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A very honourable rebel

30 November 2006

10:29 AM

30 November 2006

10:29 AM

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford edited by Peter Y. Sussman

Weidenfeld, pp.744, 25

In the autumn of 1995 Jessica Mitford, the youngest of the sisters, known to one and all since childhood as Decca, sat down at her desk in Oakland, California to answer a list of questions put to her by a journalist. ‘Yes, still consider myself a communist!’ she wrote, adding, ‘So do the undertakers, I’m sure.’ At the time, she was working on a revised edition of her great work, the 1963 bestseller The American Way of Death, which exposed and mocked the grotesque practices of the funeral business; outraged undertakers had indeed tried to discredit her as a card-carrying red. She was still working on the new edition when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer less than a year later, and instantly embarked on treatment. ‘Point of brain radiation is to spruce it up a bit so one can get on with the book etc,’ she wrote to her sister Debo, the Duchess of Devonshire, otherwise known as Hen. Three weeks later she was dead. ‘Isn’t death too tiresome for words?’ as she once wrote to an old Party friend.

Reading straight through this dauntingly massive volume of Decca’s letters, edited by one of her Californian friends and fans, it is striking how consistent she is. From childhood, she was funny, fierce and imperious. Her allegiances and opinions, once formed, were for life. She belonged to two tribes with diametrically opposed values, and contrived to be loyal to them both: the Mitfords and her comrades of the American Left — the Old Leftovers, as she called them.

Her childhood letters confirm the familiar picture — the pack of handsome, wilful children growing up in upper-class eccentricity at Swinbrook, teasing each other and their parents without mercy, the Hons’ cupboard, the nicknames, the private language (poor Sussman grapples solemnly with this, explaining ‘Boudle- didge’ in scholarly footnotes). The sisters she was closest to as a child and loved best were Unity and Diana, the two who by the mid-1930s had become Hitler groupies; somehow — and it is not clear how the works of Marx and Lenin reached Swinbrook — Decca at the same time had discovered communism. And that was it — as she wrote to her grandson James in 1985, at around 15 she realised ‘the clarity, the brilliance, the total solution to horrors of war and mass poverty contained in the Communist Manifesto’. Meanwhile her cousin Esmond Romilly, Churchill’s nephew (some said his illegitimate son), had reached the same conclusion: he was the perfect co-conspirator, and in 1937 Decca wrote a series of skilful decoy letters to her mother and ran away with him to the Spanish Civil War. In early 1939 they went together to America, where she was to spend the rest of her life.

There was a strong performing streak in the Mitfords, and Decca, like most assiduous letter-writers — and her correspondence was vital to her — kept up the performance on paper. Only her letters to Esmond, her first husband (most of them written after he had returned to Europe to fight in the war), seem entirely unstudied; they were soulmates, on the run from the same background, heading in the same direction. These early letters demonstrate another lifelong Decca habit: having her cake and eating it. There is a cheerful ruthlessness about the Romillys’ exploitation of their grand connections and acceptance of hospitality and financial help from rich, kind and dazzled Americans like the Meyers (whose daughter Katherine, newly married to Phil Graham, was to control the Washington Post and remain friends with Decca). It was through another young couple, the Durrs, well-connected but liberal Southerners, that Decca discovered the campaign against racial discrimination, the great cause that more than any other defined her American life.

After Esmond was killed in 1942, Decca declined suggestions that she should return to England with their daughter and took a job in Washington. Her letters home during the war show how much she missed her family, but she knew she could not live among them again. By this time, Unity’s failed suicide attempt on the outbreak of war had left her badly damaged; Decca never lost her deep love and concern for her Boud — perhaps, it has been suggested, because there had always been something odd about Unity so that her passion for Hitler could be seen as a kind of madness. The clever, beautiful Diana, on the other hand, Decca could never forgive for marrying Oswald Mosley and remaining as unrepentant about Hitler’s evil as Decca herself was to be about Stalin’s. They did not correspond, and only met again over their sister Nancy’s deathbed in l973.

By the 1950s Decca was married to her second husband, the radical lawyer and fellow communist Robert Treuhaft, and living in California, where she worked hard for the Civil Rights Congress and made a new circle of friends. Perhaps because he belongs to this world, Sussman’s selection of letters and copious footnoting does more than justice to Decca’s immersion in the legal and political battles surrounding the growing civil rights movement, or what Decca later termed The Strug; it is interesting to note that even now Sussman decided not to ‘out’ former party members who still keep quiet about their past. The Treuhafts were brave and serious activists, but they were also naturally subversive and joky; when they left the Party in 1958 it was not so much on principle (neither of them ever criticised it in public) but because they found it boring and irrelevant. As a successful writer, Decca pursued the same ends by other means. ‘I guess what I try to do, mostly, is write things that I hope will be useful in the struggle.’ There are many — too many — letters about the genesis and production of her ten books.

Just as there is no soul-searching about communism in these letters, so there is almost nothing concerning the most agonising events in Decca’s life: the deaths of two of her children, her first daughter by Romilly who died as a baby and her eldest son by Treuhaft who was knocked off his bicycle in Oakland in 1955 at the age of 10. Much later, Decca wrote, looking back, that this terrible loss had ‘absolutely wrecked all happiness for a very, very long time’; but her method of dealing with sorrow, indeed with all disturbing emotions, was to avoid mentioning them. The most openly emotional letters in this book concern her sisters; Nancy’s suffering and death affected Decca deeply, and she was greatly upset when Debo and Pam accused her, quite wrongly, of stealing a family photograph album. She wrote that being on bad terms with Debo, the sister who came to mean most to her as time passed, made her feel physically ill.

As Decca acknowledged, she always disliked introspection, greatly preferring jokes, teasing and argument — ‘a wee bit of hammer and tongsville’. Her later letters demonstrate her great love for her American family and friends, the centre of her life, as well as her need to maintain the sisterly network. She could be difficult and demanding, but she was loyal, generous and always, always entertaining. It will be interesting to see, when a volume of letters between all the sisters is published next year (it has been held up waiting for this one) how Decca’s voice, inevitably undiluted here, sounds in that context. Meanwhile this book, a labour of love and admiration, is, despite its length, a great treat and a deserved tribute.

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