Tuesday, August 4, 2009

J.K. Rowling on British Communist Jessica Mitford: "The First It Girl"

In light of my Harry Potter Review, I found the article below, Rowling's review of "Decca", a collection of letters from the British Born Communist and Spanish Civil War Veteran.

J.K. Rowling reviews Decca: the Letters of Jessica Mitford ed by Peter Y Sussman

Jessica Mitford has been my heroine since I was 14 years old, when I overheard my formidable great-aunt discussing how Mitford had run away at the age of 19 to fight with the Reds in the Spanish Civil War: 'And she charged a camera to her poor father's account to take with her!' It was the camera that captivated me, and I asked for further details. My great-aunt, who taught classics and approved of a thirst for knowledge, even of a questionable kind, produced a very old copy of Hons and Rebels, the first volume of Jessica Mitford's autobiography.

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford gives, as letters usually do, a much fuller picture of the writer than either of her own autobiographies, and I finished reading feeling even fonder and more admiring of her than before (it would have been what Decca calls 'rather narst in a way' if I had not, given that I named my first daughter after her).

The letters span a life that was remarkable by any standards Рthe teenage aristocrat who fled England, eventually becoming a Communist in America; the runaway wife turned war widow who became a civil rights campaigner, campaigning journalist and, finally, author of the huge bestseller The American Way of Death, an expos̩ of the corrupt practices of the funeral industry. And all this was quite apart from her membership of that band of prototype 'It Girls', the Mitford Sisters.

Decca was characteristically amusing on what she called 'The Mitford Industry'. After the success of the US bestseller The I Hate Cats Book, she wrote, '"The I Hate Mitfords Book" might go well here – followed as in the US by "100 Ways to Kill a Mitford"'. To Katharine ('Kay') Graham, publisher of the Washington Post: 'The Mitford Girls [the musical] folded in London, so that's ONE chore you can avoid. (Is said to be possibly opening in GERMANY, serves those wretched Krauts right if so.)'

Letters to, and about, her sisters will be the first many readers turn to: Nancy, the Francophile writer; Deborah, 11th Duchess of Devonshire; and, very occasionally, Pam, usually dubbed the 'quiet' or 'rural' Mitford (Decca was heartily amused by the Private Eye spoof, 'I, Doreen, Memoirs of the Unknown Mitford Sister').

Decca never forgave the Nazi sympathies of her second-eldest sister, Diana Mosley, though a ceasefire was called for both of them to attend Nancy's deathbed. By her own admission, Decca's dislike was compounded by the bitterness she felt about the death in action of her first husband, Esmond Romilly.

Given this, it was unexpected and touching to read the letter she sent to Deborah when Oswald Mosley died: '… Diana must be so sad and lonely. For obvious reasons I shan't be writing, but if inclined do transmit message of sympathy. Much love, Henderson Oh dear what a v. odd & awkward letter. But you know how it is, Hen.'

There are rows too, the most heated concerning the Mitford Industry itself. 'Why should you be the final arbiter of everything about the family?' she writes furiously to Deborah at one point. The apogee comes when the family's most notorious skeleton is dragged forcibly from the cupboard: David Pryce-Jones's biography of Unity, to whom Decca was closest in youth, and who became an arch-fascist and favourite of Hitler's.

Decca thinks the story ought to be told; the other sisters are in favour of suppression; and as the exchanges become ever more inflammatory, the reader feels that guilty sense of eavesdropping which only the most disingenuous will pretend is not one of the greatest thrills of reading other people's correspondence.

Decca's letters sing with the qualities that first made her so attractive to me. Incurably and instinctively rebellious, brave, adventurous, funny and irreverent, she liked nothing better than a good fight, preferably against a pompous and hypocritical target. 'As you can see,' she wrote, while embroiled in a public campaign to close down the fraudulent Famous Writers School correspondence course, 'it's all rather enjoyable, mainly because they're such super-respectable right-wing asses.'

She was riddled with contradictions, as she knew herself; the least 'politically correct' Communist imaginable, she was once reprimanded by the party for advertising a fundraiser by promising 'Girls! Girls! Girls!' on the promotional poster, which was felt to show a questionable stance on 'The Woman Question'. Frequently reproved for levity at Communist Party meetings, she unashamedly enjoyed her forays into a more moneyed world ('lapping up the luxury' at Kay Graham's, and of course staying at the incomparably beautiful Chatsworth).

Despite her loathing of housework and indifference to dirt and clutter, there are nevertheless glimpses of Lady Redesdale's daughter ('paper napkins, which I did think squalid'.) To a Communist who had written her a fan letter, she replied: 'I try … to write things that I hope will be useful in the [Communist] struggle – eg the prison book … I realise that often I get absolutely besotted by trivial subjects which haven't got much to do with the class struggle, but I fear that is a fault of character.'

Peter Sussman has done a masterly job of editing these letters, which must have been a veritable minefield given that, as he says, 'Decca's views were often stated intensely and provocatively.' His footnotes are exemplary, illuminating at least one relationship that had eluded me through 27 years of reading about the Mitfords.

By grouping the letters chronologically, dividing them according to periods, he manages to give unobtrusive form and structure to a life that was lived chaotically. The only possible quibble, and I think it was unavoidable, is that we are given all the unbearably sad details of her first husband's death before plunging into the most touching love letters that I have ever read, sent to Esmond while he was training with the Canadian airforce, so that their humour and warmth is overlain with a chill of foreboding from the start.

The culmination of this sadness is reading Decca's letter to her mother, after receiving the telegram that 23-year-old Esmond was missing: 'I'm absolutely certain that Esmond is all right … sometimes it takes as long as 6 months to hear about prisoners.' At night, Sussman tells us, the friend with whom she and her young daughter were staying could hear her talking in her sleep: 'Oh, the water was so cold, the water was so cold …'

Decca's own death was smoking-related. How I identified with her attempts to give up. Aversion therapy, she wrote, was useless. Her second husband, Bob Treuhaft, 'collected a ton of disgusting butts & ashes, and all I did was to breath in deeply & say "HOW divine."' By the time the cancer was detected it had spread to her brain. Years previously, Evelyn Waugh had criticised The American Way of Death, for its lack of a 'plainly stated attitude towards death'. She replied via her sister Nancy: '… tell him of course I'm against it'.

On the evidence of her final letters, her attitude was an almost cheery acceptance. Her last written words were addressed to her husband ('Bob, it's so ODD, dying …') and her adored 'Hen', her sister Deborah, and they are painfully moving.

Her last laugh, however, was had at the expense of her ancient enemy, Service Corporation International, which she had pursued for years, alleging exorbitant and immoral practices in the funeral industry. On Decca's instructions, her assistant wrote to them after her death including a bill for funeral expenses: 'Ms. Mitford feels that you should pay the bill. In her own words "after all, look at all the fame I've brought them!" '


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