Inconsistent Rebel with a Cause

Newberys Read This Year: 13

Newberys Left for Goal: 2

Newberys Left for Total: 16


Book: Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: One Book.jpgOne Book.jpgOne Book.jpg

I inherited my interest in things related to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor from my Nana. In reading about this famous pair I encountered other people (who were indeed characters!) of their acquaintance. Among them were the Mitford sisters. Combine their circle of friends with the fact that they are a group of six sisters and I didn’t stand a chance—I was bound to be hooked.

A few years ago I read a biography of all six sisters. I identified most with Nancy, the smart-mouthed writer, and Decca (real name Jessica) the greatest rebel. I’ve since read several of Nancy’s novels (The Pursuit of Love is by far the best) and earlier this year read this autobiography of Decca’s. I found Decca to be a capable writer, so I won’t spend any time on her skills. What was most remarkable to me was her actual life and some of the people in it, so I’ll focus on that.

Decca was the 5th of the 6 sisters (the girls also had a brother) born into the British aristocracy of the early 20th century. The family was both extraordinarily privileged as well as highly eccentric. The girls’ mother, Lady Redesdale, believed in educating her daughters (to some extent) but not allowing them to go to school. As a result, the girls grew up rather wild, supremely self-confident, and with varying degrees of rebellion against the prescribed, aristocratic lifestyle their parents embodied and embraced.

Combine this rebellion with too much unsupervised time and essentially enough money to do what you want and you can get some pretty out there results (passion for animals and hunting, secret languages, endless pranks). For three of the girls, as they became adolescents, this rebellion took the form of extreme dedication to various government systems. Two of the sisters, Diana and Unity, became zealous fascists (something I cannot even begin to understand). Decca, however, turned to communism. In part because of this strong belief in communism she was powerfully drawn to a somewhat distant cousin, Esmond Romilly, who eventually became her first husband.

Of all the rich, famous, poor, unsung, stilted, creative, or just plain wacky people Decca encountered in her life, Esmond was, understandably, the most important to her. Yet he was the one I liked the least. Through her lens of extreme affection and very early widowhood (Esmond was killed in WWII when he was only 23), Decca clearly sees Esmond as her hero. I saw him rather differently. He seemed so full of good ideals about fighting for what was best for the common good, yet several times in his life he was quite self-serving. He was not above breaking the law upon occasion when it suited him and then justifying it with very selfish reasons. He was rather ignorant, childish, and trusting with money, often looking for easy and somewhat shady ways of getting ahead, only to have the schemes rather blow up in his face. Decca seemed to find it all very endearing, while I just wanted to shake him.

Why did this man whom I’ve never met who died so much too young bother me so? I think because he ultimately struck me as a hypocrite. He talked a good game about communism, but he never really left his aristocratic roots. It’s not that I am a supporter of communism (for the record, I think it is a utopian way to live but that human nature prohibits it from being an effective government system), but I do think that if you are going to be an activist and a bit in-your-face about a cause (as both Esmond and Decca could be) then you need to support it with consistency. Inconsistency undermines credibility and ultimately undermines the cause. Here, it made Esmond and Decca seem like rich dilettantes with nothing better to do. I don’t think that is actually an accurate picture, but that is how they can come across.

I quite enjoyed reading about Decca’s childhood with her sisters. They were quite a mischievous bunch and their antics could be quite amusing (when they didn’t occasionally border on the cruel). I admired Decca’s independent spirit, particularly when she deliberately chose to defy her fascist sisters. I sympathized with her sorrows (her parents disapproved, of course, of her relationship with Esmond, not to mention the miscarriages and death of an infant she had to endure) and delighted in her joys (she and Esmond were very happy together in America and she eventually gave birth to their healthy daughter). I found much to like about Decca (perhaps not quite as much as JK Rowling, who idolized Decca to the point of naming her first daughter Jessica after Decca’s given name), but I also found myself so disappointed by the end because I so did not like Esmond. So mixed feelings make for a mixed review about an interesting person who was such a mix of her aristocratic background and her communist convictions. It’s all in the mix.

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