) is skirted around somewhat, and the ultimate tragedy of Esmond’s death at 23 is only mentioned indirectly in the closing pages. (It is no surprise that Decca was described as approaching her own children with “benign neglect” and as “not touchy feely.”) For all its comedy the Mitford world is frankly dysfunctional, and Jessica, like Nancy as a novelist, is not comfortable with soul-searching.
But regardless – the book has whetted, not sated, my appetite for these sisters, and I’m eyeing up a hefty volume of their letters which is available. The witty archness that so characterises Nancy’s novels is clearly somewhat of a family trait and I think they’d be a pleasure. So go forth! Mitford yourselves! Whether letters, autobiography or novels, they remain the most fascinating, amusing and tragic family of their era.