‘If we should pass a car flaunting the red badge of socialism, we were allowed to lean out of the window and shout at the occupants: “Down with the horrible Counter-Honnish Labour Party!”’
Surely one of the most extraordinary families of the 20th century, the fascinating and unconventional Mitfords epitomised the great political divide of their day. Diana married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascists, and Unity was a close friend of Hitler. In contrast Jessica was a committed Communist – the ‘red sheep’ of the family. Hons & Rebels, Jessica’s sparkling and candid memoir, charts her singular early life, from her eccentric childhood to her emigration to the United States in 1939.
To the young Jessica, childhood in the Cotswolds seemed ‘an interminable process’. Ill at ease with country pursuits and stifled with boredom, she envied children in books (‘Oliver Twist was so lucky to live in a fascinating orphanage!’). Jessica ‘endlessly mulled over Running Away plans’ including one involving the Loch Ness Monster. As a teenager, already a passionate Socialist, she hoped to arrange a meeting with Hitler through her sister, and shoot him dead. Her imagination was caught by the Communist exploits of her distant cousin Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s nephew. When they eventually met, she persuaded him to help her escape to Spain to fight for the Republican cause. While waiting for the ferry at Dieppe, Esmond proposed marriage. The couple resisted all efforts to bring them back, including the despatch of a Royal Navy destroyer by the British government. They subsequently moved to Rotherhithe in London before embarking on a life of cheerful poverty in America, until the gathering storm clouds at last erupted in the Second World War.
Jessica Mitford’s account of her remarkable life is both uproariously funny and deeply moving. From her pain and anger at her favourite sister’s devotion to Hitler to the crushing loss of a child, tragedy touched Jessica Mitford’s life many times, but her irrepressible spirit and commitment to a better world come through in every word of this remarkable memoir.