A mass of Mitfords: from l to r, Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pamela
Last year I read a biography of the Mitford sisters and decided that if I was going to pick a favorite Mitford, it would have to be Jessica. Of course, what with two of the sisters winning the now undesirable title of most famous fascists in Britain, it's not like it was really difficult; one would have to think that given the choice between the fascist sisters and the renegade sort-of-communist sister, the communist seems much better, especially as communism in the 1930s in Britain seemed mostly a lark for slightly bored Bright Young Things (one of Jessica's friends tells her about going from a weekend at a peer's country house to cover a communist rally and the enormous difficulty he had hiding his tuxedo from his worker cohorts).
(btw, this is when one knows one has been reading too many upper-class British authors—one starts obliquely referring to oneself as "one" and finds oneself using terms like "lark." One is quite annoying).
So I picked up Jessica Mitford's memoir of her younger years, Hons and Rebels. This book was heavily quoted in the bio I read last year so much of it was familiar territory. Still, Mitford was a charming, funny writer, with the dry, understatement you would expect from someone of the era of Waugh, and her own sister, Nancy, so even parts I remembered reading before were worth reading again.
To recap briefly (and my goal for today is briefly in everything): the Mitfords were British nobility of the slightly crumbling, sun is setting on the Empire type. The girls were raised in a country house with a succession of governesses whom the girls terrified (the one that stayed was the one who impressed the younger set of sisters by cheerfully teaching them to shoplift). They rarely went to school (a couple of the older sisters had vague, sporadic years at "finishing schools") but instead had lessons at home, none of which were particularly challenging. This left plenty of time for the sisters to do things like ride horses, adopt pet snakes and lambs, create secret languages, make up dozens of nicknames, and go to war against their lone brother for no reason other than that he was their lone brother.
Jessica desperately wanted to go to school and go to university but that wasn't considered an option for a daughter of a peer, at least in their family. She was stifled by the country life and began to plan some way to get away, concocting all sorts of escape plans, including one in which she would make it seem like she had fallen into Loch Ness during a trip to Scotland; since rumor had it that no bodies were ever found in the lake because the monster ate them, this would be the perfect cover that would allow her to disappear without a trace. In preparation for her eventual escape, Jessica started a "Running Away" fund when she was young. The account received a considerable boost when Jessica's appendix was removed and she sold it to her younger sister for a pound (after the appendix began to smell and rot the family threw it out, leaving Debo, the buyer, infuriated when Jessica wouldn't return her money).
Glumly going through the debutante grind, with no real purpose in life other than a familial hope that she would someday meet and marry the right person, Jessica immersed herself in politics. With her sisters swinging violently to the right (Unity and Diana were favorites of Hitler's), Jessica rebelled and became a committed leftist. She heard about her cousin Esmond Romilly and the trouble he was causing the family with his newfound fame as one of England's most famous young communists. He was considered a terrible embarrassment to the family and she found him terribly intriguing. She read his books, followed his exploits, and fell in love with him from afar. When they finally met at a relative's house, she wanted to impress him with her commitment to his politics, so asked him to help her go to Spain to do something in the Civil War. He was on his way to Spain to cover the war for a newspaper and made up a plan to take her along as his secretary. While they were planning all this, he announced that he had fallen in love with her and they decided to not just run off to Spain but also get married.
(So yes, she read his work, fell in love with him on the page, and when they met, he actually fell in love with her. How nice for her. So there went the once in a millennium time that that story has happened in real life. No, I'm not bitter. Actually aghast would be a better word. Anyway, enough of me.)
When their escapade was discovered, it quite literally caused an international incident, with the family trying to bring them back and stop the most unsuitable marriage plans. Eventually it was decided that it already looked so bad for Jessica to be plainly co-habiting with Esmond that it would be better for her to get married, with hopefully a divorce along the way. Instead, though, they stayed married, lived life on a shoestring, and had a wonderful time.
The Romillys moved to America when things began to look really dismal for England, skating around the eastern US by meeting and charming friends of friends, particularly rich friends of friends. They worked odd jobs, including dress salesgirl in New York for Jessica, door to door stocking salesman in Washington for Esmond, and bar managers for both of them in Miami. When war did finally break out, Esmond joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was killed in action. That's where this book ends.
I'm doing a bad job of telling this story because I'm not as good a writer as Mitford, nor have I led as interesting a life. I recommend it highly because it's a very funny book with a love story that almost gives one (there one goes again) hope that there is such a thing in this world, though one doubts it. One has become quite convinced that these types of things don't really exist except in novels, movies, and memoirs from long ago times and maybe that's for the best because what else would one put in novels, movies and memoirs?