Book Review: Hons and Rebels, By Jessica Mitford

Hons and Rebels
Caption: Favorite sisters. Unity Mitford (about age 8) holding the book, Jessica Mitford (about age 5) sitting on the bench

For the next two book reviews I write, I will no doubt out myself as an Anglophile with an appreciation for the eccentricities of the aristocracy. How heavenly it must be to be born of a certain time in history where your social status affords you to be as eccentric as you like without many repercussions.

Jessica Mitford was the fifth daughter and sixth child of David Mitford-Freeman, aka, Lord Redesdale and his wife Lady Redesdale, Sydney Bowles. She was born on September 11, 1917 and died on July 22, 1996 from lung cancer after a lifetime of chain smoking. Jessica Mitford was a member of the notorious Mitford family and one of the six Mitford sisters which shocked and amused London society in equal measure in the 1930s. Jessica and her sisters came of age in a time of political and social turmoil. Fascism was on the rise in Europe and Communism had already taken root in Russia.

The members of the ruling class feared communism as they were convinced the proletariats were coming for their land and belongings. Many disliked and mistrusted fascists but if presented with a choice, many would choose fascism, at least their land, belongings and position in society are safe. This was also the view held by Lord Redesdale, Jessica Mitford’s father.

Of all the people in the Mitford sisters’ lives, none was more fascinating than their father Lord Redesdale. He was one of a kind, an original, unapologetic in his views, love him or hate him, he was as he appeared to his contemporaries. One of his daughters, Diana Mosely said he was “one of nature’s fascists”. He was unreasonable, ill tempered, brash, he either liked you or hated you (his children called them ‘favourites or non-favourites’), there was no in between. His wife Sydney had stopped reasoning with him as there was no point. Being an aristocrat, he was appalling with finances and business, he nearly sank his family into poverty many times and if for not the inheritance of his wife, he and his brood could have been in serious trouble. In spite of all this, he was loved by all that knew him, even the people he declared as ‘non-favourites’. There was an honesty and directness about him which people loved and appreciated. One always knew where they stood with Lord Redesdale.

According to Jessica’s eldest sister, novelist Nancy Mitford, her father had an awful temper, was the most ungracious and inhospitable of hosts. He once shouted down his long dinner table at Nancy Mitford’s friends (whom he disliked and mistrusted because they were Oxford graduates and deemed too liberal) during dinner, “have these people no homes of their own?” Lord Redesdale was a veteran of both the Boers War (which Nancy’s friends refer to the Bore’s war) and World War I (‘the green and unpleasant land haha’ – was a common Oxford retort), he was a through and through English patriot and those who didn’t agree with his views, he had no time for and chucked them out of his home, even in the pouring rain. He took umbrage at many things, many would seem totally absurd and unreasonable. For example, one of Nancy Mitford’s friends carried a comb in his suit pocket, which he deemed too feminine (or gay) and shouted at him for it. When one of Nancy’s friends had the nerve to ring up the Redesdale mansion asking to speak with Nancy (no one was allowed to use the telephone but him), Lord Redesdale shouted ‘Nancy, that hog Watson wants to speak to you’, without removing his mouth away from the mouth piece. From that point on, poor Watson was always known as ‘the hog’, that nickname stuck with him long after he was married and Nancy was married and Lord Redesdale long gone. When Nancy wrote letters to her friend Watson, it begun ‘Darling Hog’.

He hated Germans as he fought them during World War I, he referred to Germans as Huns and ‘murderous gang of pests’ in a letter to his other daughter Diana. And ‘the frogs begin at Calais’ he would say. He was proud to be English, happy to remain in the English countryside pursuing country pursuits of shooting, hunting, fishing and gardening. He had no use for foreigners, though he spoke perfect French as a result of his education, he had no use for frogs either. When the political tide turned, before Hitler declared war on Poland and before the United Kingdom declared war on Nazi Germany, he was of the view which, if an ‘understanding’ could be reached with Germany and another devastating war avoided, he’s all for it. But as soon as the United Kingdom declared war with Germany, he was on board with the United Kingdom. He was often unfairly referred to as a fascist by Esmond Romilly, the first husband of Jessica Mitford called him ‘the Nazi baron’. Not that this registered with Lord Redesdale, he couldn’t stand Esmond Romilly and referred to him as ‘that boy’ Jessica is married to.

Having said all this, he adored his family of six daughters and one son. At various points in their upbringing, most of his daughters took turns being his favorite. Though he was a typical sexist of his era (he opposed women being admitted in the House of Lords because then women’s lavatory facilities will have to be installed), he treated his daughters like people with minds of their own and not girls he must marry off to suitable husbands in due time. Jessica Mitford was no exception, for many years she was the apple of his eye. She loved teasing her father to see how far she could push him before he got angry. She called him Lord Remnant because he was so backward in his views – which her mother punished her for by withholding her pocket money as she considered it rude to refer to their father as Lord Remnant, but Jessica insists her father didn’t mind. Lord Redesdale loved his daughters and was totally exasperated with them at the same time, especially when they landed in the newspapers for the wrong reason. Lord Redesdale had a bone dry sense of humor, if one wasn’t family, one wouldn’t know if he was joking or serious. Jessica’s younger sister, Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire said her father (with her sister Nancy at a close second) was the funniest person she knew. He put all comedians to shame.

Jessica’s mother, Lady Redesdale was a more difficult character to describe. All of her daughters except for Deborah Mitford (the youngest) had strong misgivings about Lady Redesdale in their childhood. Jessica and her older sisters found their mother to be rigid and ‘schoopid’ (stupid in Mitford speak) in a intractable, following the herd, totally unimaginative sort of way, holding on to stupid old rules. Their mother, in an attempt to protect her daughters’ reputations for future marriage proposals was very strict with them. They were to be chaperoned at all times by either herself, their nanny or a married woman from their family. Diana didn’t ride the train by herself until she was married. When Nancy rebelled and cut her hair short, wore trousers, wore red lipstick, and rode the trains by herself to visit her brother and friends in London, her father deemed her unmarriageable and if she were already married, it would be grounds for divorce. They were allowed very little freedoms prior to marriage besides flitting to and from the country homes of other aristocrats in their area.

However, their mother Sydney Redesdale was one of the most devoted and loyal mothers, even Jessica admitted as such. When either one of them was in a scandal or crisis, Sydney Redesdale dropped everything to attend to that child. She visited Diana Mosley in prison every two weeks, rain or shine, even in pitch black conditions (due to wartime blackouts) just to see her daughter for 30 minutes and to provide her with some comfort. When Jessica was stranded in France, unwed, pregnant (with Esmond Romilly’s child), barefoot and running out of money, Lady Redesdale went to France with a new dress and a few wedding gifts from her sisters. She even went to a magistrate to petition for Jessica and Esmond to marry (legal age is 21 and they were both under 21) so that Jessica won’t have a child out of wedlock and preserve the last ounce of respectability for her daughter. And this is months after Jessica ran away from home, giving everyone a fright as she told no one where she went. When her family found out she went to war zone, her parents nearly fainted and her younger sister Deborah cried for days. Everyone wrote letters begging them to return. Even Unity, who joked Jessica sparked the biggest crisis in the British Empire since The Abdication of Edward VIII, begged her to return. The government, at Lord Redesdale’s demand, sent a navy destroyer ship with Nancy Mitford and her then husband Peter Rodd on board, with the expressed order to ‘bring Jessica home’.

The mission failed as Jessica refused to get on the ship without Esmond but they agreed to go to France and leave Spain as a compromise. Afterwards, Lady Redesdale met her daughter in France, told her about a ‘few facts of life’, keeping a home, being a wife, budgeting money, etc., and organized their wedding and took them out for a nice meal afterwards, to make the occasion feel less sad. She was sad to see her daughter, easily her ‘funniest child’, sitting there pregnant in a messy hotel room in France, as the start of her married life. With a heavy heart, she left her pregnant and newlywed daughter behind in France.

The defining moment in Jessica Mitford’s life was when she met Esmond Romilly (nephew of Winston Churchill and Jessica’s second cousin) at the home of their mutual relative. She was just nineteen years old and decided right then and there to runaway with Esmond to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Esmond Romilly was part of the International Brigades fighting fascism in Spain. By then she was already a committed socialist and on her way to being a communist. Jessica loathed fascism with everything in her and it’s also a source of personal heartbreak for her. Jessica’s favorite elder sisters Diana [Mosley] (and friend of Hitler) and especially Unity Mitford (a rabid admirer of Hitler’s) had turned fascist before her eyes. She was heartbroken, especially with Unity. Growing up, she was closest to her sister Unity who was three years older, they invented a language together called Boudelidge and Unity was her ‘boud’ (means ‘friend’ in their invented language) and she was Unity’s ‘boud’. Unity, who was never a favorite with either of her parents and was deemed a difficult and awkward child (standing over six-feet tall) found an enduring bond with her younger sister Jessica. No matter what, no matter their differences, Unity was Jessica’s protector. Even when Jessica was away in Spain, Unity wrote her long loving letters begging her to return and that all will be well and they were sisters and best friends forever. When Jessica ran away, ‘sides’ were formed, and ironically, her fascist sisters Diana and Unity along with her brother Tom was on Jessica’s side, telling their parents to take it easy on the young runaways. Deborah was too distraught to pick a side she just wanted her favorite sister home again, and her other sister Pamela was too far removed from family events to intervene. Jessica was disappointed with Nancy, whom she called ‘my socialist sister’ didn’t take her side.

One of the biggest conundrums about Jessica’s life was, she could never forgive her other elder sister Diana (elder by seven years) for becoming fascist and becoming friends with Hitler but she didn’t hold the same grudge against Unity. Unity was far more right wing and was a rabid Nazi supporter when compared with Diana. Diana was mostly a supporter of her second husband Sir Oswald Mosley, a fascist but not a Nazi. Unity was a Nazi, she was ready to give up her British citizenship for a German one if Hitler let her. She never excused Unity’s political allegiance to Germany and Hitler, but she could not totally cut off ties or disown Unity either. When Unity died in 1947 of meningitis because the bullet lodged in her head (self-inflicted wound) had gotten infected. According to Jessica’s daughter, Constancia Romilly, her mother was ‘heartbroken’ and cried for days. She did not get to see Unity before she died.

Jessica Mitford’s first husband, Esmond Romilly, was another eccentric, but the opposite Lord Redesdale. Esmond Romilly was a nephew by marriage to Winston Churchill (he was the son of Clementine Churchill’s sister), he and his brother Giles was sent to Wellington College, a well known public school. But they ran away from school when they were forced to join the Officers’ Training Corp. Esmond became a pacifist, later a socialist and anti-fascist. Esmond Romilly hated war, especially World War I, he also disliked the British Empire and its colonizing practices and vowed to be a pacifist and never to fight in a war. After he ran away from school, he couch surfed and wrote and distributed underground ‘subversive’ magazines railing against war and all the British Empire stood for. He turned his back on his birthright, his privilege. His mother all but disowned him and made a ward of the state, she told the magistrate that her son, Esmond, ‘refuses to submit to any form of control.’ But when he saw that Spain was falling to Franco’s fascist army, he decided to break his pacifist vows and take up arms to fight against fascism. He hated fascism more than anything in the world and vowed to destroy it.

The young couple  met at their mutual relative’s house, over a weekend party. Jessica asked Esmond to take her with him back to Spain. He was home on leave to recover from dysentery. He agreed and that was it, she withdrew money from her ‘runaway fund’ (a bank account of shillings, crowns and pounds she received as gifts and pocket money since she was a child so she can run away when she’s of legal age) and off they went. It’s not clear exactly when they realized they were ‘in love’, but to make things easier, they decided to share a hotel room along the journey to save money, since they were to be married soon anyways. ‘Soon’, by the way, was two years away, they were not legally permitted to marry without parental consent unless they are at least twenty-one years old. Jessica was knocked up within weeks.

Jessica and Esmond Romilly suffered many tragedies in their young life. The child Jessica was carrying in that messy French hotel room was their first daughter Julia Decca Romily, born seven months after their wedding. She died from measles within months of her birth. The Romillies were devastated. By 1938, the political situation in Europe was going from bad to worse, Nazi Germany was gaining strength and Esmond knew there was going to be another war. But he didn’t want to join the British army because he believes there were many secret fascists in the army and he would loathe to serve under one of Jessica’s ‘ghastly relations’ as he called them. So he and Jessica decided to sail for America and wait out the situation there. They arrived in New York in 1938, and at the suggestion of a friend went down to Washington DC to meet with Virgina Durr and her husband Clifton Durr (who would become lifelong friends of Jessica).

The couple worked as many jobs as they could get, they took a road trip through United States, they even owned a bar together in Florida at one time. This was their ‘honeymoon’ before that awful war with Germany is about to start and they savored every moment of it. During this time, Jessica became pregnant again, right before Esmond joined the Canadian Air Force, she would have her daughter Constancia in Washington DC, under the watchful care of Virginia Durr and her husband (whom Esmond personally entrusted Jessica’s care to them). Luckily, while Esmond was on liberty in Montreal, Jessica was able to take the baby up to Montreal to meet her father. It was the last time they saw each other. After his training in Canada, he was given a mission to fly bombing raids over Germany. His plane disappeared over the freezing North Sea on November 30, 1941. His plane nor his remains were ever found. Winston Churchill, while on a trip to Washington DC to meet with President Roosevelt, asked to see Jessica Mitford at the White House and told her the news of Esmond’s plane personally and he assured her that he’d done a thorough search of the North Sea and he’s afraid Esmond is gone (when his plane went down, she hoped that he’d be found or be taken POW by Germany). He then handed her an envelope full of US notes, fully aware she is now a young widow with a baby on her own in America. Winston Churchill had been fond of his wayward nephew and he was fond of Jessica and her family as well. Churchill knew her parents and siblings well as they used to vacation at Churchill’s country retreat when they were children.

Jessica was under twenty-five years old when she lost her husband and baby daughter. But this was only the beginning, more tragedy is to follow later.

After the death of Esmond Romilly, Jessica made the decision to stay in America with Constancia and make a life for herself. As ironic as this sounds, especially Jessica being a communist, she was admired for her aristocratic background. She never publicizes it but everyone knows she’s Winston Churchill’s relative so she must be from the aristocracy. And when her mother writes her, she always addresses her envelope with her official name which is ‘The Hon. Jessica Romilly’ – which she begged her mother not to do, ‘The Hon.’ is afforded to children of a baron, which is the rank of Lord Redesdale. When Jessica was young and a budding socialist and communist, she’d use her parent’s ballroom in their London mansion to hold communist meetings, her eldest sister Nancy, always seeing the ridiculous minutiae of life, teased her sister that she’s really just a ‘ballroom communist’ and not a real communist in the trenches.

Perhaps what Nancy Mitford was trying to say was, you can think you are communist all you like, but because of our background, we’ll never really be socialists or communists. And part of this came true, when Jessica was finally ‘allowed’ to join the communist party, she joined the California chapter with her second husband Robert Treuhaft, but by the mid-1960s, they both quit party as the party failed to live up to her ideals. She instead turned her energy to the Civil Rights Movement and took many trips to the South to campaign for Civil Rights.

As much as she exasperated her family in England, they all secretly admired her courage. The Mitford girls, as Deborah Mitford points out, were poorly educated by today’s standards, not employable and not trained to do any kind of paid work and the only career choice open to them was to marry and be a wife and mother. Jessica defied all this and made a life for herself here. Though in ‘Hons and Rebels’ she declared herself to be communist very young in her life, I have a hard time believing she has a true idea of what being a real communist means.

Virginia Durr, one of Jessica’s best friends in America said, when Jessica chooses to be ‘aristocratic’ she could turn it on. She could turn on that cold, distant, aloof persona in a minute if she needed. These were usually in emotional situations which she didn’t want to participate in. Her daughter Constancia Romilly also said, when she chooses to, her old cut glass English accent can come tumbling out when she needs to make a point. For all of her distancing herself between her father, she was very much his daughter, for all of her criticism of her father and his social class, she was always in some way proud to be a part of the long lines of Freeman-Mitfords.

‘Hons and Rebels’ was Jessica Mitford’s first book. She wrote it for her daughter Constancia Romilly, nick named ‘Dinky Donk’ or ‘The Donk’. It was her way of telling her daughter who her father was and how she came to be. In Esmond Romilly’s short life, he fought in two wars, wrote countless pacifist, anti-fascist articles and a book Boadilla, about his experience in the Spanish Civil War.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Hons and Rebels, By Jessica Mitford

  1. This sounds really fascinating, but oh my what a tragic life. I’m 25 now and the idea of losing a husband and a child even before everything else to come is crazy… also unrelated but I love that you are an Anglophile, haha!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes I am an Anglophile 🙂 a proud one.
      Jessica Mitford lost another child due to a tragic accident (hit by a bus), her son with her second husband Robert Treuhaft. He was just 10 years old. The book is a great read. She’s very funny.

      Like

    2. By the way, I read your article about not being white, you had hundreds (perhaps thousands by now) of comments and I am sure mine got lost in all the others, but it was very moving and very touching. I am also bi-racial, Chinese and white and I happen to look more white, well, my dad was Irish so I am ghostly white. Rather unfortunate in since I reside in Southern California where everyone is tan. The casual racism and microaggression doled out to those who aren’t white is just appalling. I still do not know what can be SO FUNNY about assuming you not to speak English because of your name. I love your blog. Cheers. x 🙂

      Like

  2. re: “he opposed women being admitted in the House of Lords because then women’s lavatory facilities will have to be installed”

    Conservatives never seem to lose their obsession with bathrooms.

    Liked by 1 person

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