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Pavillon Mitford

The Sisters

Darling Evelyn,

The heaven of The Loved One oh you are kind to dedicate it to me, thank you thank you for it. I've been utterly shrieking ever since it arrived, luckily was lunching alone. I must say I couldn't quite do it & the foie de veau together (just coincided with the massaging) but combined it happily with a banana, & am now in despair at having finished it. Can't wait to give it to the Colonel. 

So Nancy Mitford wrote to Evelyn Waugh on 9 February 1948. 

I have just made my way through eight pages of Google sites responsive to the word 'Mitford.' Aside from fatigue and whetted curiosity, I couldn't help wondering what each of the six daughters of David and Sidney Mitford would have made of Jan Karon's midcult novels set in a fictional town that bears their name. I have also spent forty-five pounds at the Chatsworth House site. All the purchases but one were books, and all but one of the books were Nancy's. The site is extremely impressive, and couldn't run more smoothly - especially in the ordering department - Gosford Park's Mrs Wilson couldn't run it better.  (At last: an invoice that prints on just one page!).

Why? I've just finished Mary S. Lovell's new book. It's called The Sisters (2001; Norton, 2002)  here in America but more intelligently The Mitford Girls in England. (I already have a book called 'The Sisters' in my library; it's about the three Cushings who married well but did little else.) An enjoyable if somewhat hectic read, Ms Lovell's book could be better organized, but it strikes a note of judicious but kindly criticism that might make the experienced Mitford watcher wonder if the author hasn't managed to channel the spirit of Nanny Blor.

My first contact with a member of this family came in 1966, when Nancy's book about Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' came out, but I wasn't aware of a family until about five years later, when I read 'Hons and Rebels,' the apparently rather unreliable memoir of Jessica ('Decca') Mitford, sixth of the Mitford children and fifth of the girls. By that time, Jessica Mitford had published her expose, 'The American Way of Death,' but I was not particularly interested in current affairs in those days, nor in muckraking, and so saved a treasure for my middle age (I've got a copy of the revised, posthumous edition in my legenda). But 'Hons' worked its magic. Even though it appears to debunk the notion of peers' families' privileged lives, it is nothing but the founding document in the mythology of the Mitfords. Some of the girls had been in the news ever since Diana's wedding to Bryan Guinness in 1929, but 'Hons & Rebels' replaced the miscellany of society and political clippings with a tale of the family's origins that made everything seem preordained. Had she cared to do so, Jessica could have added enough sequels to provide a truly upper-class counterpart to E. F.. Benson's Lucia books.

Individuals give rise to legends, but true mythology requires a cast of characters. That's what makes 'Bloomsbury,' 'The New York Intellectuals,' and Camelots ancient and modern more interesting than most of the constituent personages would be if considered individually. With the Mitfords, as it turns out, the mythology, although roaringly entertaining, is perhaps a little less so. Of the six children, two, Nancy and Jessica, were famous writers, two, Diana and Unity, were notorious for their devotion to Fascism, and one, Deborah, has been the Duchess of Devonshire for nearly fifty years, chatelaine of an historic property that she and her husband have restored - without government aid - to a dream of its original luster. Diana, it should also be noted, was the great beauty of her day (roughly, the Thirties), and is by all accounts even more beautiful today. The son, Tom, who may have had a clever career, was killed in Burma in 1945. Only Pamela, 'the quiet sister,' comes to public attention solely on the strength of her connections. I don't mean to sound like a fan, but this is a remarkable amount of interest for one family to generate, all the more so as both parents were respectable, retiring members of the English gentry. Their idea for their girls was marriage and motherhood, and what modern day marketers would call a complete lack of Q. Instead, Lady Redesdale came to expect that 'Whenever I see a headline beginning with "Peer's Daughter" I know that one of you children has been in trouble.'

Mary Lovell remarks at the beginning of her book that when she would tell people what she was working on, the topic drew a blank from young people. The Mitfords have at long last passed out of the news, even if Diana and the Duchess are still kicking. But because of the copious written record, their story will probably always have an appeal to readers, an appeal that may indeed grow as the obnoxiousness of their class arrogance (which doesn't bother me) wears off with the passage of time. I wonder how many people will come to the Mitfords through Ms Lovell's book. I should think that most readers would be already familiar with one or more of the girls, and grateful, as I was, for a synoptic view of their careers. That, for the time being, will be this book's great utility. Each of the sisters except Pam is the subject of biography or autobiography, and the political career of Sir Oswald Mosley, Diana's second husband and the leader of the British Union of Fascists, has caused much ink to be spilled and probably remains to be settled. Here, under one roof as it were - again, I see Nanny Blor in the DFD (don't ask) trying to line the girls up - we have everybody's point of view, and for once the arc of each girl's fame or notoriety can be seen with respect the others'.

Diana was famous first, for her beauty and for that 'marriage of the year' to Bryan Guinness, and then she was notorious, for leaving Guinness for Mosley, a messy transition that involved the death - an old-fashioned 'turning to the wall' - of Mosley's first wife, and a secret wedding at the Goebbels' apartment in Berlin. By that time, Unity was in the news. It appears that few people in England really got to know Unity; she spent the later Thirties in largely in Germany, and shot herself on the day that war was declared between the two countries that she cared about. She did not die, but regressed, and perhaps because her invalided state blotted out the recollection of the younger girl, she became known as a 'Hitler groupie.' In fact, she was a singularly close friend of Hitler; they met and dined often and spent many evenings together chatting by the fire, much to the dismay of other courtiers. This friendly relationship - almost certainly chaste - seems to have been enough for her. It is impossible to approve of Unity, but somehow Lovell has made it hard to dislike her. Decca made herself famous by running off with one of Churchill's nephews at the tender age of nineteen, first to Spain and then to the United States; a few years later, after Esmond Romilly's death in the war, she married a Jewish-American labor lawyer and settled in California. But her career as a writer began long after Nancy's. Nancy had set herself to writing in her teens, but success came only with the publication of 'The Pursuit of Love,' in 1947. Nancy was at this time about to settle herself permanently in Paris (she would move to Versailles toward the end of her life), largely to be near Gaston Palewski, de Gaulle's 'right hand man,' a charming bon viveur who replied to Nancy's 'I love you Colonel' with 'That's awfully kind of you'; it almost killed her when he up and married another woman. And, just to show you that this is a story that has everything, there's a real Kennedy connection.  In 1941, Deborah, the baby of the family, married the Duke of Devonshire's second son. His elder brother, Billy, was in love with Kathleen 'Kick' Kennedy, one of JFK's sisters. They were resigned to not getting married, because the Duke's family was as staunchly Protestant as Rose Kennedy was Catholic. Later, however, they changed their minds, and Kick Kennedy might have become the Duchess instead of Deborah had not Billy, like Tom Mitford and Esmond Romilly, fallen in battle. Although Kick subsequently fell in love with a married man, with whom she died in a plane crash - Rose said it was God's judgment - she is buried at Chatsworth. After spending much of the war jailed in Holloway Prison, Diana helped her husband try to revive his career, but it was no use, and this 'waste of unfulfilled promise,' Lovell surmises, may have contributed to the bond that she later formed with the Duchess of Windsor. Here endeth the merest summary of five full lives, with an apology to the sixth, Pamela's, which was also full, but almost entirely private.

What the girls had in common was a tremendous sense of fun and ready wit. It's difficult to assess this second hand, of course, and the disclaimer, 'you had to be there,' would probably cover the unvarnished truth of their doings. Nothing wrong with that. Certainly their outspokenness got them into trouble, often with one another - Jessica spent most her life post-elopement on 'non-speakers' with some, and sometimes most, of her family, and Unity, in her impaired state after 1939, took a strange dislike to Deborah (Lovell can't account for it, anyway). Diana's obstinate honesty has prevented her from recharacterizing her admiration for Hitler in light of all the things about him and about Nazism that she didn't know, and probably couldn't have known, before her incarceration, and aside from an uneasy truce during Nancy's last illness, Jessica refused to see or write to her. This is not surprising in a sometime Communist and active civil-rights worker - or in an American citizen, as Jessica became, even though her new government refused to grant her a passport until well into the Sixties. But it also reminds us of the ripping hatred that the left felt for the right between the wars. Indeed it shows a strange asymmetry. Fascists hated and feared socialist ideology, but not necessarily its exponents, while those on the left charged the people they hated with Fascism.

It's my intention to let this page sprawl, over time, into an omnium-gatherum of encounters with the lively record of the Mitford sorority. I'd give anything to be able to grace it with a sample of one of those shrieks.

Update: the foregoing was written before the deaths, within a year, of Diana Mosley - a victim of la canicule in 2003, and of Andrew, Duke of Devonshire, in May, 2004. Debo is now the Dowager Duchess. Permalink


Voltaire in Love

Voltaire in Love (Carroll & Graf, 1957, 1999) reminds me of Six Degrees of Separation: it's a very extended anecdote. From 1734 until 1749, Voltaire and the Marquise du Châtelet were inseparable. This is not to say that they were what most people would call lovers throughout. Voltaire's interest in sex faded over time, while his friend's attraction to virile young men did not. In the end, it killed her: sixteen years after the birth of her third legitimate child, she conceived a child by a certain M de Saint-Lambert, and died shortly after it was born - but I anticipate what is probably the heart, and certainly the climax, of Nancy Mitford's story. 

We all know that Voltaire was a remarkable man. For her time, however, Emilie du Châtelet was an even more remarkable woman. A proficient mathematician, she undertook to translate Newton into French, while remaining a woman of fashion, addicted to jewelry and gambling. Indeed, in a treatise composed around 1733, Réflections sur le Bonheur, Mme du Châtelet asserted that gambling was, in Ms Mitford's words, "instrumental to happiness. The soul needs to be shaken up by hope and fear. Gambling brings it within range of these two passions and keeps it in a healthy state." Her mathematical acumen did not, alas, make her very good at cards, and one night at Fontainebleau, when sat the Queen' s table, Voltaire, standing behind her, muttered in English that she ought to realize that she was playing with cheats. This very characteristic indiscretion was the end of Voltaire's career at court. Not even his friendship with Mme de Pompadour was sufficient to revive the grudging beneficence of Louis XV.

The only way to keep Voltaire out of trouble, really, was to keep him at Cirey, the ancestral home of Mme du Châtelet's husband. M le Marquis was a complaisant man who never raised the slightest objection to Voltaire's role in his household, partly because he was genuinely indifferent - he cared only for the Army - and partly because Voltaire, already a rich man, paid for the remodeling and upkeep of the house itself. In Paris, Voltaire was sure to do something to upset the establishment, and risk, perhaps, yet another stay in the Bastille (where to be sure the conditions for inmates of his caliber were little short of sumptuous). Then there was the prolonged flirtation with Frederick the Great, whom Emilie regarded as her great rival. Voltaire would not sojourn at Sans Souci until after her death, but the idea of resettling in Prussia tantalized him for most of their years together. Like Horace, Voltaire was always sure that he'd be happier somewhere else.

The attachment between Voltaire and Emilie appears to been of the kind known only to extremely bright people, based on the erotic pleasure of ceaseless polished conversation. Where Voltaire was witty, Emilie was candid, a combination that assured a lively, not to say tempestuous, ménage. They kept late hours and irregular mealtimes; when they were not absolutely fascinating, they usually gave offense. Canny and intellectual, they were neither of them particularly sagacious. But while Voltaire's generosity gives luster to his air of being the first truly modern man, Emilie's self-absorption roots her in the ancien régime. She could not have been less interested in the social advancement of women generally, and she was very unkind when bored. She could also be a fool. Embarking on the aforementioned visit to Fontainebleau, Emilie decided to avail herself of the privilege - a quirk of her husband's ancestry - of riding in the Queen's retinue. Unlike the other women in the party, she was neither a duchess nor a Versaillaise, but she jumped into one of the carriages as though she did so every day, and so offended the others (the Queen had already departed) that they crowded themselves into another vehicle. Nor would they let her join them. Emilie made the journey to Fontainebleau in a mortification of solitary state. Once there, she was able to set things to rights with the Queen, but the court talked of nothing else. No wonder Voltaire's slander made her decide to decamp. By then, even she must have realized that she'd been a jerk.

Emilie's affair with Saint-Lambert was engineered by a Jesuit, of all people. King Stanislas, the former King of Poland, current father-in-law to the King of France, titular ruler of the Duchy of Lorraine, and a fun-seeker if ever there was one, had developed a passion for a beautiful member of his court, from whom his confessor, try what he might, could not pry him. Eventually, the priest decided that the introduction of another interesting woman would distract the king - and that Mme du Châtelet was just the person to do so. (She wasn't too appetizingly young, and she belonged to a prominent Lorraine family.) So, at what was a decidedly difficult moment in their relationship (they'd been fighting a lot), Emilie and Voltaire were invited to join the court at Nancy. Instead of attracting the attention of Stanislaus, however, Emilie fell in love with the King's lover's lover, the Marquis de Saint-Lambert. A master of understatement, Saint-Lambert was wont to fall out of love with women much sooner than they fell out of love with him, and Emilie was no exception. She was besotted. It is in from Nancy Mitford's description of her grasping regard for Saint-Lambert, rather than from any incident involving Voltaire, that we get the clearest picture of the marquise's character.

With one of Emilie's nature, so whole-hearted and possessive, no affair could keep a light touch for long, and as soon as Saint-Lambert was better she began to make scenes. He has treated her so coldly today, as if hardly giving her a thought, has never spoken of expedients for seeing more of her, has not even mentioned the subject. Why does he never look at her? Does he only care to be with her in company, does he not long to spend all his time with her? That is the test of love, every minute apart should be an agony. Why does he never go to her room where they can be alone together? The eggs she has cooked for him have grown cold with waiting, but she has not. Now she seems to have spoilt everything and made him cross. He must forgive and forget what she said last night and only remember the happy day they had. She is sorry now, she sees that she has been unfair, she only wishes she had taken more advantage of the time they have spent together to be happy in his love. She is too easily upset and she knows it. 

Ms Mitford concludes this extract thus: "As we read these endless scribblings we wonder how the highly-strung Voltaire could ever have put up with her." 

The answer, of course, is that he found the company of a very intelligent woman profoundly flattering. Such is the eros of intelligence. It is not a matter of vanity, but rather one of sounding echoes from one's innermost recesses. There may, moreover, have been something more. Voltaire and Emilie are our first power couple, and they may have known it. Without Voltaire, Emilie would have been an eccentric bluestocking, taking lovers seriatim but engaging with no one, certainly not her military husband. Voltaire would have been little different: a difficult bachelor, dependant upon servants who couldn't, or wouldn't, be retained for any length of time. (After Emilie's death, he would set up house with his niece, Mme Denis.) Well, that's exactly what they were; but they also had one another. Voltaire and Emilie were misfists whose odd angles were wonderfully complementary. 

It's time for someone to cover this material again. Nancy Mitford is terrifically knowing and sophisticated, but she writes with a detectable nostalgia for the gender inequalities that made Mme du Châtelet look so raffinée. There is more Trollope in her take on the relationship than she would have been willing to admit. That Voltaire and Emilie lived in sin for sixteen years (which they didn't) does not, by itself, make either of them particularly advanced. And whether or not they were ahead of their time is not the interesting question. What's interesting is the friendship that kept a man and a woman together long after the fruits of flirtation ceased to interest either of them. Something that could be said of a contemporary French couple: Louis XV and Mme de Pompadour. Who's on first? (February 2004) Permalink

The Sun King

The Sun King was my introduction to the life and times of Louis XIV. It was also my first book written by any Mitford. Years passed before I understood that it had much more to tell me about its author than about its subject, which, for that matter, Nancy Mitford nicely hedged by subtitling her book 'Louis XIV at Versailles.' It is to the subtitle that her book is true. The Sun King is not about the Sun King - it leaves out far too much to qualify as a biography - and it is not about Versailles, either. Although almost every event described occurred within twenty miles of the chateau, Nancy is not interested in 'Versailles' except insofar as it served as a setting for the life of the man who turned it from a modest hunting box into the center of European high life. "I'm boldly writing a book about Louis XIV," she wrote to a friend in 1964, " - that is, not a biography exactly but describing the various things which amuse me in his reign. First Versailles and how it was built, then the Poisons, then St. Cyr..., Lord Portland's embassy. A chapter on doctors. And so on...." There you have it.

By 'how it was built,' Nancy does not mean, 'how it was paid for.' At no point does she interrupt her beguiling narrative with anything that might be taken for a systematic overview, even in capsule form, of Bourbon finance. The Sun King is not a history book. Rather, it's a very sophisticated memoir. Nancy had so thoroughly read up on what interested her, and mostly in primary sources, that The Sun King reads like the work of an entertaining and intelligent court gossip. What distinguishes her from, say, Madame de Sévigné, is that, as an Englishwoman, Nancy wasn't blinded by Louis. Hard worker that he was, she saw that he was not a statesman on the level of the Cardinals, Richelieu and Mazarin, who had made France formidable in the middle of the seventeenth century. He was certainly not as good a judge of character; when the Cardinals' protégés - Colbert, Louvois - died off, they were replaced by duds. 

But if he did not always make the right decisions, Louis nonetheless acted with a unique combination of style and majesty. Not until his last years, blasted by the deaths of his son, grandson, and beloved granddaughter-in-law (movingly related in a chapter entitled 'Three In Eleven Months'), could he be described as ponderous, but he was always to be taken very seriously. He could sustain Versailles, a country house that hummed with the traffic of a major airport, and just as publicly, because his nature was wholly extroverted; no conflicting inner life distracted him, as it did his two successors, from the unending parade of pomps and personages that proclaimed French eminence. This, rather than keen intelligence, was the secret of his greatness: being le roi soleil came quite naturally to him. Few human beings have ever had such steadily- burning inexhaustible energy. When he was in residence, Versailles embodied everything that was great about France, and when he died, he took his country's greatness with him.  

'The Poisons,' you ask? This was one of Nancy's tangents. In the late 1670s, a priest at Notre Dame confided to La Reynie, the very capable chief of police, that he had heard a number of confessions involving murder by poison. It took a while, but eventually La Reynie unearthed one Mme Voisin, a fortune-teller with an aristocratic clientèle who also, it appeared, dabbled in more diabolical practices. A special court, the Chambre Ardente, was set up to investigate the matter, bypassing the Parlement, whose genteel members could be expected to deal leniently with well-born criminals. In 1680, it was discovered that Olympe Mancini, perhaps Louis's first great love and now the Comtesse de Soissons, mother of Prince Eugène, had done away with M. le Comte. Warned by the King himself of the warrant for her arrest, the countess fled to Brussels, but two equally prominent people, the Duchesse de Bouillon and the Maréchal de Luxembourg, were actually put on trial, although both were acquitted. Mme Voisin and two of her colleagues weren't so lucky, but were tortured and burned at the stake. Perhaps as many as a hundred other lowlifes would have followed them if the investigations had continued. They stopped short in 1682, however, when it became embarrassingly clear that Athénaïs de Montespan, the beautiful and clever lover of whom Louis had tired, would be unavoidably implicated; she had turned to the Prince of Darkness in a vain attempt to hold on to the King's affection. Up to this point, Louis had been committed to the idea that the poisoners must be rooted out, no matter how many of his courtly friends went to the Bastille. But although Louis could take acting on principle to heroic lengths, principles were invariably trumped by his deepest affections, and so to protect Montespan's good name (such as it was; her husband had taken to riding about with antlers tied on to his hat), Louis closed the Chambre Ardente, and the unconvicted felons who had pointed in her direction were sent off to solitary confinement.  

Luckily for her [Athénaïs ], the King found it easy to forgive women, whom he regarded as charming, irresponsible, inferior creatures. Mme de Montespan was not only the mother of his children but an ornament of his court. She dazzled the ambassadors. When she did not exasperate she amused him. He burnt all the papers relevant to the affair, not realizing that La Reynie's notes were kept in the police archives (they are there to this day at the Bibiothèque Nationale) and put the whole thing behind him. He may well have thought that, had Athénaïs been a poisoner, at least one of her rivals would have died or been taken ill in a mysterious way, and that she would long since have poisoned Mme de Maintenon, whom she loathed from the bottom of her soul. Mme de Maintenon, indeed, wrote jokingly to a friend 'I am just off to Clagny [Montespan's place] which Nanon thinks very dangerous.' The proof of the King's belief in Athénaïs's innocence is that he kept her on at Versailles for another ten years. Nothing could have been easier than for him to have sent her to a convent, the usual fate of the discarded mistress. Those historians who attribute the end of their love affair to the part she played in the poison case have no examined the evidence: he had completely cooled after the birth of Toulouse, nearly a year before the arrest of Mme Voisin. Voltaire, with his great knowledge of human nature, put the matter in a nutshell: 'the King had reproached himself for his liaison with a married woman and when he was no longer in love, his conscience made itself felt more keenly.'

As for Lord Portland's Embassy, this diplomatic mission by a close friend of William III of England in 1698, undertaken in part to divine at first hand the French King's intentions about the Spanish Succession, which two years later would plunge Europe into fourteen years of war, gave Nancy Mitford an opportunity to sketch an episode that might have come out of one of her later novels - 'Don't Tell Alfred,' perhaps. We don't hear enough about the actual negotiations to be bored, but are treated to a full review of the luxe displayed on all sides. Of Portland's opposite number, the French Ambassador to England, Nancy wrote,

Tallart was one of those Frenchmen who seem to be the nearest thing to perfection that humanity can produce. He was delightful and brilliant and was considered the best company of anybody at Versailles. 

Indeed, she charged the entirety of The Sun King with something of that affection. Permalink


Hons and Rebels

At the age of forty, having had at least as much adventure in life as any of her sisters, Jessica Mitford (1917-1996) joined her sister Nancy's profession. She became a successful author with her first book, Hons and Rebels (1960), and never looked back. Many people took 'Hons' to be short for 'honourables,' as Jessica and her siblings, the children of a peer, all were, and there is something about this mistake that confirms Nancy's theories about language and class, for a true gentlewoman would never refer to herself with such a flauntation of her status. Worse, erroneous understanding of the title will lead one to mispronounce it, leaving the 'H' unaspirated and so to appear to commit the same sort of genteel solecism that makes people say 'veechyswah' for vichyssoise. Even before opening the book, the reader risks tripping a mine. But Jessica Mitford, if not exactly kind-hearted, displays a winning generosity when she explains, on page twelve, that "of course" the 'H' is pronounced, "as in Hen." Of course! "Hon" was the silly way that Jessica and her sister Debo, the future Duchess of Devonshire (whose interest in eggs and poultry remains unabated to this day) had of saying "hen." 

"Death to the Horrible Counter-Hons!" What must this cry have sounded like, shrieked by pretty little girls?

I read Hons and Rebels a thousand years ago, or about ten after its first appearance, and died laughing. But I don't believe that I finished the book. I believe that I lost interest when the narrative reached the year 1937, and Jessica ran away from home (using money deposited over the years in a Drummonds' Bank account labeled "Running Away Fund"). The elopement, with her cousin, Esmond Romilly, was a successful scandal, in that it led to a very happy marriage, but Jessica's life in the family's group portrait was over. She had not only eloped, which was bad enough, but she had also become a vociferous communist, insolently denouncing her family's way of life. I can't imagine that I cared for the character of Esmond Romilly, and, when the hilarious tales of madcap Mitfords petered out, I'm sure that I put the book down. In any case, everything that followed was new to me when I had another go at Hons and Rebels the other day - especially the realization that the book is not about the Mitfords at all, really, but a testament to the author's happy first marriage.

(Her second marriage was happy, too. The first ended when Esmond was killed in action, in 1941.)

I don't think that Jessica Mitford ever intended to write an accurate portrayal of her childhood - and why should she have done? Her childhood seems to have been an eternity of sulks, of dying to get away. No, Hons and Rebels serves the twinned purposes of publishing the tales with which Jessica had been regaling her American friends for years - she arrived in the United States in 1939 and, aside from vacations, never left - while presenting her attachment to Esmond both as an understandably longed-for salvation from domestic asphyxiation and as an ideal companion for her campaign against the Fascism of her sisters Diana and Unity.

We cannot expect a book intended to be funny to shirk all exaggeration or to take balanced views. When the book appeared, Nancy complained that Decca had left lots of things out. Eh comment. 

I'm old enough now to find Esmond rather charming, at least in Decca's portrait. A son of Clementine Churchill's sister, he made himself infamous at Wellington by inserting pacifist leaflets in the prayerbooks so that they fluttered en masse during the moment of silence at an Armistice Day service. At fifteen, he ran away from (another) school and set himself up as a magazine publisher, of all things. The magazine was called Out of Bounds, and its mission was to publish seditious reportage from the various public schools. By 1937, Esmond had fought in Spain and been invalided out. Decca had followed his career with thrilled fascination, but she had never met him. When they did meet, they fell in love almost at once. Decca writes that they had only one quarrel in their time together, early in their elopement. Otherwise they were merry comrades who also happened to be deeply in love.

The story of their elopement, marriage, and ultimate evacuation from Spain is too good to spoil with a summary; if Stephen Sondheim weren't so wistful, he could probably make first-rate musical comedy out of the affair. After a year or so in London, during which their first child died of measles, they decided that it made sense to spend the run-up to inevitable war in America. There, the pacifist Esmond wouldn't be called up for military service, and the couple could see something of the world. The final quarter of the book is devoted to American adventures, in New York, Martha's Vineyard, Washington, and Miami. At the end, the outbreak of war has broken the spell of Esmond's pacifism, and he has driven off to join the Canadian Air Force.

The American passages, loaded with terrible scrapes and sudden saves, are about the funniest in the book. Esmond was a scamp and a rogue, albeit a loveable one. He was always on the lookout for, on the one hand, quick riches and, on the other, the quickest way to get out of paying for something. He was enough of a charmer to get Eugene Meyer, then owner of the Washington Post to lend him $1000 so that he could buy the license for a bar. (Mr Meyer gave him the money so readily that he was nonplussed, and could only think to say that he hoped this wouldn't leave the elder gentleman 'short.') For a while in New York he was paid $100 a week to do more or less nothing for a bogus ad agency set up by a rich tax cheat. In Washington, he sold silk stockings door-to-door. ("Esmond was disturbingly successful as a Silkform salesman.") He took a bartending course that would come in hand when the couple reached Miami - having taking the wrong fork in the road on their way to New Orleans, which they never got to. His ethics were ripely dicey. On Martha's Vineyard, he staged an elaborate charade to defraud the owners of a cottage colony.

The Rodmans' cabin, where we were staying, was divided into two furnished bed-sitting rooms, bath and kitchen. After a couple of days, Esmond decided that it would be cheaper if we officially checked out of the cabin, thereby saving on room rent. As the main office was some distance away, we were able to continue actually sleeping in the cabin without attracting attention. Each morning we stole quietly out of the cabin, carrying empty suitcases down the wooded paths, and came back by the office as jauntily and ostentatiously as possible, hoping that we looked as though we had been camping somewhere and had just come to spend the day. The Rodmans were delighted but a little shocked by this arrangement. It seemed to confirm their opinion of Esmond, and to lend credibility to his fantastic stories of past exploits.

It is hard to know what sort of life Esmond would have pursued after the war. Great at beginnings, he was too accustomed to taking advantage of windfalls to be much good at serious planning. It should be remembered, however, that the latter part of this memoir is no more comprehensive than the earlier, and to bear in mind that Esmond may well have had sturdier virtues when required. The American Tour was above all an escapade; the Romillys had no intention of remaining in America forever. But as it happened, Jessica did stay, and found a way of being a rebel that actually made her friends. Free from the English class system, with its elaborate codes of identifying conduct, she found in her distance from home a genuine perspective: she grew up.

Both Esmond and I would have scouted the idea that anything in our conduct was remotely attributable either to heredity or to upbringing, for, like most people, we regarded ourselves as "self-made," free agents in every respect, the products of our own actions and decisions. Yet our style of behaviour during mc of life together, and which struck such a responsive chord in me, his care-free intransigence, even his supreme self-confidence - a feeling of being able to walk unscathed through any flame - are not hard to trace to an English upper-class ancestry and upbringing.

The qualities of patience, forbearance and natural self-discipline that the worker brings to his struggle for a better life, the instinctive respect for the fundamental dignity of every other human being - even his enemy - so often displayed by the Negro or the Jew in his own fight for equality, were on the whole conspicuously lacking in us, or only present in the most undeveloped form.

Hons and Rebels is dedicated to Jessica's first surviving child, Constancia Romilly, born shortly before Esmond's death. By the time the book appeared, she was old enough to appreciate this racy account of her parents' youth without finding it distressing (as teenagers do), but I have no idea of her reaction. I should not be surprised, however, if she took it to be an extraordinarily loving epitaph. Decca's mother and sisters were quite wrong, however predictable, to think that it was supposed to be about them. Permalink

The American Way of Death Revisited

In the summer of 1963, Jessica Mitford's second book, The American Way of Death, appeared, just in time for Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to have read it by the time his brother was assassinated, three months later. We learn this interesting detail from The American Way of Death Revisited, an update of the original that Mitford was working on at the time of her death and that was completed by her husband, Bob Treuhaft. Noting that accounts by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and William Manchester both refer to her book's influence on RFK's thinking while funeral decisions had to be made, Mitford plays a trump card:

While Yours Truly was, needless to say, most gratified to learn that her message had been absorbed in high places, further exploration reveals that - much as in the case of FDR's funeral - the best-laid schemes of Robert Kennedy and his assistants went agley. The undertakers prevailed after all.

Indeed, the Kennedys paid for two coffins. The one in which the late president's body had been placed in Dallas was damaged in transit to Washington and a new one had to be purchased. The Dallas mortician made two trips to Washington in hopes of retrieving his battered coffin, which I suppose would have made quite a conversation piece, but had to be content with payment. To his own cost of $1150, this enterprising man had added a markup of $2345.

As always, Jessica Mitford writes with panache and good humor, but The American Way of Death Revisited is a funny book not least because death and the dying hardly appear. Mitford's actual subject is the very lively one of ambitious if self-sanctifying funeral directors, rapacious cemetery developers, and supine regulators. Her technique is simplicity itself:

When funeral directors have taxed me - which they have, and not infrequently - with being beastly about them in my book, I can affirm in good conscience that there is hardly an unkind word about them. In fact, the book is almost entirely given over to expounding their point of view. It is chock a block with their Wise Sayings, observations, exhortations, and philosophical reflections culled from funeral trade magazines and interview with individual funeral directors and official spokesmen.

In other words, Mitford lets an industry hang itself with its own rope. And we root for her all the way, because of the one point that she herself must establish without any help from the undertakers: the typical American funeral and burial, with an embalming that is designed to be temporary only and a ton of overpriced and overdecorated coffins and 'vaults,' has no roots in tradition, is not called for by any American religion, and appears to accomplish one thing only: the lining of pockets. Most people say that they want very simple funerals for themselves, but morticians are quick to take advantage of the fact that 'most people' are not around to make the arrangements themselves, and will recite a litany of pious nonsense to convince kith and kin that a fine funeral is the only way to demonstrate to the world how much the Loved One will be missed. What makes this unconscionable, of course, is the imposition of such flim-flammery on bereaved, possibly shocked families. Consider this industry position:

It is good for those who survive to have the right and duty to make the funeral arrangements. Making such arrangements, having such responsibilities, is essential. It is part of the grief syndrome, part of the therapy of mourning. It is a positive hook upon which the hat of funeral service is hung. Why should we tear it down by saying the funeral is for the deceased, therefore he or she should make the arrangements? ... If funeral directors insist on soliciting pre-need funerals, they are in fact prearranging the funeral of their profession.

Howard C. Raether, an attorney and sometime executive secretary of the National Funeral Directors Association, comes up for a lot of quotation in The American Way of Death Revisited, and this is my favorite nugget. Mr Raether's conclusion about the funeral of the funeral business turns out, of course, to have been wrong: in 1995, at least $20 billion had been forked over in advance. But what intrigues me here is 'the grief syndrome.' Without any support whatever from medical or psychological research, undertakers have learned to talk about the grief syndrome as though it were an established pathology, through which all must pass. And even if this were true, what is the contribution of buying a coffin and a plot of land to the assuagement of grief? Having partaken in arrangements for both of my parents' funerals, I can attest that making such arrangements is a ghoulishly tedious distraction.

Most modern religions hold that the body is the outward vessel of the spirit, and that its importance after the passing of that spirit at death is nil. Religious funeral services honor the memory of the deceased without calling attention to mortal remains. It is not uncommon for the coffin to be completely covered by a pall, and thus precluded from ostentation. Cremation is no longer contrary to mainstream religious strictures; neither is donation of the body to a medical school. Clergymen are generally unanimous in condemning expensive elaboration, and not shy about saying so.

In all this, there is cold comfort indeed for the funeral director, who is most anxious to put his entire range of goods and services at the disposal of the mourners. For, to what avail the art of the embalmer if his handiwork is to be concealed in a closed coffin? Of what use is the "copper casket of seamless construction, made without joints or seams of any kind," if its seamlessness and freedom from joints are hidden beneath a funeral pall? What is to become of the "chapel" with its rheostat-controlled lighting, deep-piled wall-to-wall carpeting, cushioned pews, soft, cold color scheme, and Pilcher organ if funeral services are to conducted in - of all things - a church? And, if the family so desires, with no casket present at all? Lastly, if the minister will be counseling and comforting the bereaved family, what is then left of the funeral director's "professional" role as grief therapist?

What, indeed? Let us pipe our eyes for the poor funeral directors. Notice the humor of writing "to put his entire range of goods and services at the disposal of the mourners" for "to sell, sell, sell."

The typical funeral would be silly if it weren't also fraudulent. If you want to know what's involved in embalming, you can read the famous passage, since abstracted for numerous writing textbooks, that begins on page 45 - complete with the considerate recommendation that squeamish readers consider skipping to the bottom of page 49. But if you want to know about the effectiveness of embalming, which most of naturally associate with the hardy mummies of pharaohs,you ought to read the transcript and summary of a lawsuit that is given in Chapter 11. Here we have the odd case of a man who really wanted, positively and explicitly, and without any pressuring, to have his mother's body embalmed for the ages, "all sealed in nice." He willingly paid top-of-the-line prices. A devoted son, he paid frequent visits to his mother's tomb. Imagine his distress, therefore, at a graveside parade of ants that got busier and busier during the following year. I will not repeat what was found when the coffin was reopened - those who wouldn't be sickened by it ought to have the pleasure of encountering it in context - but the last word, as always, goes to the funeral industry, which mounted a very rearguard defense of its allegedly negligent confrere.

The defense theory - perhaps the only possible one under the circumstances - was that there is no such thing as "eternal preservation"; that the results of embalming are always unpredictable; that, therefore, Mr. Nieri could not have entered into the alleged agreement with Mr. Chelini. Before the case was over, the theory of "everlasting security for your loved one," an advertising slogan gleefully flung at them by Mr. Belli, was thoroughly exploded by reluctant experts. They also conceded that the expensive metal "sealer type" caskets, if anything, hasten the process of decomposition.

So what's the point of embalming? Why the expensive caskets? Both are indispensable to the production of what the industry calls a "memory picture" - the world's last look at the deceased. My mother was insistent that the world be deprived of this opportunity, and the family respected her wishes, but her body was embalmed and decked out nonetheless, and my father, sister and I had a brief glimpse. I was completely undone by this experience and almost had to be borne out of the room. My mother had been dying of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma for over six months, and had looked rather wasted toward the end; the embalmer had made a whited sepulcher of her remains. My father's face, viewed in an open casket eight years later, was almost unrecognizable. "Inferior wax copy" would be an understatement of the impression. I try very hard not to remember these scenes. I would have been much happier had the bodies been frozen for whatever time elapsed between death and service, and shown only to family - just to be sure. There is something odious about the embalmer's 'art.' Industry arguments, that embalming is necessary for purposes of public hygiene, are totally spurious. Neither are metal coffins and the 'vaults' in which they're sealed.

Cremation, more and more popular, doesn't require any kind of coffin at all, but that doesn't get in the way of persuasive funeral directors.

Here again, what is good for one segment of the burial business has its odd and painful repercussions in another. So enthusiastically are metal caskets pushed that fairly often they are sold even in cases where the deceased is to be cremated. This is most irksome to the crematories, whose equipment - designed for the expeditious combustion of wood - is not geared to the combustion of metal receptacles.

Bodies have to be taken out of these, so that they can be scrapped. Charmant, n'est-ce pas? And always remember, there are two sales points with cremation: the casket and then the urn. I split a gut on page 119 as I learned that

A "scattering urn" is offered for those who might wish to, yes, scatter some of the ash as from a saltshaker and preserve the rest for display on the mantlepiece.

(How does she do that?)

Private cemeteries, Mitford reminds us, are fundamentally real-estate developments, and they attract the kind of aggressive promoter that we associate with the flogging of swampland. 'Pre-need' sales are far more common at cemeteries than they are for funeral directors, and the regulation of prepaid funds is dodgy at best, thanks to very scanty oversight. Regulation is in fact the book's only truly grim topic. Commission findings drafted by industry shills, neutered laws, muzzled regulators, and energetic lobbying - the scrofulous underbelly of American government is on full and depressing display here. I couldn't get through it quickly enough. It's hard to believe that anything could be sadder than dying, but in Mitford's hands the almost complete futility of state and federal legislation becomes horribly mournful.

Jessica Mitford wrote elsewhere of a childhood of endless sulking, but she certainly grew up to be a woman of enormous good cheer, and The American Way of Death Revisited is vibrant with this virtue. Even the fact that the author died before completing the revision does not dampen its appeal. In a review of the original, written for the Sunday Times, Evelyn Waugh wrote, "Miss Mitford and her husband, Mr Treuhaft, have together produced what is (as far as I know) the first full study of the economics and anthropology of North American burial customs. It is easy to guess the nature of their collaboration: here is little Decca, teasing on the telephone, there is solid Bob at his desk doing his sums. The result is a book to enchant those ignorant of the subject.

The author of The Loved One was not, of course, ignorant. To Nancy Mitford, Waugh wrote, "I did review Decca's treatise. Of course it was all stale eggs to me. Ever since I wrote that book kind, unknown correspondents have kept me supplied with bizarre press-cuttings on the subject. But I admire Decca's industry (or was it her husband's?) and loyally commended it." (July 2004)  Permalink

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford

San Francisco, March 27, 1944

Darling Muv,

..... The main reason I haven't written for so long is that you never answered my question about the Mosleys. I see in the papers that they are living in Shipton, so I suppose you do see them. I was so disgusted when they were released, & so much in sympathy with the demonstrators against their release that it actually makes me feel like a traitor to write to anyone who has anything to do with them. However I see that it is difficult for you, & not your fault....


Oakland, January 6, 1993

Dear Miss Manners,

.... I need your advice rather urgently. To explain: I've just got a FAX machine, and have been sending out lots of letters on it. One of my sisters in England also has FAX (much to my amazement) so naturally I sent her one straight away. I was surprised that she didn't answer by return - hers came the next day. However, she did say that she was in London when mine arrived, hence delay. Which brings me to the point: What is an answer "by return" in the case of FAX?  .....

Perhaps every new technology requires some re-thinking of the correct response. For example, telegrams (which are probably too young to remember) almost always had bad news; as they were jolly expensive, the answer was simply, such as "Desperately sorry. Mitford," only 3 words. Or if it was just a broken limb, not a death: "Rotten luck. Mitford." Again, only 3 words; ample, at a shilling a word.

Eagerly awaiting your response...

The writer of these letters could be extremely rigorous and unforgiving, but for the most part she was full of fun. She was always blunt. In a letter of 1990 to Katharine Graham, Decca Mitford tries to sugar-coat her advice about handling painful matters in memoirs, but the coating just drips right off. "But you can, & SHOULD, remember that it's YOUR book & deal with events according to your own taste."

Jessica Mitford Treuhaft, the fifth of the six Mitford sisters, American firebrand (and even a member of the Communist Party for a while) died a little over ten years ago, on 23 July 1996. Now we have her letters, in Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, edited by Peter Y Sussman (Knopf, 2006). Even if I weren't something of a Mitford-watcher, this would be a book that I'd have to have. It is in so many ways a companion to Decca's inimitable 1960 tell-all (that didn't begin to tell all), Hons & Rebels, one of the funniest books that I've ever read. Almost from the start, Decca rebelled against the class-bound ways of her semi-aristocratic family. She wanted to be free to make her own decisions, and she learned early that this would require her to be able to support herself. And of course she would have to run away, something that would require a Running Away Fund - which, amazingly, she funded before putting to its intended use. Decca didn't just run away, either; she ran off to the Spanish civil war with her cousin/husband, an episode that required major diplomatic intervention. Then it was off to America, where, among other things, the couple ran a cocktail lounge. And then, Esmond Romilly was lost in action in 1941.

Decca's next move, more or less, was to marry a Jewish labor lawyer, with whom she soon settled down in Oakland, California. With two of England's most notorious anti-Semites among her sisters, and a family that breathed low-grade anti-Semitism without thinking about it, Decca had done just about everything that she could to alienate her family. But that was never her intention and it was never the result. Although she never did reconcile with Diana Mosley, and wouldn't even let her letters be included in a collection of Diana's correspondence, she remained "on speakers" with everyone else, at least most of the time. Half of the letters in Decca's last pages appear to be addressed to Debo, then Duchess of Devonshire. (Ten years later, the dowager duchess is the only sister still living, but she's only 86.)

If I'm a Mifford-watcher, I'm even more a reader of other people's letters. Upon reflection, I see that I have a special kind of "letters" in mind. The last thing that I want to read is pained confidences or intimate yearnings. No, the kind of letters that I like are about the world outside the writer's window, and Decca's letters are full of that. Here's the beginning of a letter to her husband and her son back at home, written from New York in 1963.

Twas a lovely plane ride (smile). I think I should have liked it even better had the pilot not announced over the intercom, "We are flying through an impenetrable cloud belt, trying for higher altitude..." then in a few minutes, "Because of unusually heavy traffic we can't reach the higher altigude." Why couldn't the silly idiot just do all that & shut up about it, I wondered?

A blissful ride in the limousine on the dear old solid earth....

Decca goes on to write about her daughter Constantia's bohemian life in New York, "an odd life, to my way of thinking, but it seems to suit her." But the purpose of her trip is to flog The American Way of Death, which was just about to become a succès de scandale. I have written elsewhere on this page about that book; one of the great joys of Decca is spending time with the writer as she considers a zillion other topics, from civil rights to her mother-in-law's health while staying on her mother's private island.

Every now and then, Decca writes something that betrays a colossal sense of entitlement. It's always unconscious, and it's never about special treatment. It's a habit, rather, of imagining that every sensible person will agree with her. We all have it, of course, this habit, but we're usually more - modulated about it. But if there was ever a well-born girl who did everything possible to learn about real life without disgracing herself (and of course not everyone would agree that she didn't!), it was Jessica Mitford. She must have been a maddeningly wonderful woman to live with, and, thanks to these letters, we can all give it a go. (September 2006) Permalink

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