- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2007


Edited by Peter Y. Sussman

Knopf, $35, 768 pages


Ah, the Mitfords: that cottage industry of English aristocratic oddity, or perhaps it might be more apt in their case to say country house or manor house industry. That family is just so much fun: the private jokes and language — how they shrieked or how they roared — and the endless store of funny

stories about their parents’ eccentricities.

And they certainly imprinted their viewpoint on the reading public. I remember my mother saying to me when I first became entranced with Nancy Mitford’s sidesplitting novels: “her father, Lord Redesdale was as mad as a march hare,” an impression hard to argue with when you learned that he actually hunted his willing and delighted young children with hounds.

But there’s a worm in the golden Mitford apple and it’s one that might fairly be said to have also spoiled their century — the 20th — and it’s called totalitarianism. Unity, born at the very beginning of World War I, grew into an overgrown specimen of blonde Aryan womanhood so striking that none other than Adolf Hitler himself became smitten by this festering English lily. The attraction was mutual, so much so that, fulfilling a vow to kill herself if her country ever went to war with Nazi Germany, she shot herself in the head in a Munich park early in September 1939.

Older sister Diana became an intimate of Joseph Goebbels and, in the propaganda minister’s house, married British fascist leader Oswald Mosley in the presence of the Fuehrer himself, there to witness and bless this foul union. Younger sister Jessica (always called Decca, the way she had mispronounced her name as a child) gravitated towards the opposite pole of 20th-century totalitarianism: the Communist Party.

After running away to Spain during the Civil War — “poor child,” Hitler, as always all heart, commiserated to her sisters — Decca improbably settled in the United States shortly before the outbreak of World War II. Soon she became a stalwart of a Stalinist group in Oakland, Calif.

Life wasn’t all Communism for Decca, as anyone who dips into this marvelous collection of letters, excellently edited and annotated by Peter Sussman, a longtime editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, will soon find out. Her nonfiction memoirs, “Daughters and Rebels” and “A Fine Old Conflict,” filled in a lot of the background on which Nancy drew for her novels, “The Pursuit of Love” and “Love in a Cold Climate,” and they are a significant contribution to that country/manor house industry.

Decca also achieved considerable fame and fortune with her expose of the funeral industry in the United States, “The American Way of Death.” After decades on this side of the Atlantic, she remained as unmistakably and ineradicably upper-class English and Mitfordish as any of her sisters on its eastern shores; and almost every line of correspondence in this volume fairly rings with those cut-glass tones.

Of course, there are stories that are priceless. Suddenly the reader is privy to the kind of inside scoop that only family would have:

“Nancy, in one of our few confidential chats, said that she thought Diana had always been intensely jealous of Bobo [family nickname for Unity, less appropriate to her life, one might think, than her actual middle name Valkyrie — I’m not kidding] on acct. of Bobo being the Fuhrer’s favourite. To understand this, visualize them growing up together: Diana 4 yrs. older, a staggering beauty from childhood; Bobo, technically thought plain because of being so huge (although later she got marvellous looking, more like a monument than a pretty girl, however). They never liked each other as children… . They appeared to be absolutely thick as thieves after both became fascists. But if N. is right, perhaps this was false front on Diana’s part?”

Decca certainly endears herself to this reader by her staunch refusal to fraternize in later life with Diana Mosley and her fascist leader husband, Sir Oswald. After all, she was wont say, they would have turned her children into lampshades, a biting reference to the hideous artifact associated with the Holocaust. Uppermost in her mind was Diana’s enduring defense of the Fuehrer, his regime and his ideology, something that continued until the end of her long life, some years after Decca had died of lung cancer in 1996.

Much less palatable is Decca’s blithe defense of Communism. When she revisited her native land in the 1950s, she found even her former English comrades scornful of her attachment to a system they had abandoned after Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin and the brutal extinction of the Hungarian Revolution later that year. Slowly, she did come to move away from blind orthodoxy, but reading these letters it seems clear to me that in her very stubborn English manner, she was always a Communist at heart.

If in fact, she had much of one. She is quite honest about herself, quite capable of referring to herself as “cold-hearted me.”

Indeed, the coldness of the Mitford family is a thread that seems to connect all of them. A tough icy old mother, who defended Hitler till her dying day (in 1963), all the while vowing her love for her half-Jewish grandchildren (Decca’s second husband, San Francisco radical lawyer Robert Treuhaft, was Jewish).

Stony-eyed Diana talking to the end of her days of Hitler’s personal charm and soft hands. Nancy with her merciless, relentless, piercing wit, giving Unity the unforgettable and chilling soubriquet: “head of bone, heart of stone.”

So when Decca says, I was actually more of a Trotskyite, but the Stalinists won, you see, what was one to do, the souls of those murdered Trotskyites to say nothing of the brave dissidents fighting for freedom and justice cry out. But Decca’s blithe heart apparently could be just as stony as her sister’s and the refusal to look at all the evidence from Solzhenitsyn and others point to a plethora of bone in her head, too.

The Mitfords were wont to say about something they didn’t like: not enough jokes. For all the fun in this book’s pages, there’s a bitter taste in the mouth from so much stony heart and bony head which all that shrieking and roaring simply cannot eradicate. Sometimes jokes just aren’t enough.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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