Magazine article The Spectator

Defining Decca

Magazine article The Spectator

Defining Decca

Article excerpt

Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford

by Leslie Brody

Counterpoint, £14.99, pp. 416,

ISBN 9781582437675

Has the Mitford saga delighted us long enough? Some 17 non-fiction books about the family, mostly by its own members, have now been published; the first, in 1960, was Jessica Mitford's memoir Hons and Rebels and the latest is this biography. In between there have been four fat books of letters, five individual biographies (the first of Unity, the fascist one, in 1977, then two each of Nancy, the writer and Diana Mosley, the other fascist one), two group biographies and five more autobiographies: a sequel from Jessica, and two each from Diana and Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the youngest of the sisters and the only one still alive.

Nancy Mitford's wildly successful fictional account of her family, The Pursuit of Love, published in 1946, started the whole thing off.

Leaving aside the puzzle of what on earth this torrent of words about a family of no outstanding achievement signifies, what is there left to say? This book is written by a Californian playwright and concentrates on Jessica Mitford's American life. Swinbrook, the Hons Cupboard, the rampages of Farve and the nursery politics are all over within 20 pages. This shift of emphasis is welcome, as is the author's refreshingly bemused attitude to British upper-class language and customs.

But her own idiom, a sprightly Americanese, can be irritating, and she has not avoided the trap, awaiting all biographers, of falling under her subject's spell. It is discouraging to read that she considers that Jessica Mitford, aged 12, and living in the 'bucolic' Cotswolds, was 'an autodidact well aware of world events.'

But then Jessica, known to her family and friends (such as this reviewer) as Decca, was rather spellbinding. She was, of course the communist one, and perhaps the most remarkable. Unlike her sisters, who made predictable marriages within their social circle, she was the one who ran away, first, aged 17, to the Spanish Civil War with her first husband, Churchill's nephew Esmond Romilly, then to America where she ended up married to Robert Treuhaft, a left-wing American lawyer of Hungarian Jewish extraction, and living modestly in Oakland, California.

Her revolutionary socialist politics were as fierce as her fascist sisters', but her great cause, the fight against racial discrimination, was as right and admirable as theirs was deplorable and wrong. She was a good writer, a fearless muckraking journalist who used her talent not just to entertain but to expose (most memorably the American funeral industry) and provoke. …

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