Author: Jessica Mitford
Category: I realized, as I was finishing Decca, that I would miss reading things that Jessica Mitford wrote. So I decided to read Hons and Rebels, her 1960 autobiography. Also, I decided to call it Hons and Rebels, instead of Daughters and Rebels, which was the original U.S. publication title. I think Hons and Rebels sounds better.
My thoughts: I loved it! Hons and Rebels covers Decca’s childhood and ends around 1940, when Decca was a young adult and her first husband Esmond Romilly was leaving to fight in World War II. She grew up really isolated in the Cotswolds, and mainly had her family and a nanny for company. The Mitford parents, Lord and Lady Redesdale (aka Muv and Farve), didn’t believe in sending the girls to school, so they were educated by Lady Redesdale, then a succession of governesses. The girls learned a rather skewed lesson in English history—they were taught that the U.S. was kicked out of the British Empire because of misbehavior (needless to say, that is not how I was taught the origin of the United States). Decca and her sister Unity developed a language called Boudledidge (Unity’s nickname was Boud), and Decca and Debo established the Society of Hons (hence the title, Hons and Rebels). As the 1930s dawned, Decca discovered socialism, while Unity became a rabid fascist. At their London home, Unity carved swastikas in the windows, while Decca countered by carving hammer and sickles. Their shared room was divided with Nazi and Communist material, and the two girls once got into a catfight about their views. In her letters, Decca makes it abundantly clear that she cannot stand Diana, her other fascist sister. But Decca can’t bring herself to hate Unity in the same way that she loathed Diana. In Hons and Rebels, she wrote, “Perversely, and although I hated everything [Unity] stood for, she was easily my favorite sister, which was something I could never have admitted in those days, above all to Esmond.”
One thing that I didn’t mention in previous posts was that Esmond Romilly was Decca’s second cousin. Esmond had joined the International Brigade in the fight against Franco’s fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War, which figures heavily in this story. Perhaps for the first time, I realized how that war was a bit of a forerunner to World War II. Decca originally consulted Esmond’s brother Giles about running away to Spain to join the fight against the fascists. She met Esmond at a relative’s house, they ran away together (first to France), fell in love, got married, spent time observing Spanish Civil War goings-on, and decided to move back to London. Here, the fact that these two are children of privilege shines through. They received an incredibly expensive electric bill, because “No one had ever explained to me that you had to pay for electricity; and lights, electric heaters, stoves blazed away night and day” at her house.
The Romillys always had their ears open to politics, and they decided to move to America in 1939, until the political situation in England became clearer. They felt like the climate at the time was in a sort of purgatory, with war imminent, but not yet declared. “There was already question about which side England might find herself on,” she wrote about the atmosphere in early 1939. One of her friends thought “there was a real possibility that the Chamberlain Government might go full circle, that England and Germany might team up against Russia.” I really think Hons and Rebels is a great book for understanding the time between the World Wars, and the lead-up to and early days of World War II (see the quote below).
After reading this, I really came to admire Decca and Esmond. After running away, they really choose to stick things out, even though at times their liv
Great passage: Out of the wild confusion of those first few days of the attack, one fact emerged; the German rain of fire against these ill-prepared, disunited countries had illuminated in one vast flash the real nature of the danger confronting Europe, had exposed for all to see and understand the criminal stupidity of the years of shabby deals and accommodation to Hitler’s ambitions. Overnight, the appeasement policy was buried forever.