IRREPRESSIBLE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESSICA MITFORD
By Leslie Brody
Counterpoint, $28, 403 pages, iIlustrated
In the many volumes of what might be termed Mitfordology - studies of that endlessly fascinating and appalling clan - next-to-last daughter Jessica often appears as a salutary counterpoint to her Nazi and fascist siblings. But in the account of her life in this adulatory biography, what is most striking is not what sets her apart from all those other Mitfords, but rather her horrible similarity to them. In the worst sense of the term, they were blithe spirits whose aloofness and sense of aristocratic entitlement led them headlong into the Scylla and Charybdis of 20th-century totalitarianism: communism and Nazism.
California writer Leslie Brody sees her subject through rose-colored spectacles, and so Mitford’s Stalinism is nothing like her sisters’ Nazism. This is not surprising coming from a biographer who thanks an entity called the “People’s Writing Committee,” and her book is one in which it is easier to find a discussion of McCarthyite persecution and the unfairness of loyalty oaths than of the gulag.
But even an admiring account of Mitford’s political activities provides a chilling portrait of someone whose rebelliousness led her toward a lifelong embrace of a system without regard for its defects, indifferent to the suffering it imposed on millions. To her credit, Ms. Brody criticizes Mitford for dismissing the fear and misery she saw with her own eyes on visiting Hungary in 1955. It’s interesting that she didn’t spend much time experiencing the fruits of communist rule where it actually existed. For her, communism was more a mode for her twin avocations of muckraking and poking fun.
What runs through Mitford’s life on both sides of the Atlantic is a streak of the sociopath. This was one communist who practiced that Marxist staple that the end justifies the means. Whether it was stealing whatever wasn’t nailed down in the homes of the rich who offered her hospitality or lying that she was a graduate of the Sorbonne to get a job in the federal government in Washington (with the Nazis conveniently occupying Paris, how could anyone check, she figured) Mitford felt no pangs of guilt, only justification.
The early influence of a governess who took her shoplifting - “jiggery-pokery” was the cozy name she gave it - was her introduction to the antinomian, and she continued to embrace it. If she couldn’t find someone to wash her underwear - whether it was a servant or an acquaintance dragooned into service - she simply didn’t wear any. Communist or not, she had a way of being irrepressibly offensive in the most common everyday situations.
A more serious fault of this biography than its credulousness toward Mitford’s politics is its inaccuracies. Some of these are small - the SS Aurania, on which Mitford first sailed to the United States, was not a Canadian vessel but a British Cunarder, and her father was a baron and not a baronet - but they are nonetheless significant. If you are going to write about the Mitfords, you have to know all about the British aristocracy, and there is a big difference between a baron, who is a peer and whose daughters bear the title honorable, and a mere baronet.
It is really intolerable, however, that the biographer thinks not only that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted at the 1945 San Francisco Conference, which founded the United Nations, but that it “reflected” Mitford and her friends’ - perhaps comrades would have been a better word - platform. It was, in fact, adopted three years later, after a long struggle by its “onlie begetter,” Eleanor Roosevelt, against a great deal of obstruction from those pillars of human rights, the communist delegates of whom Mitford was such an uncritical fan and who eventually voted for it quite cynically while refraining from implementing it in any way in their nations.
Indeed, even Mitford herself recounted how her erstwhile communist cohorts in England laughed at her when she revisited them in the ‘50s: They could not believe she had not long since seen the light. But in the stale air bubble that was the American Communist Party, Mitford was cocooned against any fresh breath of revelation like that which had caused the scales to drop from the eyes of her English comrades.
Whatever its deficiencies, this biography can still bring us to the enduring question of how so many members of this particular English family could so fervently embrace totalitarian ideologies. One of the most thoughtful and insightful students of the Mitfords, David Pryce-Jones, has pointed in his study of Hitler-loving sister Unity Valkyrie (no kidding; if ever there was a determinative name) to various antecedents with rebarbative social and political views. But even with dyed-in-the-wool aristocrats like these, lineage isn’t everything. The common denominator of this family is simply heartlessness, which comes as close as anything to explaining their dreadful indifference to what they so blithely espoused.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.