Why are the Mitford sisters so fascinating? Having just read Decca’s letters, I would have to say I’m still not sure but I know I’m still enthralled. I think it’s partly the whole aristocratic English family fascination plus the way the sisters manage to cover the entire spectrum of political opinions from High Tory to Fascist to Communist plus the eternal interest in family dynamics. I read Charlotte Mosley’s collection of the letters of all six sisters a couple of years ago & I loved it. The relationships & shifting allegiances between the sisters was so interesting. Once I got my head around the many different nicknames they had for each other, I found it read like fiction, a wonderful family saga, often with multiple perspectives on the same incident from several sisters.
Reading the letters of one person isn’t quite the same as the reader only has Decca’s viewpoint but often the same incident is relayed in slightly different ways to different correspondents which can throw a new light on it. Reading letters is a subjective experience, much more so than reading autobiography or a diary. Even if the writer is writing for posterity (& I think it’s harder to do this with letters than with a diary), once the letter is sent, it can’t be altered, it can’t be tidied up the way autobiography or even a diary can be.
Jessica Mitford (known as Decca) was the second youngest of the siblings. Her five sisters, Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity & Deborah & brother Tom, were the children of Lord & Lady Redesdale. Anyone who has read Nancy’s wonderful novels, Love in a Cold Climate & The Pursuit of Love, has met the Redesdales already in only slightly exaggerated form. Nancy became a novelist; Pamela was the least public of the sisters, living a quiet country life; Diana famously married Sir Oswald Mosley & was imprisoned with him during WWII as a result of their Fascist sympathies; Unity was devoted to Hitler & tried to commit suicide on the outbreak of war; Tom was killed in WWII & Deborah married the Duke of Devonshire.
Jessica was always a rebel. She resented her lack of education intensely & virtually educated herself after her attempts to go to school failed. Her parents just didn’t see the point in educating girls. She ran away & married her cousin, Esmond Romilly, in the mid 1930s. They went to Spain during the Civil War but ended up living in the US. Esmond went to Canada to join the armed forces & was shot down over the North Sea in 1941.
Decca stayed on in the States & married radical lawyer Bob Treuhaft. Her public life was one of fighting for causes she believed in passionately – civil rights especially – & she was a member of the Communist Party for 10 years. She was subpoenaed to appear before the Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, a fact that appeared on her CV under “Honours, Awards & Prizes” as something of which she was especially proud. She was a journalist whose book on the funeral industry in the US, The American Way of Death, broke taboos & exposed the rorts of the funeral industry. She was a memoirist whose book on her early life, Hons & Rebels, contributed as much to the Mitford legend as Nancy’s novels.
Decca had little contact with her family for years after she moved to the States but gradually she picked up the threads of her relationship with her mother & then her sisters. Her relationship with Diana never recovered from their political differences & she had famous spats with Nancy & Debo as well. But, she visited England more frequently as she grew older & re-established contact with other friends & her wider family. Decca kept on muckraking (she was proud to be given the title Queen of the Muckrakers by Time magazine), campaigning for the rights of others & disputing with her sisters until the end of her life.
Although her public persona was quite tough, the letters reveal a softer side. She was devastated by the death of Esmond Romilly & barely mentioned it in Hons & Rebels. She found it difficult to talk or write about her grief at the loss of her & Esmond’s baby, Julia, to measles or the death of her son Nicholas Treuhaft, who was killed in a road accident at the age of 10. In a letter to Katherine Graham in 1990 she writes about her inability to revisit such grief,
Another example: Bob’s & my first child Nicholas…born in 1944, absolute apple of my eye, an enchanting & v. amusing boy – killed in an accident, 1955. Absolutely wrecked all happiness for a v.v. long time. When I wrote A Fine Old Conflict … I simply airbrushed Nicky out. His birth, his short & delightful life, never mentioned. Very odd indeed; but again, I simply couldn’t bear to go into all that in a book. (April 9, 1990)
Decca also writes very movingly of Nancy’s slow, painful death & her own feeling of helplessness at being unable to do anything to relieve her. Nancy lived in Paris for much of her life & the sisters took turns staying with her in her final months. Decca was unsurprised that Nancy’s characteristic waspishness hadn’t been mellowed by her illness & that she could still be demanding & impatient about the way Decca arranged roses from the garden.
There are a lot of very funny letters as well. In the 1950s Lady Redesdale, known as Muv to her daughters, went to live on Inch Kenneth, an island off the coast of Scotland. Decca & her family visited her there & were treated to an eccentric tea party with the neighbours who all had to row over from their own nearby islands to attend,
The guests were rounded up by boat, and were seen struggling over the seaweed in good time for me to put the kettle on. They turned out to be virtually indistinguishable from the rocks and crags that abound in these parts; it took a good 20 minutes to divest them of their gumboots, mackintoshes & shawls. We sat them all around the u-shaped dining-room table in the bow window. Whether or not we would ever get 11 people round it was a question, up to the end. Benj (Decca’s son) & I kept asking Muv, “Are they fat?” “Reasonably fat, I should say,” was all we could get out of her. Reasonably fat most of them turned out to be… (May 23, 1959)
I loved reading Decca’s letters. I’m so pleased that I have several more volumes of Mitfordiana to read. I have two volumes of Nancy’s letters on the way from The Book Depository, Love from Nancy edited by Charlotte Mosley & Nancy’s correspondence with Evelyn Waugh (when they’re back in stock); Debo’s correspondence with Patrick Leigh Fermor, In Tearing Haste, is on the tbr shelves along with Nancy’s novels, Wigs on the Green & Highland Fling & Laura Thompson’s biography of Nancy, Life in a Cold Climate. I also feel I must read Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One as it’s a companion piece to Decca’s The American Way of Death & Simon at Stuck In A Book has just read & enjoyed it. I haven’t read nearly enough Waugh either. Just as well I prefer reading to just about anything else as I have so much of it to do.