Reviewed by Sue Bond
Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford
by Leslie Brody
2011, Paperback: 416 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1582437675
On first glance, I was unsure about the author’s attitude to her subject: the cover of the book shows a rather evil-looking Jessica Mitford stubbing out a cigarette in an ashtray. Is Leslie Brody critical of Mitford’s life as a muckraker, Communist, civil rights activist, aristocrat, sister to the fascist Diana and Unity, and writer? It turns out that she is definitely not; in fact, quite the opposite. Her strong principles and fun-loving attitude to life are celebrated here.
For those unfamiliar with the Mitford family, they were a large and unusual clan who lived in Swinbrook House in Oxfordshire, England from 1926. Lord and Lady Redesdale (‘Farve’ and ‘Muv’ to their children) had six daughters and one son: Nancy (writer of Love in A Cold Climate, amongst many others); Pamela (nicknamed ‘Woman’ because of her domesticity); Tom (killed in WWII); Diana (married British fascist leader Oswald Mosley); Unity (worshipped Hitler); Jessica; and Deborah (or ‘Debo’, who became the Duchess of Devonshire). Jessica’s nicknames included ‘Brave Little D’, which her mother called her, ‘Boud’, ‘Hen’ and ‘Susan’, which was used by Nancy, who was also called Susan by Jessica, just to make things confusing. The name that really stuck, though, was Decca.
Leslie Brody has a big story to tell, and she tells it well, deftly manoeuvring through an extraordinary life filled with multiple significant figures, historical episodes, social action, tragedies, world war, children and writing. Her style is easy and fluent, lively and engaging, enhancing what is a captivating life story. True, it would be difficult to tell Jessica Mitford’s story and make it boring. And the reader is only encouraged to go further and seek out her books, such as The American Way of Death and The Making of a Muckraker.
Brody begins at the beginning, or near to it, and proceeds chronologically. Actually, she begins with Decca’s feelings about the new home at Swinbrook, and how she wanted to escape from it, setting up a Running Away Account at the age of nine. This establishes a picture of Jessica Mitford that more or less stays with the reader, as she was an independent, spirited, intelligent, imaginative woman with a great sense of humour. The author describes her relationships with her family and the vast differences in political viewpoints that didn’t seem to impede affection between sisters except in certain cases. Decca was disgusted by Diana’s association with Mosley and the fascists but felt sorrow for Unity, sensing that underneath her infatuation with Hitler and the Nazis lay great struggle. Brody quotes from her memoir Hons and Rebels, in which, after describing her sister’s attempted suicide after Germany declared war on Britain, she attempts to understand her beliefs and behaviour:
But it always seemed to me that this last really conscious act of [Unity’s] life, the attempt at self-destruction, was a sort of recognition of the extraordinary contradictions in which she found herself, that the declaration of war merely served as the occasion for her action, which would in any case have been inevitable sooner or later. (154)
Jessica Mitford also fell out with her father because he ‘perceived her repudiation of class and background as a rejection so final he could never forgive it’ (25); he left her out of his will. But there was a great deal of affection in the family too, which the author is careful to note.
The book achieves a good balance between the personal and the political. Decca’s relationship with (and eventual marriage to) Esmond Romilly, nephew of Winston Churchill, was bound up with his experience in the Spanish civil war and her own desire to be involved. They eventually moved to America together, and plunged into political life, meeting like-minded people such as Clifford and Virginia Durr who were to become good friends. Brody handles the tragic episodes of her subject’s life with sensitivity: the death of Decca and Esmond’s first baby, Esmond’s death in the Royal Canadian Air Force during WWII, Unity’s attempted suicide, Decca’s lifelong grieving over the death of her son Nicky at the age of ten.
Mitford’s second husband was Robert Truehaft, an attorney whose parents emigrated from Hungary. Once again, the relationship was inseparable from their political beliefs and work for the advancement of civil rights. They became members of the Communist Party, and Decca was a very successful—and entertaining and definitely unorthodox—fundraiser for the cause. Brody describes Decca working for the Civil Rights Congress and collecting testimony from victims and witnesses to injustice. The extraordinary era of Joseph McCarthy, J Edgar Hoover, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities receives extensive treatment, as Mitford and her husband both appeared before it. The crushing of the Czech uprising in 1956 led to much soul-searching and to them leaving the Communist Party the following year.
The development of Jessica Mitford as a writer is entwined with her political life. She found the writing life of her sister Nancy appealing, and yearned to produce books of her own, to ‘tell her own story’ as well as write about important social issues of the day. Brody describes her first magazine article, for the Nation, and how proud she was of it; her first book length manuscript was the memoir, Hons and Rebels. The American Way of Death began as an article on the American funeral industry, and eventually the book became a bestseller, exposing the exorbitant cost of burying a loved one and the exploitation of the vulnerable. Brody notes that exposing exploitation was really Jessica’s life theme, and informed her politics and philosophy.
The two things that the author brings out very clearly in her book are her subject’s sense of humour and her commitment to what she believed in. She held fabulous parties, never took herself too seriously, sang in a group called Decca and the Dectones, and protested injustice wherever she saw it. Brody is obviously admiring of Jessica Mitford, but this is not a hagiography; it is a well rounded and balanced account, in lively and entertaining prose, of a courageous woman from an extraordinary background who made a big difference to the world.
About the reviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane.