Wednesday, January 11, 2012

They say you don't need to have lived an exceptionally interesting life to write an interesting memoir, but I think it sure helps if you have. Jessica Mitford's life was certainly action-packed, and she writes about it with great humor and insight. I started reading her book Hons and Rebels, originally published in 1960, a week ago, and it's captured my complete attention. I'm sure it will turn out to be one of my favorite books I'll have read this year. Until now I'd known nothing about the saga of the Mitford sisters, and now I can't believe I haven't heard about them before. Here are a couple of passages that illustrate, in very different ways, Jessica's unique place in history. (Miranda was her pet lamb when she was a child, and Miss Bunting was a governess who taught her how to shoplift.)

A high point in my life came when Evelyn Waugh, a writer feller and one of the main Swinbrook sewers, promised me that he would immortalize Miranda by substituting the word "sheepish" for the standard "divine" in his forthcoming book, Vile Bodies. I was on tenterhooks until the book was actually printed for fear he might go back on his word. But there it was, in black and white: "He left his perfectly sheepish house in Hertford Street . . ." With Miss Bunting's help I lifted an extra copy from the Oxford bookshop, and hung it proudly on a tree in Miranda's field.

Later, her older sisters Unity and Diana would befriend Adolf Hitler. (Boud was Jessica's nickname for Unity.)

One possibility occurred over and over again; I could pretend to have been suddenly converted to fascism, accompany Boud to Germany and meet the F├╝hrer face to face. As we were being introduced I would whip out a pistol and shoot him dead. Of course I should immediately be felled by Hitler's guards; but wouldn't it be worth it? The awful thing would be if I missed and still died in the attempt. Unfortunately my will to live was too strong for me actually to carry out this scheme, which would have been fully practical and might have changed the course of history. Years later, when the horrifying history of Hitler and his regime had been completely unfolded, leaving Europe half destroyed, I often bitterly regretted my lack of courage.

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