Friday, December 3, 2010

Bookworm Present Proposition - Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford
Published by: NYRB Classics
Publication Date: 1960
Format: Paperback, 320 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
Recommended for: Anglophiles, Biography Buffs, Mitford Maniacs, Journalists and History Buffs
To Buy
Jessica Mitford was the "Ballroom Communist" of the engagingly eccentric Mitford Family. The second youngest daughter of the 2nd Baron Redesdalee, she had an unconventional upbringing where education was the bare minimum to make a good wife. Always wishing for an escape from her family, be it through schooling or politics or moving to another continent, she suffered through being a deb and presentation before the queen and watching her family come apart at the seems due to a divergence in beliefs. But at her first chance she ran off with her cousin, Esmond Rommilly, the nephew of Winston Churchill, to fight Franco in Spain. What with all of England trying to force her home, sending really big ships no less, even the courts of Chancery, it's surprising that she actually was able to succeed in her convictions and in marrying Esmond. The madcap and eccentric life that followed from Rotherhithe to the United States with Esmond equals that of her earlier life, but with herself being the master of her fate.

I rarely read biographies. I have to say, if more biographies were as fun and enjoyable as Jessica Mitford's I would read nothing but. The Mitford family has always been fascinating to me, what with the sisters paths being so divergent. Nancy was one of the "Bright Young Things" and a literary darling, with Love in a Cold Climate, which basically skewered her own family for her amusement. Pamela was horse obsessed and kind of out of the limelight. Diana married the heir to the Guinness fortune then divorced him to have an affair with the head of the British Facist party. When they eventually married, Hitler was at their wedding, which was held at the Goebbels' house. She also spent time in prison. Unity was Hitler's biggest fan and when war broke out between England and Germany she failed at committing suicide only to die of meningitis. And Debo... well she married the Duke of Devonshire and lives at Chatsworth, writes books about chickens and is the last remaining Mitford daughter. You could not make this stuff up! From her earliest days with family to her later life with Esmond, Jessica captures the love she had for these people while at the same time the exasperation of her situation. From hoarding money so she could run away, to the ultimate subterfuge that resulted in her being victorious, even if she had to chase the Spanish Consulate representative all over England and France. To the years scarping by in the States doing anything and everything to stay there, from selling stockings door to door to being a bouncer at a bar. That's right, Jessica, not her husband, was the bouncer.

Given the extreme fame of her family and the career Jessica later established as a journalist in her own right, if a muckracker at that, it's beyond enjoyable to see where it all began. The fact that a high born Hon would eschew her family and their beliefs to set out on her own crusade for right, for the poor and disadvantaged, is a noble crusade indeed. But what you also see is that with Esmond, this is a love story. From her first hearing mention of him, she was in love. From their similar backgrounds of trying to shed off what was their families hereditary hangups, she envied him for his actual escape and later he aided her escape as well. Whether he felt the same inevitability as her that they were meant to be is hinted at. But what is certain is that they were perfectly matched. It makes sense that the book ends with the outbreak of World War II. It's the event that, more than anything, shaped that generation, but more personally than that, embodied the division of this family. It was also the event that would claim Esmond's life. But at least in this book, we can see the love still remains.


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