Review: Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

Continuing with my fascination with the Mitford sisters I have bought and consumed Hons and Rebels. I am not sure why I like them so much, considering their acerbic personalities and questionable political beliefs.

The Mitfords are understandable creatures; not always people you would sympathise with, but oft ones you wish could have had a more liberal upbringing. As this is Jessica’s (Decca) memoir, it tends to wallow in her feelings of dissatisfaction, and is perhaps harder on her sisters than they deserved.

hons and rebels“Jessica Mitford, the great muckraking journalist, was part of a legendary English aristocratic family. Her sisters included Nancy, doyenne of the 1920s London smart set and a noted novelist and biographer; Diana, wife to the English fascist chief Sir Oswald Mosley; Unity, who fell head over in heels in love with Hitler; and Deborah, later the Duchess of Devonshire. Jessica swung left and moved to America, where she took part in the civil rights movement and wrote her classic exposé of the undertaking business, The American Way of Death.

Hons and Rebels is the hugely entertaining tale of Mitford’s upbringing, which was, as she dryly remarks, not exactly conventional. . . Debo spent silent hours in the chicken house learning to do an exact imitation of the look of pained concentration that comes over a hen’s face when it is laying an egg. . . . Unity and I made up a complete language called Boudledidge, unintelligible to any but ourselves, in which we translated various dirty songs (for safe singing in front of the grown-ups). But Mitford found her family’s world as smothering as it was singular and, determined to escape it, she eloped with Esmond Romilly, Churchill’s nephew, to go fight in the Spanish Civil War. The ensuing scandal, in which a British destroyer was dispatched to recover the two truants, inspires some of Mitford’s funniest, and most pointed, pages.
A family portrait, a tale of youthful folly and high-spirited adventure, a study in social history, a love story, Hons and Rebels is a delightful contribution to the autobiographer’s art.” Synopsis from GoodReads.

I enjoyed Decca’s story, it was illuminating. It is easy to forget, or not realise, that upper class doesn’t necessarily equal riches. The higher the class the more restrictive the rules, especially for a young girl growing up in the 20s and 30s. While the grass may seem greener on the other side, having status is restrictive – if not more so –  that to not. I am not envious of Decca’s childhood, other than she enjoyed a great deal of the outdoors and animals.

Halfway through Hons and Rebels Decca elopes with her second cousin Esmond Romilly. Despite my admiration for her desire to escape her conservative, bordering on Fascist, family I found her selfish in its execution. She fell in love with Romilly’s passion and ideals, but her own beliefs felt diluted in comparison. It often felt as if Decca was more anti-fascist than she was Communist. As if she had read the books, felt a sense of social justice, but never really thought about it beyond the surface of these ideas. This may be reflective of her writing style as opposed to her sense of cause. Decca’s elopement with Romilly met the end of my unfaltering enjoyment. My interest lay in Decca’s relationship with her sisters, so while it was interesting to see the Romilly’s attempt to assimilate, Esmond and Decca’s American journey didn’t grip me.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the Mitford sisters were afforded more freedom they would have been less extremist. If they had gone to school, not encouraged to be ignorant, it would have been more effective in producing less naive individuals, desperate to escape their stifling bubble.

Hons and Rebels is a fascinating memoir, I encourage you all to read it. If only to dispel a few misconceptions of the lives of the upper classes. Decca’s ‘Muv’ and her outrageous ideas on health, were hilarious (and dangerous). Muv and Farve aren’t what I would term sympathetic, but I saw in them members of my own family. Class I feel is an attitude, there are similar characters in each, but with different ideals.

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4 Comments on "Review: Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford"

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Jenny @ Reading the End
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I can’t imagine how sad it must have been to have a sister you’d made up a language with turn out so m.f. crazy — and then attempt suicide and become a shadow of her former self. I really need to read that biography of the Mitford sisters I’ve had sitting on my shelves for YEARS now.

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[…] Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters is a collection of letters spanning decades. Having read Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford these letters put Jessica’s (Decca) childhood account into perspective. However, only […]

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