Comfort Reads starting with Hons & Rebels

We all need comfort reads at the moment and this is one of our favourites. It seems the perfect time to look to how formidable individuals coped in times of crisis and Jessica (known as “Decca” by her family) Mitford was certainly formidable. She is JK Rowling’s heroine to the extent that the contemporary author named her daughter after her and described her idol as “the least ‘politically correct’ Communist imaginable”. Mitford may now be best remembered for her bestseller The American Way of Death (1963), her book on the funeral industry’s practices which has since been named by David Bowie as one of his favourite books. It is her memoir of her early life, Hons and Rebels, however which ignited Rowling’s fascination and ours.

Hons and Rebels tells of Mitford’s early life as the sixth of Lord and Lady Redesdale’s seven children. Her eldest sister was Nancy Mitford, the much-admired author of the comic novel The Pursuit of Love. Another sister, Diana, married Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists and the couple were jailed in Holloway Prison during the Second World War. Her youngest sister, known as Debo, became the Duchess of Devonshire but it is Unity (who was close enough to Hitler to have been rumoured to be pregnant by him) to whom Decca was closest. It was somewhat unfortunate that the two had opposing politics which became apparent when, as children, they carved swastikas and hammers and sickles into the windows of their family home.

Jessica was so at odds with her right-wing aristocratic family that she began to establish a running away fund at the age of 12. Much to her chagrin, she didn’t manage to flee her family until she was 19 and met her rebellious second cousin Esmond Romilly. Romilly, in spite of being Winston Churchill’s nephew, shared Jessica’s politics and the two cashed in her running away fund so that they could elope to join the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Mitford describes this in her funny, appealingly terse fashion. Her family opposed her engagement to Romilly and even tried to tempt her away from him, when the couple were in Spain, by means of a delicious feast on a ship. You will have to read the book to understand exactly how that scenario came about but Mitford reflects “I could practically feel my gastric juices working at the thought of the roast chicken and chocolate cake, but I remained firm.”

Mitford stays with Romilly, describing him as “the fascinating companion of my whole adult life – three years, already – and the centre of all happiness.” From living in East London to Corsica and then off to the United States, they hide from the bailiffs (nobody had explained to Mitford that electricity needed to be paid for), get offers from a Hollywood movie magnate and get into many more scrapes and adventures. It’s a brilliant memoir and one which will transport you away from current living. If you enjoy this early slice of her autobiography, then you might also enjoy Decca: the Letters of Jessica Mitford edited by Peter Y Sussman.

Other comfort must-reads include Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Cold Comfort Farm and, of course, any Jane Austen novel (particularly Emma, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice). Other favourites of ours include Our Mutual Friend, the last novel Charles Dickens completed and his masterpiece to our mind as well as Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. If you have whizzed through the Cazalets, you might also like Howard’s earlier novels The Beautiful Visit and The Long View as well as her brilliant memoir, Slipstream which can be very rewardingly read alongside Artemis Cooper’s biography of her: A Dangerous Innocence. If you want something more contemporary and very funny, Rachel Johnson’s account of her time as editor of The Lady magazine, A Diary of The Lady, is an underrated comic masterpiece. Plenty of people are taking advantage of the lockdown to finally tackle Proust or Ulysses. If you are less keen on the delayed gratification of reading a long novel, can we suggest The Great Gatsby instead? Only 47,000 words and it always rewards re-reading. Let us know what your comfort reads are and what you think of ours, we are very keen to hear other recommendations!

— Alex Peake-Tomkinson
25th March 2020