THE MITFORD sisters, like the Bloomsbury Group, have become a literary industry. After a cluster of novels, memoirs, biographies and films, and even a musical, The Mitford Girls, it might seem time to stop.
Yet Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford is a wonderfully rich and varied collection. Far better than her autobiography, Hons and Rebels, it brings together the extremes of her two worlds: the English aristocracy of her birth and postwar American radical politics.
Conflict and displacement, strong family affections and an even stronger urge to rebel against her class and upbringing are recurring themes. Her passionate commitment to social causes, especially the civil rights movement in the US, make Decca (as Jessica was known) the most sympathetic member of the famously eccentric Mitford family.
She shared the comic sense of her novelist sister Nancy. Both were brilliant letter writers, open, direct, funny, sharply satirical. But because Decca's life was more varied, more open to experience, than Nancy's, her letters are more satisfying.
Born in 1917, Decca Mitford was the fifth of the six daughters of Lord Redesdale, an English peer of no distinction and small means. His hatred of foreigners and intellectuals, combined with a dottiness that not even P. G. Wodehouse's Lord Emsworth could match, gave his daughters ample cause to escape their narrow upbringing.
Not allowed to go to school, the Mitford girls had a skimpy education from a series of governesses in their father's country house. Outdoors it was hunting and shooting for the men; squelching about in gumboots for the women. This was not enough for Decca, who was saving her running-away money from the age of 11.
The sisters escaped in spectacularly diverse ways. Unity Mitford, who became an intimate friend of Hitler, shot herself when Britain declared war on Germany. The beautiful Diana left her rich husband, Bryan Guinness, to marry Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, with whom she was jailed for treason in 1942.Nancy, also divorced, lived in Paris, devoting herself to writing and to one of de Gaulle's generals, who would not marry her. Deborah's choice was happier and more conventional but was in accord with the Mitford habit of going to the top: she married the Duke of Devonshire.
At 19, Decca chose her causes: the communist party, the Spanish Republicans and her runaway schoolboy cousin Esmond Romilly, whom she married in Spain against her parents' wishes. "Whenever I see 'Peer's Daughter Scandal' in the newspapers," her mother said plaintively, "I know it is one of you children."When Romilly was killed while serving with the Canadian Air Force in 1941, Decca made her permanent home in the US. She learned typing and shorthand and worked in badly paid repetitive jobs. Self-trained, with much charm, confidence, curiosity and persistence, she became a successful investigative journalist.
After her second marriage, to lawyer Bob Treuhaft, she moved to California, where both were active in the civil rights movement and the communist party.
Muckraking in a good cause, as author of the bestseller The American Way of Death, Mitford made a great deal of money and won a reputation for fearless questioning. She documented the emotional and financial exploitation of the funeral industry and its grotesqueries. Cushioned shoes for that last journey? A burial brunch coat?
Some publishers thought her gruesome chapter on embalming made the book unreadable, but Mitford's wit carried it through. Her one-liners were hard to resist. On seeing the pyramids she said: "Now there's a society where the funeral industry really got out of hand."
Mitford's other targets included the Famous Writers' School, which offered correspondence lessons at high cost to the manifestly untalented. She is credited with having bankrupted this dodgy enterprise. Going undercover, she endured a penitential week at Elizabeth Arden's Maine Chance, where wealthy women paid vast sums for health and beauty treatment. Her work on the US prison system, Kind and Usual Punishment, put her on collision course with state governors and prison officials.
Mitford's letters include glimpses of the Kennedys, LBJ and Ladybird Johnson, the Clintons, Princess Margaret, Gore Vidal, John Kenneth Galbraith, Julian Huxley. Never a name-dropper, she mentioned them only when there was a good story to tell. Novelist Maya Angelou and Katharine Graham, owner and publisher of The Washington Post, were her close friends.
Yet even after 50 years of American life, Mitford retained the detachment of a spectator. An avid collector of oddities on both sides of the Atlantic, she was not nostalgic for England.
The mixture of the personal and political enlivens the Mitford letters, especially those between the sisters. Decca deplored Nancy's admiration for de Gaulle and was sharply critical of the class system that enthroned Deborah in her stately home. They, in turn, could point to inconsistencies in Decca's breach with the American Communist Party, which she left in 1958. She found it easier to say that she was bored than that she was mistaken.
A refusal to admit defeat goes with a stoic denial of pain. Decca was never able to write about her desolation at the death of her first husband, or the accident in which her 10-year-old son was killed. Anger surfaces in her abiding fury at having been denied an education, but on the whole the comic spirit prevails in this large, well-edited and generous volume of her letters.