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Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford
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Hons and Rebels (original 1960; edition 2010)

by Jessica Mitford (Author)

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738None12,566 (4)71
Member:katylit
Title:Hons and Rebels
Authors:Jessica Mitford (Author)
Info:Folio Society
Collections:Your library, To read
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Tags:non-fiction, autobiography, Folio Society, slip case, British

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Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford (1960)

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According to Mitford, the Society of Hons that she and her sisters formed derived not from their aristocratic titles (Honourable) but from the Hens the family kept (the H of Hons is pronounced, as in Hens). Her autobiography is an enthralling picture of some of the real people behind the characters in Nancy Mitford's novels. The Mitfords were minor aristocracy, the family headed by larger-than-life Lord Redesdale, who seems to have hated just about everyone. Neither he nor his wife believed in educating girls beyond what was necessary to make them marriageable and capable of running a household. The girls, however, had other ideas. Nancy, of course, is well-known for her novels, and Diana largely for marrying Oswald Mosley.

Jessica and Unity, however, became interested in politics. They were deeply divided, Unity throwing in her lot with the Fascists, Jessica finding an affinity with the Communists. Though it's hard, in view of her privileged background, not to sympathise with those who teased her for being a 'Ballroom Communist', Jessica was sincere in her espousal of Socialism. She gives us a very visual description of the room she shared with Unity in the family home - "We divided it down the middle, and [Unity] decorated her side with Fascist insignia of all kinds - the Italian 'fasces', a bundle of sticks bound with rope; photographs of Mussolini framed in passe-partout; photographs of Mosley trying to look like Mussolini; the new German swastika, a record collection of Nazi and Italian youth songs. My side was fixed up with my Communist library, a small bust of Lenin purchased for a shilling in a second-hand shop, a file of Daily Workers. Sometimes we would barricade with chairs and stage pitched battles, throwing books and records until Nanny came to tell us to stop the noise." As time passed, their differences hardened, to the point where Jessica remarks that "We both agreed we'd simply have to be prepared to fight on opposite sides, and even tried to picture what it would be like if one day one of us had to give the order for the other's execution."

Jessica ran away from home to join her cousin Esmond, whom she admired and quickly fell in love with. They lived a rather nomadic existence, living in France for a while before returning to live in London. Politically they come across as rather naive. Jessica clearly had no idea about some of the basic realities of living - "No one had ever explained to me that you had to pay for electricity..."; but it's impossible not to feel Jessica's sorrow when her 4-month-old baby died from complications following measles - "the day after the baby was buried we left for Corsica. There we lived for three months in the welcome unreality of a foreign town, shielded by distance from the sympathy of friends, returning only when the nightmare had begun to fade."

Her loathing for Unity's politics were complicated by the fact that Unity was the sister she loved best. When Unity returned home from Germany, having botched a suicide attempt on the outbreak of war, Jessica felt great sorrow and tried to reconcile her love for her sister with Unity's alliance with 'those grinning beasts and their armies of robot goose-steppers'. I think she's right when she says "It is perhaps futile to interpret the actions of another - one may be so completely wrong", and her explanation of Unity's suicide attempt as 'a sort of recognition of the extraordinary contradictions in which she found herself' doesn't quite convince.

This volume of autobiography ends at the point when England is plunged into WW2, although there is a poignant footnote stating that her husband 'was killed in action in November 1941, at the age of twenty-three'. [August 2004]
  startingover | Feb 2, 2011 |
It's quite surprising that I hadn't read this book before - as I have become a little addicted to reading about the mad bad Mitfords. This is a really well written, funny memoir from one of those infamous sisters. If anyone asked me who my favourite Mitford was it would be Nancy every time, the most fascinating was Diana, but the one I would have most likely liked in real life - would have been Jessica. Her warmth and likability come across strongly in this book, and she was able to poke gentle fun at herself, at the same time.
The early part of the book which recounts the so often told story of the Mitfords growing up at Swinbrook was my favourite part of the book. The stories are a little different however, because of course Jessica was quite a bit younger than Nancy, Pam, Tom and Diana, and so the stories involving her, Unity and Debo are not quite the ones we know and which were told so well by Nancy. In other books I have read about the Mitfords, I had never really got a feeling for Esmond Romilly, Decca's first husband, but here he is portrayed faithfully and of course with real affection. An excellent memoir, which I am immediately adding to mypermanent collection of books. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Dec 31, 2010 |
Although I enjoyed her writing style and found her views of events in the 30's interesting, I couldn't help being embarrassed for the author's attempts to make her audience take her as a serious rebel. She comes off like a spoiled rich girl who pretends to be a communist, finds lying and stealing humorous and doesn't realize that others find her actions lacking in character and tiring. Despite this the book provides a look back at events in England during the 30's. ( )
1 vote Just1MoreBook | Oct 24, 2010 |
I fastened on this at a liberry sale I went to recently, remembering that some fellow LTer was on a Mitford Girls kick. I was inspired to buy it by its ten cent price and also its ghastly, 60s-Penguin "artwork" cover. I like that it says "3/6" for a price, so exotic and incomprehensible. And also, The American Way of Death made a **huge** impression on me as a boy, so I wanted to know more about Miss Mitford.

Oh, the joys of being in a master's hands. Mitford dashes off, apparently effortlessly, sketches of her bizarre family, never straying into hatefulness even where antipathy exists. Her completely unconventional upbringing wuth a mother who refused to vaccinate her (a decision with a horrible, tragic cost later: Mitford contracted measles and gave them to her newborn daughter, who died as a result), contending that "the Good Body" knew its stuff, and a father whose major occupations appear to have been shouting and stomping and campaigning for Conservative politicians. Her wildly disparate sisters, novelist Nancy as the eldest and the most remote from Jessica; Diana, the great beauty and future Fascist; and Unity, the tragic figure of the family, a giant Valkyrie (ironically enough, this is also her middle name!) with an outsized personality to match, whose horrible fate was to try unsuccessfully to kill herself when her beloved Nazi Germany made war on her homeland. (The other sisters, Pam and Deborah, pretty much don't figure into Jessica's life, and her brother Tom was so much older he was more of a visiting uncle.)

So Jessica tells us the tale of someone born into privilege, luxury, and uselessness, who finds all of these qualities completely intolerable and who cannot, cannot, cannot endure the idea of the life that is laid out before her. She doesn't know what she believes, but she's sure it's not what her family believes.

I fell in love with her right then and there. I felt the same way. Jesus, racism, and conservative politics made me nauseated, as they did my eldest sister.

So Jessica Mitford, Girl Rebel, looks for a way out: Her cousin Esmond, a professional rebel with a published book and a troublemaking newspaper founded and run before he was 16, fit the bill. She spends a year finagling an introduction to him, suprisingly difficult because she's so sheltered and he's so disreputable; but once it happens, it was the proverbial match to gas!

I adored Esmond as much as Jessica did, and I adored Jessica as much as Esmond did. I cried when they lost their first daughter so unnecessarily; I cheered when they got to own that bar in Miami; I sat numbed by the enormity of Jessica's loss when Esmond died when he was 23, fighting against the Fascists he'd hated all his life, whether Spanish, English, or German.

I am so glad that I finally read this book that's as old as I am, being published in 1960. (My copy isn't that old, it dates from 1962.) It's very instructive to be reminded that youth isn't necessarily wasted on the young.

If you take my advice, you'll read it to experience the joys and sorrows of youth one more time, from a safe distance; but the stakes remain high, because the storyteller is so talented. ( )
5 vote richardderus | Aug 29, 2010 |
This is a fine introduction to the British aristocracy and its struggles from the early 1930's to the outbreak of WW2. The author doesn't pull any punches and is quite open about its (the upper classes) ambivalence about war with Germany. Hitler's defeat of the German communists was viewed with approval as was support for Franco against the Spanish Republican government.
However, after the invasion of Holland they closed ranks against fascism, isolating the author's sister Diana who was interned with Oswald Mosley (British fascist leader) and a second sister Unity (companion of Hitler) who was invalided by a suicide attempt on the declaration of war.
The part of the book dealing with the author's romance with Esmond Romilly is equally well written but very irritating as they make a nuisance of themselves throughout Spain, France and America all the while spouting Communist nonsense. ( )
  Miro | Jul 12, 2010 |
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To Constancia Romilly (The Donk)
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The Cotswold country, old and quaint, ridden with ghosts and legends, is today very much on the tourist route.
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"Hons and Rebels" was the original title, but I think the original US publisher changed it to "Daughters and Rebels." These titles refer to the same book.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0575400048, Paperback)

First published in 1960, Jessica Mitford's autobiography is an account of the enclosed and eccentric childhood through which Nancy, Diana, Pam, Unity, Decca, and Debo lived. In writing of their upbringing between the wars, she also writes of her own commitment to communism and of her elopement to the Spanish Civil War with Esmond Romilly.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:42:25 -0400)

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"Jessica Mitford, the great muckraking journalist, was part of a legendary English aristocratic family. Her sisters included Nancy, doyenne of the 1920s London smart set and a noted novelist and biographer; Diana, wife to the English fascist chief Sir Oswald Mosley; Unity, who fell head over heels in love with Hitler; and Deborah, later the Duchess of Devonshire. Jessica swung left and moved to America, where she took part in the civil rights movement and wrote her classic expose of the undertaking business, The American Way of Death." "Hons and Rebels is the tale of Mitford's upbringing. Mitford found her family's world as smothering as it was singular and, determined to escape it, she eloped with Esmond Romilly, Churchill's nephew, to go fight in the Spanish Civil Wr. The ensuing scandal, in which a British destroyer was dispatched to recover the two truants, inspires some of Mitford's funniest, and most pointed, pages." "A family portrait, a tale of youthful folly and high-spirited adventure, a study in social history, a love story, Hons and Rebels is a contribution to the autobiographer's art."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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