Saturday, September 4, 2010

NYRB Challenge #43: More Mitford Madness. . .

The famous and fascinating Mitford sisters have been amply written about, and Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford is one of the less obscure books that NYRB has reprinted. However, I'd never read it before and it truly is as delightful as its literary reputation. It covers the years of Jessica's upbringing in an eccentric British family, her frustrations at not being able to get a proper education, her early establishment of a "Running Away Fund" at her local bank, and her subsequent use of the money when at nineteen, she ran away to Spain with her second cousin Esmond Romilly - Winston Churchill's nephew - who had already fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The two married and spent some years in America before Esmond enlisted in the Canadian Air Force and was killed over the North Sea in 1941 at the age of only 23.

Much of this ground, especially the early childhood, has been covered in the biographies and in Nancy Mitford's comic novels, such as The Pursuit of Love. Jessica points out that Nancy was "too sharp-tonged and sarcastic to be anyone's Favourite Sister for long", giving as this hilarious example, "if one had taken particular trouble to do one's hair in ringlets, she was apt to remark, 'You look like the oldest and ugliest of the Bronte sisters today.'" 

I was most impressed with the second half of Hons and Rebels detailing the relationship of Jessica and Esmond; I was utterly amazed and impressed at the strength of their personalities. They were so very young and naive (and often broke) to have such confidence and daring in their adventures and convictions. They took all that optimism to America, dividing up the people they met into "Grant's Tombers", those chiefly interested in being tourist guides, the "Possible Job Getters", and the "Genoowinely Innaresting People". Some of the latter were writers and publishers; she writes that one of the experiences that stands out the most in her memory is the lavatory at Random House, "fixed up like a miniature library, lined from floor to ceiling with such appropiate titles as Gone With the Wind, Mein Kampf, King John."  This was in 1939.  (I've never actually been further than the lobby of Random House New York - which is indeed full of books -  but I can assure you that the washrooms of Random House Canada contain no reading material). There is also a very funny chapter describing Esmond's brief stint as a silk stocking salesman. They had such a love of life, their friends, and of each other, though by no means is Jessica overly sentimental or revealing about private details. On finishing the memoir, and wiping a tear from my eye, I immediately reached for Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, edited by Peter. Y. Sussman, and read all of her letters to Esmond while he was in Canada doing his military training.

Nancy's early 1934 novel Wigs on the Green, satirizing the British supporters of fascism - including her two sisters Diana and Unity - has recently been reissued and is on my reading pile.  NYRB has also just reprinted Jessica Mitford's Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckracking, which contains some of her best and wittiest journalism pieces, along with her commentary on how she got her scoops, and the reaction to the stories after publication. I would love it if they brought back into print Jessica's follow-up memoir A Fine Old Conflict about joining and then leaving the Communist Party.

Update:  After reading Hons and Rebels and writing this post, I found out, we don't have Canadian rights after all to the NYRB edition (mistake in our system). I have been consciously trying only to review books with Canadian rights, but hey, these things happen. So if you live in the U.S., you can buy the NYRB edition. In Canada, Hons and Rebels is published by Phoenix.

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