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Jessica Mitford (1917–1996)

Author of Hons and Rebels

14+ Works 3,714 Members 74 Reviews 9 Favorited

About the Author

Image credit: Photo © Alain McLaughlin

Works by Jessica Mitford

Associated Works

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters (2007) — Contributor — 816 copies
The Norton Book of Women's Lives (1993) — Contributor — 408 copies
The Best of Modern Humor (1983) — Contributor — 290 copies
The Grim Reader: Writings on Death, Dying, and Living On (1997) — Contributor — 60 copies


20th century (49) America (21) American (17) autobiography (155) biography (165) Britain (19) British (27) British literature (16) communism (24) culture (20) death (133) death and dying (19) England (40) English (16) essays (40) fiction (18) Folio Society (26) funeral industry (23) funerals (58) goodreads import (16) history (72) Jessica Mitford (43) journalism (71) letters (59) literature (17) memoir (190) Mitford (77) Mitfords (110) muckraking (21) non-fiction (331) NYRB (38) NYRB Classics (29) politics (24) read (45) social history (18) sociology (61) to-read (201) unread (19) USA (43) women (19)

Common Knowledge

Canonical name
Mitford, Jessica
Legal name
Mitford, Jessica Lucy
Treuhaft, Jessica Lucy (married)
Other names
Freeman-Mitford, Jessica
Date of death
UK (birth)
USA (naturalized | 1944)
Gloucestershire, England, UK
Place of death
Oakland, California, USA
Cause of death
lung cancer
Places of residence
Burford, Oxfordshire, England, UK
London, England, UK
Washington, D.C., USA
Oakland, California, USA
Gloucestershire, England (birth)
political activist
Mitford, Nancy (sister)
Mosley, Diana (sister)
Mitford, Algernon B. (grandfather)
Devonshire, Deborah (sister)
Romilly, Esmond (first husband)
Mosley, Oswald (brother-in-law) (show all 14)
Guinness, Desmond (nephew)
Guinness, Jonathan (nephew)
Churchill, Randolph S. (second cousin)
Murphy, Sophia (niece)
Mitford, Unity (sister)
Mitford, Pamela (sister)
York, Catherine (cousin)
Truehaft, Robert (husband)
Decca and the Dectones
Short biography
Jessica Mitford, known in the family as Decca, was one of the six daughters born to English aristocrats David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, and his wife Sydney. She received little formal education but was widely read. At age 19, she eloped with her second cousin Esmond Romilly and went first to Spain, where Romilly worked as a war correspondent after having fought in the Spanish Civil War. The couple then lived in the East End of London before leaving England for the USA. At the start of World War II, Romilly enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force; he was killed a few months after Jessica gave birth to their daughter. She remarried in 1943 to Robert Treuhaft, a civil rights lawyer, and moved with him to Oakland, California, and had two sons. Jessica was active in many civil rights causes and left-wing politics. She became an investigative writer and journalist, and published her bestselling exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, in 1963. She also wrote several memoirs, including Hons and Rebels (1960, also known as Daughters and Rebels). Jessica's deeply held beliefs caused her estrangement from her sister Diana, Lady Mosley.



I was torn between wanting to smack the author for hating on the funeral directors (that was my chosen profession when I was younger) and being shocked at the price gouging that the industry does. Sometimes I'm happy I never followed through with that goal.
Eye opening, for sure.
kwskultety | 18 other reviews | Jul 4, 2023 |
This is a very incisive and surprisingly skillful memoir of a very unusual upper-class childhood in England, partly because Jessica Mitford is the kind of author who can write with great power while seeming to write almost offhandedly, and partly because Mitford, who in young adulthood became a committed Communist, is more inclined than most to be frank about the English class system. Never fear, though, no cliché-ridden denunciations or screeds are to be found. Mitford was a Communist by choice, but an Englishwoman by birth, and the characteristically English skill of understatement is far more in evidence. I found I liked Mitford very much, even if I liked the first great love of her life, the young Esmond Romilly (Winston Churchill’s nephew), and her parents, less than she herself did. It’s one mark of a good writer that you can form your own reaction to characters that the writer is less than objective about.

There is an over-the-top element to almost every page of this true story that contrasts well with Mitford’s dry style. I suppose that most people who are interested in reading this book, which is in print as part of the New York Review of Books Classics series, know about the Mitford sisters, who included one Communist (Jessica), two fascists (one of whose weddings included Josef Goebbels as best man), and a duchess, among others; and they may know the author as being most famous as a journalist who exposed the excesses of the American funeral industry in The American Way of Death. Her young life does have to be read about to be believed. But I hope you will consider picking up this book if you have any interest at all in smart, complex people, or perhaps in an England that was lost with the last great war.
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john.cooper | 25 other reviews | Nov 2, 2022 |
It seems rather morbid to give a book about the American funeral industry five stars. But it was a very interesting book, and a very eye-opening look into the business end of death. One of the best things about it was how funny it was. Most of this wasn't the author's doing, it was when she directly quoted from trade journals of the funeral industry that the laughs kept coming. I don't think I was supposed to be laughing, though, which made those gems even funnier.
notbucket24 | 18 other reviews | Oct 2, 2022 |
Another of Slightly Foxed beautifully produced pocket sized hardbacks, this memoir by one of the six Mitford sisters (the most famous now being Nancy), covers Jessica’s life from birth in 1917 until 1940 when her husband joins the Canadian airforce. It was particularly interesting as it starts at Swinbrook House in the Cotswolds, a few miles from where I live (recently driven past with lambs in the fields below and bluebells in the nearby woods).

The British humour is of its time and social class, even though Jessica may be rebelling against it, for example about Nancy’s return to Swinbrook from a London bedsit after a month:
Jessica - “How could you! If I ever got away to a bed-sitter I’d never come back.”
Nancy - “Oh darling, but you should have seen it. After about a week, it was knee-deep in underclothes. I literally had to wade through them. No one to put them away.”
The first third of the book is about Jessica’s childhood and debuting (being presented to the King and Queen) in the 1935 London season.
The focus then changes to politics, with Jessica’s nascent Communist sympathies “kicking the traces” against the majority of her family’s more right wing views, with her sisters Unity (widely publicised friendship with Hitler) and Diana (married British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley) being Nazi supporters in the 1930’s.
In 1936 Jessica runs away from home, eloping with her cousin Esmond Romilly, making their way to Bilbao in Spain to report on the Civil War. However, as the daughter of a peer, the British papers sensationalise the story, making their continued stay in Spain untenable (as warned that their presence could jeopardise British assistance to the Loyalist government).
They live in London’s East End (poor district) for a period (where they lose their first child to measles) and then move to the United States in 1939 (Esmond not wanting to be conscripted if the British were to side with Germany against the USSR). Life is lived intensely, although it can read as living frivolously, always knowing that they can fall back on family and friends, as they are upper class. But this really is “Carpe diem”, even if only with hindsight, as once Germany invades France and it is clear that Britain will fight Nazi Germany, then Esmond volunteers for the Canadian Air Force in Britain, and is killed in action in 1941. I was surprised by how poignant I found this concluding chapter, as it seeks to try and explain how the frivolous eccentricity leads to this acceptance of the necessity of war for Esmond.

It is clichéd to say that “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” (L P Hartley, The Go-Between). This book shows the truth of this, however clichéd, and does so with great humour.
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CarltonC | 25 other reviews | May 4, 2022 |



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