Hons and Rebels

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New York Review Books, 2004 - Biography & Autobiography - 284 pages
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Jessica Mitford, the great muckraking journalist, was part of a legendary English aristocratic family. Her sisters included Nancy, doyenne of the 1920s London smart set and a noted novelist and biographer; Diana, wife to the English fascist chief Sir Oswald Mosley; Unity, who fell head over in heels in love with Hitler; and Deborah, later the Duchess of Devonshire. Jessica swung left and moved to America, where she took part in the civil rights movement and wrote her classic expos of the undertaking business, The American Way of Death.

Hons and Rebels is the hugely entertaining tale of Mitford's upbringing, which was, as she dryly remarks, “not exactly conventional. . . Debo spent silent hours in the chicken house learning to do an exact imitation of the look of pained concentration that comes over a hen's face when it is laying an egg. . . . Unity and I made up a complete language called Boudledidge, unintelligible to any but ourselves, in which we translated various dirty songs (for safe singing in front of the grown-ups).” But Mitford found her family's world as smothering as it was singular and, determined to escape it, she eloped with Esmond Romilly, Churchill's nephew, to go fight in the Spanish Civil War. The ensuing scandal, in which a British destroyer was dispatched to recover the two truants, inspires some of Mitford's funniest, and most pointed, pages.
A family portrait, a tale of youthful folly and high-spirited adventure, a study in social history, a love story, Hons and Rebels is a delightful contribution to the autobiographer's art.

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A family of mostly young women coming of age just before the dreadful Second World war, when the Western nations were struggling to grapple with the actions of fascist Italy and Germany, this group of young women had influence on events far beyond most families in recorded history.
As you read this book, think of the events taking place, and you will find that the claim that this family aided the rush towards war in the dreadful 1930's has much truth to it. The daughters split apart like so many atoms - Unity saw more of Hitler than most senior Nazis did, and probably influenced him in his decision to roll the dice yet once more by invading Poland. The British fascists were also linked to the family, by marriage and inclination; while one joined the communists.
Amazing breadth of influence, for both good and bad; and the actions of these young women show us yet again how much of history is influenced by individuals, especially in the arid democracies and totalitarian states of the day.
 

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About the author (2004)

Jessica Mitford (1917-1996) was the daughter of Lord and Lady Redesdale, and she and her five sisters and one brother grew up in isolation on their parents' Cotswold estate. Rebelling against her family's hidebound conservatism, Mitford became an outspoken socialist and, with her second cousin and husband-to-be Esmond Romilly, ran away to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Romilly was killed in World War II, and Mitford moved to America, where she married the lawyer and political activist Robert Treuhaft. A brilliant muckraking journalist, Mitford was the author of, among other works, a memoir of her youth, Hons and Rebels; a study of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death; and Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business. She died at the age of seventy-eight while working on a follow-up to The American Way of Death, for which, with characteristic humor, she proposed the title "Death Warmed Over."

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a British-American journalist and social critic. Known for his confrontational style and contrarian views on a range of social issues, Hitchens was a frequent contributor to The Nation, The Atlantic, The Times Literary Supplement and Vanity Fair. Hitchens recounts his struggle with esophageal cancer in Mortality, which was published in 2012.

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