Review: Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

So this review is for the NYRB Classics Spotlight Series Tour and I’m so glad it motivated me to read Jessica Mitford’s wonderful memoir of growing up in such an eccentric and utterly charming family.

Many people know about the Mitfords, but if you don’t, here’s the brief run-down: Nancy the novelist wrote The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (both highly recommended), along with other novels; Diana married the leader of the British Union of Fascists; Unity was fascinated by Hitler and shot herself at the start of WW2; Jessica (‘Decca’) was the communist who lived in America most of her life; Deborah (‘Debo’) became the Duchess of Devonshire. The remaining siblings Pam and Tom didn’t acquire quite so much press.

The first half of Hons and Rebels details Jessica’s experiences growing up in an isolated country house, surrounded only by her family and educated at home. They made up their own language (Boudledidge) and games (Hure, Hare, Hure, Commencement, involving a lot of pinching), with many shared jokes and private slang, but at the same time, you sense the fierce competition between the sisters. As a teenager, Unity became entranced by the fascists, while Jessica immediately proclaimed her desire to go exactly the opposite way:

“Shouldn’t think of it. I hate the beastly Fascists. If you’re going to be one, I’m going to be a Communist, so there.”

and others in the family had more social ambitions:

The endless schoolroom talk to “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.

Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pam in 1935 (note that Jessica stands separately)

The tensions of the 1930s are here played out within one family, with Jessica running off to be a reporter’s assistant in the Spanish Civil War with her second cousin (a nephew of Churchill’s) while Unity was busy being pals with Hitler in Germany (Nancy had been part of the 1920s Bright Young People crowd, friends with Evelyn Waugh and others, but in the ’30s seemed to spend her time trying to calm down the excesses of her more political sisters). It makes for fascinating reading, to see such a unique and witty family caught up in these political conflicts in their own way, dividing the sitting room Unity and Jessica shared down the middle, with fascist propaganda on one side and communist on the other.

Sometimes we would barricade with chairs and stage pitched battles, throwing books and records until Nanny came to tell us to stop the noise.

Yet Jessica felt trapped in this life, knowing she couldn’t go on to college because she hadn’t gone to a proper school and feeling unable to do anything good for the cause she was beginning to follow (or even find family support for her ideals):

It was as though I were a figurine travelling inside one of those little glass spheres in which an artificial snowstorm arises when the sphere is shaken — and no matter where I was, in a train, a boat, a foreign hotel, there was no escape outside the glass. Invisible boundaries kept me boxed in from the real life of other people going on all around…

The Mitford sisters often seem to be involved in their own myth making, but as the outsider (even her father and mother traveled to Germany before the war to meet Hitler), Jessica offers a hilarious and enthralling view of her family and early married life. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year and if you’re at all interested in the Mitfords or what Britain was like before WW2, read it, read it!

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14 thoughts on “Review: Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

  1. Aarti says:

    For some reasons, I didn’t realize this was a Mitford biography! What a fascinating family šŸ™‚ Jessica Mitford had a large part in a book I read recently about the civil rights movement in the US called The Eyes of Willie McGee. I got a literary girl crush on her in that book and I think I’ll have to look into this one now, too! Thanks so much for a great review!

    • Carolyn (A Few of My Favourite Books) says:

      I really admire her now as well. The more I read about Nancy Mitford the more she sounds like a horrible snob, even though I still like her books, but Jessica is open and funny and willing to try anything, she’s very courageous and accepting of people. I didn’t write about it in my review (didn’t have time, I had to get to work!) but the second half of the book is about her relationship with her husband, their short time in Spain, then France, briefly back to England and then to America, where she lived for most of the rest of her life. Her open take on coming from a cold and rigid Britain to the consumer culture but also the friendliness of America is fascinating, even though it’s certainly not something any of her sisters would have enjoyed! I think Jessica saw America as a fresh start, a way to escape from her stifling past (though she never lost her family’s trademark humour) and work for a better future. And she certainly did, becoming known as a ‘muckraker’ journalist for exposing the dark side of various industries, including funeral homes! I am considering reading her letters now, she’s someone I would want to be friends with.

  2. Niall says:

    This sounds like a valuable slice of pre-war material – thanks for reading this one and writing about it so well.

    I wonder if you got any sense from the book as to Jessica’s attitudes to her siblings – particularly Diana and Unity? That sitting room barricade stuff is a terrifying glimpse into how the outside politics must have spilled over into childhood play. It reminded me of Stephen Poliakoff’s recent film ‘Glorious 39’, in which Poliakoff, as so often in his work, uses children as a way into exploring political issues – in that film the attempts by some to appease Hitler.

    • Carolyn (A Few of My Favourite Books) says:

      Thank you for coming by!

      Jessica doesn’t come out and condemn any of her sisters, especially not Unity. This may be because of Unity’s suicide attempt, but she writes about how she loved her despite their differences and how saddened she was that Unity had changed into someone hateful and that part was very moving. On the other hand, there is an undercurrent of deep frustration with her family, especially Nancy I think. There are times throughout the book when she recalls calling Nancy ‘weak willed’ as a child for having vague socialist principles and friends, but essentially doing nothing about them and not supporting Jessica when the rest of the family seemed to go fascist or indifferent. Nancy was the one who helped to bring Jessica back from Spain and Jessica felt she was betrayed. As far as Diana goes, Jessica doesn’t directly condemn her but she doesn’t become sentimental about her either (she says she was her favourite sister in childhood, but that after she married and became rich, she became more about appearances), so it seems they became distant.

      Actually, this article from The New Yorker about Jessica’s letters explains her relationship with her family very well.

  3. Joan Hunter Dunn says:

    So glad you’ve reviewed this book. You’d mentioned it in a comment on a post of mine, regarding wanting to know more about the Spanish Civil War, and now this review has made me want to read it even more.

  4. Nymeth says:

    Considering my recent interest in the 1930’s, I absolutely must read this! Sounds like a fascinating and very personal look at this time period.

    • Carolyn says:

      Yes, you must! šŸ™‚ I was thinking of your 1930s challenge as I read it, even though it was written in 1960, it captures the conflict of the ’30s so perfectly.

  5. Eva says:

    The Mitfords are so larger-than-life! I’ve been wanting to read that big volume of letters, but I want to read Nancy’s novels first (I saw the BBC adaptation few months ago and it was awesome). Anyway, this sounds like a good book to read before the letters so I have more background knowledge. šŸ™‚

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