Tuesday, 5 April 2011

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

Part 2

I finally finished this a week or so ago. Overall a really good read. I was left with a great sense of admiration for Jessica Mitford. She made a life for herself quite separate to the Mitford industry. She seemed completely fearless in championing the causes she believed in. I think what I admired most was her willingness just to plunge in and get involved. Her background did not prepare her for the life she ended up leading, but she had a lot of self belief and educated herself. Her book on the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, made her a lot of enemies, and she dealt with them by simply facing them down. This is an extract from a letter to her agent after she'd given a talk at a seminar for funeral directors;

After my talk, the first question set the tone: 'How much money did you make from The American Way of Death?' 'Absolute tons,' I answered, 'So much I can't even count it - it made me fortune.' Audible groans from the crowd. 'Next question?'

The middle part of the book is primarily concerned with Decca's own books and journalism and her researches into the funeral industry, the prison system and maternity care. Her correspondents included Maya Angelou, Hillary Clinton and Katherine Graham. Her most regular correspondent within the family seems to have been her sister Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire. Even they had their spats though, most notably when a family scrapbook went missing from the Duchess' home, Chatsworth and she strongly believed that Decca had taken it and used its contents in one of her memoirs.

The letters towards the end of her life contain more reminiscences, often in reply to people writing books about one or other of the Mitfords. She seemed to mellow a bit in her old age. I have to admit that for all I admire her I think I would've found her a bit intimidating. She seems like she was quite demanding and, being quite thick skinned herself, she wasn't very sensitive to the feelings of others.

Finally, I love the cover of this book. The red cover and the font are reminiscent of Soviet propaganda posters, which of course is appropriate because of Decca's membership of the Communist Party.


  1. I think one of the 'successes' of that family is that all six of the girls were so very individual. I suppose you might raise a question about Pamela, but the others all had the confidence to be who they were and let the rest of them go hang. Like you, I don't think I would have found Decca an easy companion, but I do admire the family spirit.

  2. I think you could say the same about Pamela. In that family being conventional was perhaps the biggest rebellion of all! I wonder what Tom would've been like if he'd lived to grow old.