Sun, Nov 19, 2006 - Page 18 News List

A family chronicle paints a picture of class and a generation

Jessica, daughter of the once notoriously eccentric, aristocratic Mitford family, tells her relatives' stories warts and all, and much else besides

By Richard Eder  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DECCA: The Letters of Jessica Mitford
Edited by Peter Y. Sussman
744 pages
Alfred A. Knopf

From the late 1930s through the 1950s, the words "Peer's Daughter" were regularly lodged in British tabloid headlines above the startling doings of one or another of the Mitford sisters, daughters of the less startling, but equally eccentric, Lord and Lady Redesdale.

The papers announced that Unity Mitford, a close and doting member of Hitler's intimate circle, had shot herself upon the outbreak of the war, and was being repatriated. (Two years later she died of a brain injury.) They recorded the imprisonment of the beautiful pro-Nazi Diana, along with her saturnine husband, Oswald Mosley, leader of Britain's Fascists.

They registered a drastic swing of the Mitford political compass when Jessica, 17 and an impassioned leftist, eloped to Spain with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill's nephew, to join the republican side in the Civil War. Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, had a destroyer take them right back. The bit about "not who you are, but who you know" was meaningless in their particular England. Who you were was who you knew.

Such public Mitford extremes were not really separate from the private ones, attached to an upbringing for which odd would be the blandest understatement. Both are amply reflected in Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford. If the first could hold grim consequences (with an undertone of comic absurdity), the second, for all their absurd comedy, held an undertone of chill.

Nancy Mitford, seemingly more conventional, recorded her family's extravagances in a series of engaging, nonfictional fictions. (Jessica's memoir, Hons and Rebels, was a kind of fictional nonfiction.) Nancy put a name on it all: "The private Mitford cosmic joke."

It was as if the childhood nursery, whimsically feral, with its private language and unsupervised, faintly Lord of the Flies air — the parents' eccentric interventions were the odd comets traversing a child-run solar system — had stayed with them as they grew up.

They went out into the world, unchastened and retaining a little of the private language and a good deal more of the private thinking. L.P. Hartley wrote, "The past is another country; they do things differently there." The Mitfords towed that other country and all of its differences along behind them.

Even the quieter ones did some towing. Deborah has been recalled declaring as a child that she intended to become a duchess, and she did, by a circuitous if not (we presume) magical route. She married the Duke of Devonshire's younger son; he became heir when his older brother died in the war, then duke himself.

It was Jessica, known as Decca, who traveled farthest and freest. She and her family severed the towline. (Years later, Lord Redesdale wrote in his will "except Jessica" for each bequest to his children.) It would be a temporary severing, though the part-frayed ends still chafed.

Decca migrated with Esmond to the US, where they lived a happy mix of mild bohemianism and social butterflying. Among their close friends was Katharine Graham, who would inherit the Washington Post. When Esmond returned to Britain as a fighter pilot and was killed, Decca worked for a fashionable dress shop, and later for the wartime Office of Price Control.

Moving to San Francisco with her daughter, Constancia, she married a radical lawyer, Robert Treuhaft, joined the Communist Party and began decades of civil rights activism. This continued even after she left the party in 1958, because she found it had gone not wrong, but stodgy. After writing the hugely successful Hons and Rebel and The American Way of Death, a witty and devastating look at the funeral industry, she found herself a celebrity and, to her astonishment, wealthy.

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