The Lineup: The Tomes of Mitford, By and About

In its first draft, this list comprised several dozen titles—too much even for rabid Mitford aficionados, although it seems a piker’s tabulation to me. Nevertheless, it made sense to winnow it down to a more approachable chunk here. Caveat: There may be more such lists in future, if you’re good.

English-speaking peoples (not to say some Germans and, inevitably, the French) have been gossiping about the Mitfords for about a hundred years. Lord and Lady Redesdale produced seven children who grew up to become some of the more famous and/or notorious British subjects of their time. Being born a Mitford was generally a direct path to destiny and notoriety, with one exception—Pamela, who did nothing more outré than raise poultry.

One way or another, Mitfords have been scandal fodder for Fleet Street either centrally or tangentially, and much written about, although some of their number wrote on their own behalf. For an example of the tangential: Dora Carrington killed herself with a shotgun she borrowed from Diana Mitford’s first husband. Known simply as Carrington, her Bloomsbury credentials were impeccable. She was an artist who had the misfortune to fall deeply in love with Lytton Strachey, who wasn’t interested in women, so she married Lytton’s paramour at the time, Ralph Partridge, and they all lived together. Two months after Strachey died of stomach cancer in 1932, she shot herself in the head, successfully. She was 41. Carrington borrowed the offending shotgun from her neighbors, an Irish lad named Bryan Walter Guinness (yes, that Guinness family), 2nd Baron Moyne, and his wife Diana, née Mitford. The Baron was under the impression that Carrington was going to shoot the rabbits which had burgeoned populously on her grounds at Ham Spray.

For a more central instance, Hitler was guest of honor at Diana’s 1936 wedding to second husband Sir Oswald Mosley (founder of the British fascist party), which was celebrated at the Berlin home of Joseph Goebbels. Sister Unity (whose middle name was, I kid you not, Valkyrie) shot herself in the head when Hitler declared war on England, but survived, although she never was quite right thereafter and eventually died of her wounds in 1948 at age 33. Baron Redesdale and his wife traveled often to Canada, setting the stage for Unity’s conception there in the village of Swastika, Ontario.

Jessica (nicknamed Decca) always strove to be as incorrect as possible. Her family was unsurprised but appalled when she eloped at 19 with Esmond Romilly, her Communist cousin (who was shot down in 1941 after a bombing raid on Germany). On the other hand, Lord and Lady R. were extremely put out when she married her second husband, Robert Treuhaft, who was not only an American, an attorney, and a Communist, but a Jew as well.

The sole Mitford son, Thomas, was also a fascist who declined to fight against Germany but volunteered when Japan entered the war. He was killed in Burma in 1945. In her wonderful memoir, Hons and Rebels, Jessica noted her mother sighing as she said, “Whenever I read the words ‘Peer’s Daughter’ in a headline, I know it’s going to be something about one of you children.”

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford
Jessica’s memoir of life from birth to around the time she moved to America in 1939, and what a time it was! This is laugh-out-loud material and fascinating history, too. Well—not so much amusing about the death of her first child, eight-month old Julia, in a measles epidemic, and the death of her first husband (and cousin) Esmond Romilly, who was shot down over the North Sea after a bombing raid on Germany in 1941. But wonderful reading all around.

The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford
This is remarkable and a fascinating read. The American Way of Death also did something rare indeed: It educated Americans across the nation, and transformed an entire industry that had been milking and bilking grief as a business model. Sufficiently so, in fact, that even though Mitford’s exposé was published in 1963, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade—a memoir by Tom Lynch, the mortician son of morticians (recommended, by the way), published 35 years later—spends several pages hotly excoriating the “insensitivity and injustice” of Jessica’s hugely important book.

A Fine Old Conflict by Jessica Mitford
Published in 1978, this book was not a success and was read by almost no one not then on the periphery of the Left and, sad to say, isn’t in print today. That’s an egregious omission for readers because it is written with Jessica’s tongue stuck firmly in cheek, and she does that very well indeed. I’m unable discuss this title without citing one of my favorite bits: Jessica was asked by one the committees sponsored by the Communist Party branch of Oakland to organize a fundraiser chicken dinner. She was told to get the chickens from “the comrades in Petaluma” (the Jewish and often Communist chicken ranchers of Petaluma have had their amazing history documented in at least three books; my favorite is Kenneth L. Kann’s Comrades and Chicken Ranchers: The Story of a California Jewish Community). When she phoned the Petaluma comrades they asked if the chickens should be dressed or not. Not understanding the point of a chicken carcass wearing a dress or pants, for that matter, she responded something along the lines of “Oh no, not dressed but thank you.” Of course, the chickens arrived intact with feathers, feet and guts. Well, it cracks me up. Plus the title is a pun.

The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
These two novels written in 1945 and 1948 are often packaged together, which is all to the benefit of the reader. They are separately marvelous, but maliciously divinely inspiring in a package.

A Talent to Annoy: Essays, Articles and Reviews 1929–1968 by Nancy Mitford, edited by Charlotte Mosley
The title says it all but leaves out the sly, cynical hilarity which is practically combustible. By the way, the editor, Charlotte Mosley, is Nancy’s niece-in-law, being the wife of Diana Mosley’s youngest son, Max.

Noblesse Oblige: The Inimitable Investigation into the Idiosyncracies of English Idiom edited by Nancy Mitford et al.
More pamphlet than book, this title had its origins in an article that appeared 1954 which introduced the notion of U (upper class) and Non-U language, or sociolects. It is very difficult to find these days and usually expensive. It’s still funny as hell.

The House of Mitford by Jonathan Guinness and Catherine Guinness
I wouldn’t ordinarily counsel most folk to read a 624-page book, but if you’ve gotten this far then this tome may well be for you. The subject matter is astonishingly outstanding, for more reasons than I can count, and the writing is lively.

Diana Mosley: Mitford Beauty, British Fascist, Hitler’s Angel by Anne de Courcy
I never intended to enjoy this biography but I simply couldn’t help myself. De Courcy wrote a humdinger of a book. Have I said “fascinating” too many times yet?

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell
Anyone who has read moderately in the biographical Mitford vein knows Jessica/Decca gets short shrift, and this is notably true in this otherwise excellent biography of the sisters. For Lovell, it’s apparently less offensive to record the family’s fascist politics neutrally than to reasonably reflect Jessica’s lifelong commitments to justice and socialism.

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5 Comments to The Lineup: The Tomes of Mitford, By and About

  1. Kate Burn's Gravatar Kate Burn
    October 11, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    thanks, Kat. I share your interest in most things Mitford. Did you see the new New York Review of Books collection of Jessica’s journalism: Poison Penmanship . By an odd coincidence I ran across it this morning right before seeing your post. Nice cover.

  2. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    October 11, 2010 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I did see the NYR0B edition and was thrilled. But, I’m waiting from them to re-issue her “Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business.”

  3. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    October 17, 2010 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Addendum:

    Yesterday I slurped up Leslie Brody’s just published “Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford.” Splendid, superb, brilliant.

    There’s much that can go wrong with biography: too much detail, not enough detail, inability to detect unappealing attributes in the subject, tendency to over-focus on subject’s unappealing attributes; lack of professional notes and sourcing and more. Brody is just right: not too much, not too little, well balanced, impeccably sourced notes, and most important: she’s a delicious writer.

    Also important, this book goes a long way toward setting straight many of the slurs and biases reported in other Mitfordiana (so to speak). Finest kind.

    I need to add, as well, that Brody casts doubt on the notion that Tom Mitford was a fascist, too. According to her, it’s an assertion Diana makes but isn’t corroborated by others. Brody’s take is Tom was an agreeable sort so would go along with the company he was in. So, he may have been rah-rah Hitler in Diana’s presence but was not elsewhere.

  4. LisaMC's Gravatar LisaMC
    January 13, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    So, when do we get the second list?

  5. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    February 5, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    I’m working on it … slow as molasses pours, it seems.

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