I once heard a novelist tell a story about a fellow he knew in college (this would have been in the early 1970s) who openly admitted that his parents were Communists. Asked what this meant in the course of their daily lives, the young man answered, without a trace of irony, “It means that when we sit down to dinner the maid eats with us.”
In the 1989 introduction to the reissue of her 1960 memoir Hons and Rebels, Jessica Mitford recalls this of its composition: “I was staying with my mother at Inch Kenneth, her remote Hebridean island, in the summer of 1959.” There are no figures on how many authors of memoirs about their Communist political awakening had mothers who owned remote islands, Hebridean or otherwise–but probably not many. We shouldn’t forget that Mitford’s first plan was to donate her share of the island to the British Communist Party, nor that for many years she and her second husband, the lawyer Robert Treuhaft, lived in ordinary middle-class comfort in Oakland, California. Nor should we fall for the dreary, doctrinaire notion that the moneyed and privileged are inherently incapable of having a social conscience. (How many protests, strikes and candidacies have been rescued by infusions of cash from the simpatico rich?)
But can we also admit that Mitford’s sense of her position lacks a certain irony? Had the maid been invited to join the family for a meal during Mitford’s upper-class English upbringing, you get the feeling Mitford would have seen it not as a nod in the direction of the classless society but, to borrow one of her favorite adjectives, as the most extraorder thing.
The communications that make up the new doorstop Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, as well as Mitford’s two-volume autobiography, Hons and Rebels and A Fine Old Conflict (1977), seem to exist in a double bubble of privilege and ideology. Mitford’s account of her and her siblings’ upbringing–the girls were taught to read but, educationally, were otherwise on their own; their mother was close to a caricature of the oblivious society matron; their father was every bit the tyrant that Mitford’s sister Nancy captured in her novel The Pursuit of Love–suggests the Glass family as rewritten by P.G. Wodehouse. Unfortunately, the latter’s sense of absurdity is outweighed by what Mary McCarthy described as the closed-circuit mentality of the former. With their secret languages and endless nicknames (Muv, Farve, Boud, Hen) with endless variations, the Mitfords come off as the privileged center of one of those closed circuits. A family friend once said to Mitford, “It has always seemed to me that your family regards the rest of the world, and everything that happens in it, as a huge joke put on for their benefit.”
There is evidence in Decca of the benefit Mitford brought others with the bombshell impact of her 1963 exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. In a 1964 letter to Treuhaft, Mitford writes of a message she received from Bobby Kennedy, who had been charged with picking out a coffin for his murdered brother. Offered a choice between one for $900 and one for $2,000, RFK chose the former, telling Mitford that had he not read her book he would have felt obligated to get the more expensive choice as the last gesture he could make for his brother. You read that and know that if Mitford’s muckraking was able to reach Bobby Kennedy in his awful circumstance, she must have done the same for people who were less in shock and had considerably fewer resources than the Kennedys.