12 August 2016

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

On June 14, Robert Rinder and Stella Duffy were guests on A Good Read, hosted by Harriet Gilbert.  I follow this program as a podcast and am always excited when a book is going to be discussed that's on my tbr list or, as in this case, has been languishing on my shelves.

Robert Rinder chose Hons and Rebels to share with the panel.  It's a book he uses in a very Mitford-esque way to split people into two groups: friends and non-friends.  The slice of Mitford life that's always piqued my interest involved Deborah and Nancy due to their writings.  A copy of Jessica's Hons and Rebels has been sitting on my shelves for years but, to be honest, its contents were a complete mystery.  Finally all has been revealed and the book is everything Mr. Rinder said it would be.

Jessica was the penultimate child of seven born to Lord and Lady Redesdale.  The family moved to Swinbrook, a mere three miles from the Cotswolds, in 1926 when Jessica was nine years-old.

'Swinbrook had many aspects of a fortress or citadel of medieval times.  From the point of view of the inmates it was self-contained in the sense that it was neither necessary nor, generally possible, to leave the premises for any of the normal human pursuits.'

The isolation suited Lord and Lady Redesdale quite well.  Jessica's father was very free with his opinions about relatives, friends, suitors, and most kinds of merry-making.  Her mother was suspicious of modern health care, refusing to allow the children to be vaccinated, wear glasses, and insisted on a Mosaic diet as, according to her, Jewish people didn't get cancer.  So strong were her beliefs that Jessica, very ill and in pain, had to call the doctor herself to ask if he could come to the house to perform an appendectomy.

Such isolation and eccentricity was probably, in part, responsible for creating the wonderful theatrics and imaginations of the Mitford children.    They created their own language called Boudledidge, shouted political slogans at opposing party members in the village, dressed in costume to frighten each other, and were willing participants when a governess, Miss Bunting, taught them to shoplift.  A previous governess was on the receiving end of a devilish prank by Unity...

'Boud found out she had a deadly fear of snakes, and left Enid, her pet grass snake, neatly wrapped around the w.c. chain one morning.  We breathlessly awaited the result, which was not long in coming.  Miss Whitey locked herself in, there was shortly an ear-splitting shriek followed by a thud.  The unconscious woman was ultimately released with the aid of crowbars, and Boud was duly scolded and told to keep Enid in her box thereafter.'

The polarizing images of a madhouse, albeit a loving one, with lavish affairs at ancestral homes, townhouses in Knightsbridge, and Buckingham Palace are fascinating.  As the fifth girl to be presented at court Jessica viewed the event with complacency.

'Clambering finally out of the car, we stumbled through the rainy dark into a brightly lit, crowded corridor, filled with bare shoulders and the musty smell of rented ostrich feathers.  More hours of inching, this time through seeming miles of slightly overfed human flesh.'

This book is a gem for so many reasons.  The writing is so natural and while many of the stories are gobsmackingly ridiculous, the carefree way they're related goes a long way to leading the reader to feel as though they've only lived half a life by not having politicians and the Royal Navy at their beck and call,  I felt a bit inadequate that my 'tween' years were spent poring over teen magazines instead of manifestos.  The treasure trove of social customs to be gleaned are also fascinating...who knew you could rent ostrich feathers?

The first third of Hons and Rebels is brilliantly riveting and made me laugh out loud many times.  As Jessica grows, it's a political atmosphere that's brought to the fore.  Unity is firmly united with the British Union of Fascists and sets out on a successful mission to be noticed by Adolf Hitler.  She wasn't the only member of the family to sympathize with the Nazis...

'My parents maintained that the book* was Communist-inspired, and that anyway the Jews had brought all this trouble on themselves, apparently by the mere fact of their existence.'

(*The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror by Otto Katz)

As a supporter of the Communist Party, Jessica was often at odds with her family.  But I did find myself asking the question...can you be a Communist while drinking brandy, eating steak, and wearing expensive clothes?  There were times when Jessica's thought processes boggled the mind...

'Cooking presented few problems, as we seldom ate at home.  Someone had given me a book of recipes by Boulestin, but as most of the recipes called for a pound of butter, a quart of cream, a wineglassful of brandy, breast of chicken, lobster and similar items, we could only afford to eat at home on rare occasions, and generally ended up with fish and chips at the nearest Lyons teashop.'

This clearly paints a picture of youthful naiveté as Jessica and Esmond were married while barely out of their teens.  It also speaks to a privileged upbringing where the idea of scrambled eggs on toast for dinner wasn't conceivable.

Despite the fact that Jessica wrote lovingly about her husband, I couldn't warm up to Esmond Romilly, who was also Winston Churchill's nephew by marriage.  His endless schemes to make money, or gamble what little they had, were foolhardy.  He was quick to suggest that Jessica charge an expensive camera to her father's account when they decided to run away together.  Esmond was slick when it came to a sales job - so slick that if I were Jessica I would have to wonder if I were another convenient acquisition for Esmond's gain.  In the end, this young couple may have led an exciting life full of chance and luck, but it couldn't have been easy.  Tragically, their four month-old daughter (who is never mentioned by name) died during a measles outbreak.  Jessica wondered if it was possible that because she had never been vaccinated, she failed to pass on any maternal immunity to her baby.

Trenches are being dug in Hyde Park as the prospect of another World War looms.  Jessica and Esmond are astounded at having to pay such a thing as an electric bill and have no money.  The solution is to book passage to America where anything is possible,  Somehow, time after time, bleak circumstance turned into opportunity but Esmond would keep rolling the dice...literally.  I wanted to throttle him but had to remind myself he was barely twenty years-old.  If Jessica wavered in her support, it's not evident in this book.

Hons and Rebels is an entertaining and poignant look into the lives of arguably one of the most fascinating families of the twentieth century.  Apparently Jessica wrote this memoir for the daughter she went on to have with Esmond, who went missing in action during WWII in 1941.  The book does end abruptly as I suppose it had served its purpose, but Jessica went on to lead a life that could hardly have been imagined while plotting her next caper at Swinbrook.

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford is excellent, and Robert Rinder, wherever you are....we could be friends.

 Esmond Romilly and Jessica 'Decca' Mitford


  1. I love the image of the 'rented ostrich feathers' ... things are never what they seem, are they?

  2. I love this memoir, I find these sisters so fascinating. They formed their own little world and each was so different from the other.

    1. They're such a fascinating bunch! Not to harp on about screen time and children but it just shows you what can come out of a bit of boredom and some imagination. Although, it's frightening to think of the practical jokes you would be subjected to if you were a frequent visitor.

  3. I first read Hons and Rebels about a million years ago (okay, perhaps 1970ish) and went on to read A Fine Old Conflict.

    Recently, I've read her collected letters, Decca, and also The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters, which I strongly recommend if you have any interest in those amazing sisters who between the lot of them were 1 degree of separation from virtually every mover and shaker in the western world in the 20th century, including Hitler, the Kennedys, Paul Robeson and Adele Astaire.

    Letters Between 6 Sisters is ably and amazingly edited by Charlotte Mosley. Yes, Mosley.

    And I've just this week read Jo Walton's Ha'Penny (go and look up her books if you don't know her, but you probably do) and wasn't much surprised to find the protagonist's family is clearly and blatantly based on the Mitfords. Excellent stuff.

    Susan D (aka Susanna Stone, because I can't sign in any other way)

    1. I have Letters Between Six Sisters, Susan...it's perfect for dipping in and out of! I'm afraid that texting and emails will spoil the chances of anything like that from here on in. Jo Walton's 'Farthing' is languishing on my shelves! Thanks for the heads up about Ha'Penny...a must-read by the sounds of it.

  4. I've read quite a few books on the Mitfords. Eccentric and slightly mad I would say. Did not endear me anyway with their attitudes.

    1. There are times when it has been a bit too much for me too, Mystica. Sometimes, when I read Nancy's books, I definitely feel on the outside of a joke and she's not about to let me in. You have to be in the mood, that's for sure.

  5. I read H&R a very long time ago & loved it. Must reread one day. I also listen to the Good Read podcast & have just listened to Muriel Spark's Girls of Slender Means (read by Juliet Stevenson) after another episode. That was a reread but again, so long after the first read that it was practically a new book to me. I'd also recommend the letters, both Six sisters & Decca's letters, just fascinating.

  6. I read H&R a long time ago but it's not fresh in my mind. I think Jessica was perhaps less bonkers than some of the other sisters. Nancy still my favourite!

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