Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford. ed Peter Y Sussman

Part 1

This is such a huge book that I've decided to read it in stages, with other books in between. So far I'm up to Decca being settled in America with her second husband.

Peter Sussman makes a very important point in his introduction to this collection which, while sort of obvious, hadn't really occurred to me. That is, a collection of letters doesn't show someone's whole life. Letters are lost or thrown away, really important news is conveyed by telephone or in person, and of course letters aren't sent to the people who we live with, who we see every day.

The early letters don't disappoint in terms of Mitford eccentricity, all nicknames and secret family language. For some reason she and Nancy call each other 'Susan.'  Decca is always 'seething' about something, or 'simply longing' to see someone. Things are 'absolute heaven' and if she is cross with someone she is 'not on speakers' with them. (I would love to incorporate the phrase 'not on speakers' into my own life but can't because a) I'm generally on quite good terms with everyone and b) I really don't think I've got the accent for it).

There is a bit of a gap between 1937 and 1939 and when the letters start up again there is a change in tone. She and her first husband  Esmond Romilly are living in America and facing the challenge of finding jobs and being self-sufficient. The letters are far more descriptive about the places she goes and the people she meets. We can see her growing interest in politics and particularly in the civil rights movement.

Peter Sussman writes an introduction to each chapter which is very useful in putting the letters into context. I don't know much about the civil rights movement in America so have learned a lot from his painting a wider picture of what was going on at the time. I'm really enjoying this book, and am looking forward to reading the rest of it.


  1. I'm glad you're enjoying this. It was one of my favourite reads last year. I find Decca fascinating because she was politically so different from her sisters and yet she did manage to keep some links with the family.

  2. Annie - I am enjoying it. I do wonder if her politics started as a way to rebel against her family, then became a genuine passion.

  3. The only Jessica Mitford I have read is The American Way of Death which was both fascinating and horrifying at the same time. This book sounds wonderful, though.

  4. I read the first 100pp of this ages and ages ago, and somehow haven't got any further yet - although I do want to do so. Jessica was my least favourite Mitford, from reading the Letters of Six Sisters - so I want to give her the chance to restore herself in my eyes :)

  5. Karyn - there is a lot about The American Way of Death in her letters. I'm not sure I'll read it. It seems it would be more relevant to America in the 50s/60s than it would be to the UK now. Am I right, or should I read it?

    Simon - give Jessica a chance! She was a remarkable woman, brave and committed to her causes, which along with the Mitford wit make these letters a treat.