Poison Pen

The exceptional insouciance of Jessica Mitford

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.

In bold contrast, so to say, Jessica eloped with a Communist nephew of Winston Churchill’s named Esmond Romilly, fled to Spain to support the Republican cause, and emigrated to the United States as the Second World War was approaching. The couple had lost one child to illness, had a second one just after Romilly enlisted in the Canadian air force and returned to Europe to fight, and lost another to miscarriage just before his plane went down over the North Sea. Jessica’s next child—by her second husband, Robert Treuhaft, a prominent “Red” labor lawyer in the Bay Area—was killed in a traffic accident. Her last-born child developed severe bipolar disorder. These themes—of kinship and class, flight from same, residual loyalties to same, commitment to revolution, and stiff-upper-lippery in the face of calamity—recur throughout this assemblage of Jessica’s correspondence.

The best encapsulating anecdote might be this one: When Winston Churchill made his first wartime visit to Washington, D.C., only a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, he was charged by his own daughters to invite his nephew’s widow to the White House. He had to tell Jessica that Romilly’s plane had not been found. She, in turn, told him that he was grossly in error to have given her sister Diana Mosley, along with Diana’s Fascist husband, special treatment in the prison in which they were interned. (“No!” she once told me emphatically when I asked if she had ever been in touch with Diana again. “Apart from darling Nancy’s funeral, it’s been absolute nonspeakers ever since Munich.” Her second marriage, to a Communist Jew, was also emphatic, in its own way.)

Waugh-type debutante argot stayed in her speech and prose for life; it isn’t difficult to master the combination of overstatement and understatement of which it consists. Anything faintly nice is “bliss”; anything vaguely clever is “brill.” Anything below par is “ghastly.” Work in progress is “dread” used adjectivally, as in “the dread manuscript.” The absolutely worst thing to be is “boring,” or “a bore.” There are deliberate lapses into “common” speech, such as “me” for “my.” This upper-crust style could be used to telling effect. Jessica was confronted once with a racist southern educator who, skeptical of what she told him about desegregation in Oakland schools, said, “It don’t seem possible, do it?” Jessica responded icily, “To me it do,” and left him shriveled like a salted snail.

She shot to fame—finally impressing her sister Nancy, in whose shadow she had always felt herself to be—with her hilarious-but-serious exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. Almost perfect as a subject for her macabre humor, the book was in fact a by-product of her husband’s work for labor unions, whose members’ “death benefit” was being eaten up by unscrupulous morticians. It was followed by equally satirical mini-masterpieces, notably the demolition of the “Famous Writers” racket, in which supposed men of letters like Bennett Cerf put their names to a rip-off writing-school scheme, and by “Checks and Balances at the Sign of the Dove,” certainly the finest revenge ever taken by a customer on a pretentious restaurant. In the letters currently under review, one can follow Jessica’s talent for vendetta as it evolves, and see her extraordinary tenacity and persistence. Woe to the petty official or scam artist who crossed Ms. Mitford. Writing from an absurd beauty-restoration resort in Arizona whose false promises she was exposing, she tells her husband, “Then lunch, by far the most interesting part of the day so far. We repaired to a patio for it (by the way, paper napkins which I did think squalid).” Noblesse, yes. Oblige, no.

Because of Jessica’s extraordinary manner, many people deceived themselves into thinking that she regarded everything as a huge joke. Not so. Her natural tough-mindedness was schooled and tempered by a fierce devotion to the Communist Party, and in particular to its work for civil rights and civil liberty. She was bouncing through Dixie in an old car long before the Freedom Riders, and when she took up a case it got taken up properly. She even persuaded William Faulkner to sign a petition against the execution of a wrongfully condemned black man.

Pursuing another case of injustice, in Arkansas in the early 1980s, she remembered that a young Hillary Rodham had once been an intern in her husband’s law firm, and so she tracked Hillary all the way to Little Rock and the governor’s mansion. These particular letters make for interesting reading: in the intervening years Mrs. Clinton had evidently become a bit more of a “realist.” Jessica Mitford, in contrast, was one of those who get more radical as they get older. Her lampoon of the ghastliness of party-line jargon—a clever parody of Stephen Potter titled Life Itselfmanship—is the forerunner of all mockeries of “politically correct” sloganeering. But when she abandoned the Communist Party she made it absolutely clear that it was because it had become too conservative for her taste.

Her seriousness on this point is illustrated by another magnificent example of upper-class insouciance, when she writes to her friend Virginia Durr, a lifelong correspondent and doyenne of the early civil-rights movement:

I’m afraid I was a rather rotten mother to [the children], as I was totally preoccupied with CP politics when they were growing up; so while I was v.fond of them, I didn’t pay too much attention to them when they were little.

The “v.fond” is nicely phrased. No doubt her own loveless childhood had something to do with it.

To her sister the duchess, she offhandedly writes to see if her own wayward son, Benjamin, has by any chance turned up at the former’s mansion, adding, “Don’t let him into the house if he’s too filthy, he can easily sleep in the car.” To the lad himself, she writes very sternly some years later, informing him that his bipolar disorder has become a bore and that he’d better buck up and pull himself together; the letter closes with an offer of maternal help “if you should ever tire of the manic condition.” (It must say something that Benjamin allowed this letter to be published; and indeed, in my memory his mother was fiercely devoted to him, in that, shall I say, understated way that she had.)

Alarmingly severe as her tone may appear, it makes for a bracing contrast to the therapeutic self-loving culture by which she was surrounded in northern California and for which—like anything else that was bourgeois—she could find no time.

She was great chums with many great hostesses—most notably Katharine Graham, with whom she formed a wartime friendship that lasted for life—and might have been a considerable one herself if she could have been bothered. One excellent letter advises against the huge mistake she once made of inviting to dinner two grandes dames (Edna O’Brien and Lillian Hellman) on the same evening. Her gift for comradeship illustrates the old Hugh Kingsmill maxim that friends are God’s apology for relations. But she was always willing to quarrel on a point of principle, nearly coming to a breach with her beloved Maya Angelou, for example, when the latter stuck up for the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas.

Covering the trial of Dr. Spock in Boston at the height of the antiwar movement in May 1968, she writes to a friend about her shortcomings as a court reporter and adds, “I even missed the riot yesterday, which was so sloppy of me.” But on the whole she was on time for the riot, and well turned out for it to boot. The cult of the Mitfords, which now features a shelf of books and several TV documentaries, threatens in itself to become a bore on an almost Bloomsbury scale.

But her mad father, when making dispositions of his property, wrote in his will the words “except Jessica.” And the bookstore at the Devonshire stately home in Chatsworth displays works by and about every Mitford sister but her. These paltry aristocratic gestures confirm, as do these letters, that it was Decca, exiled and intransigent, who was the exceptional one.

Photograph of Jessica Mitford from the Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

By Peter Y. Sussman (editor)

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