Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford — Leslie Brody

Irrepressible, Leslie Brody’s new biography of Jessica Mitford, is a fascinating study in divergent attitudes about class, politics, and what it might mean to dissent from one’s own family. Jessica Mitford — “Decca” to her friends — was born into English aristocracy, which she promptly tried to escape. Brody offers a succinct outline in the opening pages (“Little D.” is young Decca, of course)—

What was Little D. running away from? The usual: parental rules and regulations, hothouse sibling rivalries, boredom; the more arcane: country estates, nannies, governesses, secret cupboards, and secret languages: conservatism and elitism in her relations; and fascism, in the body politic. Where was she running to? At first, she longed to go to school and, later, to the East End of London to live in a bedsit and be a Communist. To readers of the British press, the Mitfords were the subject of gossip and scrutiny for the fashions they wore and the odd things they did. Anyone not related to her seemed infinitely more fascinating to Decca.

For Decca, experiences with “Anyone not related to her” became her form of school, which her mother forbade her to attend (although, to be fair, brother Tom did hip her to a crash course of Western canonical lit). As the passage above suggests, the trajectory of Decca’s life would be defined and drawn against the conservative values of her family. In an especially instructive scene near the end of her teen years, Decca and her sister “Unity etched symbols of their political affiliations into the window of the room they shared at the top of the house—Unity drew a swastika; Decca a hammer and sickle.” What did these kids use to draw their sigils? A diamond ring.

Brody (thankfully) doesn’t dwell on the psychological motivations that might have led Decca to a life and ideology so dramatically diametrically opposed to her aristocratic, fascist-leaning family, perhaps in part because Decca’s progressive convictions seem, in retrospect, so clearly to have come down on the “right side of history.” As Brody’s biography reveals, however, Decca was not simply some rich kid slumming for a few years; indeed, we find in Jessica Mitford a soul clearly committed to the ideals of equality and democracy throughout her entire life.

And what a strange, wonderful, and often tragic life it was. In a sharp, reportorial style (one that frequently employs primary sources), Brody relates Decca’s tumultuous life, beginning with her early, scandalous marriage with a cousin, Esmond Romilly, their involvement in the Spanish Civil War, and his death in WWII. Soon after Esmond’s death, Decca married Bob Treuhaft, an American civil rights lawyer. The pair moved to Oakland and had children, although Decca doesn’t seem to have been much of a mother (her heavy drinking might have gotten in the way when political obligations like testifying before HUAC didn’t). The bulk of Brody’s narrative covers Decca’s intense involvement in the Civil Rights movement, from its earliest inception right through the Vietnam era and beyond. Decca wrote articles, facilitated meetings, and generally served as a nexus point for creative and political energies devoted to free, progressive thought. Decca went on to author books investigating the funeral home practices, the Vietnam War draft, and the American prison system, but it is likely that her memoirs will be of the greatest interest to readers today.

Brody’s biography seems more relevant than ever as the Occupy movement (particularly in Decca’s adopted Oakland) sheds greater light on the disparity between the rich and poor in America and calls into question the very ground that pioneers like Jessica Mitford fought for. At the same time, Brody’s book is never didactic, nor is it overtly and unnecessarily juicy (which surely must have been a great temptation, considering that Decca’s entire life was something of a scandal). Instead, Brody offers us a tightly drawn, well-researched portrait that is sure to fascinate.

Irrepressible is available in hardback from Counterpoint Press.

Books Acquired, 9.10.11

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Two books in the mail today from Counterpoint Press, an expanding indie press with a broad but sharp catalog (including Soft Skull Press). The first is Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford, a biography of the progressive upstart. From the press release—

Admirers and detractors use the same words to describe Jessica Mitford: subversive, mischief-maker, muckraker. J.K. Rowling calls Mitford her “most influential writer.” Those who knew her best simply called her “Decca.” Born into one of Britain’s most famous aristocratic families, Mitford eloped with Winston Churchill’s nephew to America as a teenager in 1939. A no-holds barred civil rights activist, outspoken communist, and feared journalist, Mitford rose to one of the New Deal’s most notorious bureaucrats. For her the personal was political. She coined the term “frenemies,”  and as a member of the American Communist Party, she made several, though not among the Cold War witch hunters. When she left the Communist Party in 1958 after fifteen years, she promised to be subversive whenever the opportunity arose. True to her word, late in life she hit her stride as a writer, publishing nine books before her death in 1996. With unrestricted access to the Mitford Family archives, Leslie Brody presents a moving, impeccably researched biography of one of the most influential women of the 20th century.

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Heidegger’s Glasses is a novel by Thaisa Frank that seems promising. Description—

Magical and surreal, Heidegger’s Glasses offers a completely original vantage point on the Holocaust.  The story opens during the end of World War II in a failing Germany coming apart at the seams. The Third Reich’s strong reliance on the occult and the leading officials’ obsession with the astral plane has led to the formation of a secret Compound of Scribes–multilingual translators that have been spared from deportation to answer returned letters written to the dead in the concentration camps. Ellie Schacten, the mysterious heroine of the novel, supervises the Scribes, yet secretly uses the compound to hide a steadily growing number of refugees. When a letter arrives, written by eminent German philosopher Martin Heidegger to his friend and optometrist––a man who is now lost in the dying thralls of Auschwitz––a series of events unfold that turn the Reich’s attention to the compound and threaten Ellie’s operation and the lives of the Scribes.

Based on the real Third Reich procedure, Operation Mail, which forced concentration camp prisoners to send letters to loved ones extolling conditions in the camps, Heidegger’s Glasses explores a dark, absurd world in which fear and death are a constant companion, and yet, Frank’s characters show how that when stripped of their freedom and virtually all material possessions, the human spirit perseveres and thrives.