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Hons and Rebels Paperback – 20 Jun 1999
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[An] uproarious yet deadly portrait of family life and family politics ... It evokes the atmosphere of the 1930s with more feeling than almost any other book of the period (Christopher Hitchens THE ATLANTIC)
More than an extremely amusing autobiography ... she has evoked a whole generation. Her book is full of the music of time (SUNDAY TIMES)
Wonderfully funny and very poignant (Philip Toynbee)
Stunning. Reads like an extravagantly mannered fiction, except that it is all fabulously true ... Miss Mitford is at once touching and wildly funny, and there is not one of highly coloured characters that is not violently alive and uncomfortably kicking (Siriol Hugh-Jones TATLER)
This book is just about my favourite book of all time ... I'm not entirely convinced I could like somebody who didn't like this book ... it's funny and moving and gives you an insight into this extraordinary moment as the war is about to begin ... it's so vivid, and what's more, it's incredibly current (Robert Rinder A GOOD READ, BBC Radio 4)
Her awareness of where she's from and what she had is astonishing ... to maintain that kind of awareness is astonishing, and she is very funny, but she also writes very well ... she mixes the hugely political, the very sweeping things, with intensely personal moments (Stella Duffy A GOOD READ, BBC Radio 4)
What is really quite amazing about this book, which I have read many, many times, and love ... [is] she's not La Pasionaria, she's not some really left-wing heroine, but she is amazing to have got from where she started to where she ended up (Harriett Gilbert A GOOD READ, BBC Radio 4)
The classic memoir of one of the century's most extraordinary familiesSee all Product description
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I do not know very much about the British class system but really got a feel for what her childhood was like as she describes it so well. Her adventures in Spain during the Civil War are fascinating and one gets the impression that Decca would have been great fun to be around. The book was first published in 1960 but the style of writing is very modern and I was surprised that it was written this long ago. There are some moments which are laugh-out-loud funny although she doesn't shy away from some very difficult and upsetting subjects, such as her sister's close relationship with Adolf Hitler. It is fascinating to read about how the upper classes lived and interacted with each other; being well-connected makes their lives a lot easier and you can see why they are resistant to change as they lead charmed lives! A lot of the people mentioned in the book are famous in their own right e.g her parents and (infamously) her sisters.
I wish there were more books like this as history is so male-dominated. When I had finished I wanted to read it all over again!
I heard this praised on Radio 4’s ‘A Good Read’, and it lived up to the praise. There's a real sense of the pre-war uncertainty about which of wildly different ways events will develop. It's beautifully written, funny without ever being flip, exciting, sometimes poignant. The author is fully aware how her background has shaped her, but determinedly herself. I gobbled it up in a few days. Much recommended.
The Mitford Sisters continue to fascinate many, for a variety of reasons.
As is probably known to most, the family, who were influential, and close to other influential people were markedly eccentric. And the books written by the book writing sisters, primarily novelist Nancy and journalist and political activist Jessica (Decca) in different ways lift the lid on their bizarre eccentric upbringing and on the unpleasant attitudes of privileged class politics.
What particularly fascinates is the fact that 4 of the 6 daughters had beliefs or behaviours or lifestyles (or all 3) which were deeply shocking not only within their own circles, but within the wider world, and 3 of the 6 (Diana, Unity, Jessica) sought active involvement either in the politics of the times (1930s and beyond) or were close to those who were so involved. The fascination becomes most interesting because Unity developed an obsession with Hitler, and thoroughly absorbed Nazi ideology, Diana also became a fascist and married Oswald Mosley (and was thoroughly shocking to her class and parents not for that marriage, but because she and her first husband, Bryan Guinness, divorced). Diana was one of the 1920s hedonistic Bright Young Things. Decca by contrast, became a socialist and then a communist and deeply shocked her class by both her politics AND her personal life. She remained active in left politics all her life, not just in belief, but in action.
Meanwhile, of the remainder of the family, Mother supported her fascist daughters (but of course some of the support would have been supporting daughters, as much as supporting politics), Father was a fascist sympathiser but once war was declared supported his country. Son was a fascist but joined the war effort against Japan, rather than Germany. Anti-Semitism seems quite marked within many of the family – though anti-Semitism also seems to have been a surprising bedrock of wider society before the Second World War gave a very brutal, stark, and dreadful example of what the politics of racial hatred leads to. Novelist Nancy was ‘pink’ and left-leaning. The often forgotten, quieter sister, Pamela, the second born of the older grouping, was not actively involved in politics, and rather shunned the glare of notoriety. The youngest daughter Deborah, became the Duchess of Devonshire, was actively involved in opening the family stately home, Chatsworth House, and led an apparently more serene life than any of the rest, in terms of an enduring marriage and unshocking works and causes.
What really fascinated me on this read has really been the family aspects. I knew the political splits, I knew the extreme politically split sister stories Jessica, Diana, Unity, but on this read, thinking about families, their tangled influences, not to mention the wider personal (rather than political) effects of conflict and loyalty within the family were what I have been left musing about.
The two sisters Decca was closest to when she was growing up were firstly the glamorous, arty, shockingly fast-set playgirl Diana, the youngest of the older group, and the weirdest, her older sister of her own, young group, Unity.
Both Unity and Diana were clearly farthest away from Decca in politics, yet her love for Unity is/was clear in her book, an unwavering love despite an even stronger unwavering hate for her politics. Perhaps (I can only surmise) it was the fact of Unity’s far more obviously dysfunctional ‘not fitting in’ personality which excited Decca’s empathy? Unity, as is well known, fiercely loyal to Germany and Hitler, tried to commit suicide by shooting herself in the head when the announcement that Britain is now at war with Germany was made. This was something, as the prospect of war edged closer, which Unity had been planning, the prospect of the conflict between the nations themselves perhaps echoes of divided loyalties within this Englishwoman.
It was however between Diana and Decca that a permanent rift took place. Diana of course was actively promoting fascism. She and her second husband were imprisoned during the war for their fascist promoting activities. Unity’s failed attempt at suicide left her weakened and brain damaged, so perhaps her ‘wrong’ politics were less consciously and rationally chosen, and partly reflective of a kind of odd violence and irrationality of psychology. Diana, by contrast, never wavered in her political allegiances, which must have seemed a far more conscious and unforgiveable choice. As clearly Decca’s choice was, as far as Diana was concerned.
Something which interested and frustrated me very much sprang out of the class and national character of the time – a kind of stiff upper lip-ism, a reserve about the expression of personal emotion.
Tragedies undoubtedly happened in Jessica’s life and a veil is drawn over the emotions of bereavement. Nancy, whose novels clearly used Mitford life, her own, and her sisters’ as their springboard, covers some of this territory, and there is a similar ‘soldiering on, this is not for sharing’ .
Decca eloped romantically in her teens with Esmond Romilly, her second cousin and Churchill’s nephew. Her husband had joined the International Brigade to fight the fascists in Spain. He had been invalided out, but later went back as a reporter. Decca had become actively interested, (and then involved) in left politics from when she was 13. Esmond was similarly involved, so the two, who did not meet till they were 18, were almost pre-destined for each other. They went to America (this was before the outbreak of war) because they were full of despair at the direction Britain appeared to be taken during Appeasement. Once Britain declared war, Esmond always intended to join up, as he did
During the period between their arriving in America (without much in the way of funds) and Esmond’s join-up the two led quite a hand to mouth existence, taking casual jobs as they could, borrowing from friends (and paying them back when funds were available) but also not slow to pass themselves off as experienced this that and the other with invented cvs.
Fascinating, well written, incisive and funny. But also reserved. You will get quite close to Mitford’s thinking; less so to her feeling
The occasionally pungent aroma of non-politically correct narrative has the ability to revive one’s spirits in this forever neo-liberalising, sanitized society that we inhabit. Mitford’s prose can be mischievous, and the gently ambling story line of this autobiographical account is enjoyable, a genuine leisurely read thus far, I’m not quite at the end.
The author was able to bring her youthful wonder through the text into her early adulthood, having maintained this vivacity whilst relating the difficult, female teenage years.
There is more than a little sadness and some tragedy in the mix also and Mitford does come across as strong, robust and grounded in her journey through early life.
Enraptured by a mix of ideology and disillusion with the pre-war status quo and a little bored by the tedium of country life Jessica moves effortlessly beyond the boundaries of England as she pursues her passion with some vigour: communism.
She sojourns through Spain with husband Esmond Romilly trying in not such a relaxing way to make ends meet from day to day, let alone month to month.
They endure several attempts at alternative pastimes – intending them to be fairly lucrative – but alas, otherwise is the case! There is a rhythm to the line of narrative, up and down through difficulties and mood swings whilst meeting extravagant individuals of several genres – this is where Mitford and Romilly’s sense of adventure refreshes the soul. A genuine ‘real life’ account.
3rd March 2017 Hons and Rebels
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