It is said that, just before the Sino-Soviet split, Nikita Khrushchev had a tense meeting with Zhou Enlai at which he told the latter that he now understood the problem. “I am the son of coal miners,” he said. “You are the descendant of feudal mandarins. We have nothing in common.” “Perhaps we do,” murmured his Chinese antagonist. “What?” blustered Khrushchev. “We are,” responded Zhou, “both traitors to our class.”
|Jessica Mitford in 1979|
For a true appreciation of the character and style of Jessica Mitford, it is necessary to picture Lady Bracknell not only abandoning the practice of arranging marriages for money but also aligning herself with the proletariat, while still managing to remain a character in a Wilde play. The carrying cut-glass voice; the raised eyebrow of disdain that could (like that of P. G. Wodehouse’s forbidding Roderick Spode) “open an oyster at sixty paces”; the stoicism born of stern ancestral discipline yet, withal, a lethal sense of the “ridic,” as Ms. Mitford was fond of putting it. Here she is, writing to her sister the Duchess of Devonshire in 1965, about a suitable present for her niece:
People are always asking me to join committees against the wicked toys they’ve got here (like model H-bombs, etc) but I can’t bear to join because I know I should have rather longed for a model H-bomb if they had been about when we were little. Anyway, the wickedest toy of all, and the one that has been written up and condemned bitterly all over the U.S., is a real guillotine (real model of, anyway) and a toy person with toy head that comes off when the knife drops, and a colouring set with red for blood etc. So be expecting it, but don’t tell Sophy for fear that the campaign has been successful and they’ve stopped selling them …
Little Sophy was then about eight, but neither this consideration nor the solidity of the duchess’s social position would have inhibited “Decca”—all the sisters stuck for life to their English-country-house girlhood nicknames—from proposing the perfect anti-aristo gift for all seasons.
Her many devotees will, I hope, excuse a précis here: Jessica Mitford was one of a clutch of children born to the uncontrollably eccentric Lord and Lady Redesdale and raised in an isolated mansion where neither formal education nor contact with outsiders was permitted. Only one of the sisters, Deborah, fulfilled parental expectation by marrying a duke. Of the remainder, Unity and Diana betrayed their country, if not their class, by falling in love with Adolf Hitler in the first instance and Sir Oswald Mosley—founder of the British Blackshirt movement (and the nonfiction model for Roderick Spode)—in the second. Another sister, Nancy, be-came a celebrated novelist and brittle social observer.