Jessica Mitford has been my heroine since I was 14 years old, when I overheard my formidable great-aunt discussing how Mitford had run away at the age of 19 to fight with the Reds in the Spanish Civil War: ‘And she charged a camera to her poor father’s account to take with her!’ It was the camera that captivated me, and I asked for further details. My great-aunt, who taught classics and approved of a thirst for knowledge, even of a questionable kind, produced a very old copy of Hons and Rebels, the first volume of Jessica Mitford’s autobiography.
Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford gives, as letters usually do, a much fuller picture of the writer than either of her own autobiographies, and I finished reading feeling even fonder and more admiring of her than before (it would have been what Decca calls ‘rather narst in a way’ if I had not, given that I named my first daughter after her).
The letters span a life that was remarkable by any standards – the teenage aristocrat who fled England, eventually becoming a Communist in America; the runaway wife turned war widow who became a civil rights campaigner, campaigning journalist and, finally, author of the huge bestseller The American Way of Death, an exposé of the corrupt practices of the funeral industry. And all this was quite apart from her membership of that band of prototype ‘It Girls’, the Mitford Sisters.
Decca was characteristically amusing on what she called ‘The Mitford Industry’. After the success of the US bestseller The I Hate Cats Book, she wrote, ‘”The I Hate Mitfords Book” might go well here – followed as in the US by “100 Ways to Kill a Mitford”‘. To Katharine (‘Kay’) Graham, publisher of the Washington Post: ‘The Mitford Girls [the musical] folded in London, so that’s ONE chore you can avoid. (Is said to be possibly opening in GERMANY, serves those wretched Krauts right if so.)’
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