Reviewer Gordon Osmond : Gordon is a produced and award-winning playwright and author of: So You Think You Know English--A Guide to English for Those Who Think They Don't Need One, Wet Firecrackers--The Unauthorized Autobiography of Gordon Osmond and his debut novel Slipping on Stardust.
He has reviewed books and stageplays for http://CurtainUp.com and for the Bertha Klausner International Literary Agency. He is a graduate of Columbia College and Columbia Law School and practiced law on Wall Street for many years before concentrating on writing fiction and non-fiction. You can find out more about Gordon by clicking HERE
With sisters like Diana and Unity around, it would be difficult for Jessica, the penultimate child in the Mitford clan, to achieve the status of "black sheep." With a sister like Nancy around, it would be virtually impossible for Jessica to be considered the most successful writer in the family. But in her own way and following her particular lights, Jessica, a/k/a "Decca" (nothing to do with the record label) Mitford was a strong contender for both titles as she forged a life of conflict, challenge, and conquest, all of which are faithfully and lovingly captured in Leslie Brody's admirable new biography.
Ms. Brody slights neither the life nor the times of Jessica Mitford. From her impetuous but heartfelt elopement with the first of her two husbands, when the happy couple managed (unlike the hapless Mary MacGregor in Miss Jean Brodie's classroom), to aid the right, actually left, side in the Spanish Civil War, to her final efforts to support her second-marriage son's campaign to ship contraband pianos to Cuba, Decca comes across clearly as an energetic, eccentric, and iconoclastic champion of underdog causes provided, of course, that they were firmly settled on the left side of the political spectrum.
Whether attacking undertakers, fat farms, baby doctors, prisons, writing consultants, or prosecutors, Decca always put her personality where her pen was. On the West (Left) Coast, she became the "hostess with the mostest," offering support to and in procuring support for her various charities. Brody includes a delightful account of a typical residential fund raiser where Decca put the nickel-and-dime charging practices of modern airlines to shame in her effort to extract from her "guests" every cent for the cause of the day.
Decca's crusade against a writers' organization that preyed on the hopes and dreams of authors will strike a familiar chord with playwrights who are victimized by New York City's numerous "play mills" and by writers aligned with publishers that would rather go out of business than refund a cent for an unperformed service.
The clear clefts in the Mitford family were political, but not necessarily philosophical. Decca's despising of sister Diana's fascism was so intense as to cause Decca, in a Sister Dearest moment, to write a letter to Winston Churchill, a relative, urging the Prime Minister not to release Diana and her husband from prison. Only by putting a bullet in her head did Unity, a tea cozy companion of Hitler, receive from Decca a degree of forbearance, if not forgiveness. Father Mitford carried on the family tradition by excluding Decca by name from all dispositive provisions of his Will.
When Stalin proved to be as fond of genocide as Hitler, there was cause to conclude that fascism and communism were not, at base, polar opposites but rather two sides of the same collectivist and totalitarian coin. This possibility is touched upon rather lightly in the final sections of the book, but neither author Brody nor her subject seem to have much to say for it. Decca's false prediction that communism would soon bury capitalism should, perhaps, have provided pause for reflection.
Writing was the means by which Decca fulfilled herself and, incidentally perhaps, rose from a poverty self-imposed by a high level of integrity and independence consistently maintained throughout her earlier, leaner years. The author's description of her subject's writing methodologies will surely delight all those who have written or ever aspired to. The vetting of her drafts, piece by piece, by trusted friends, her tendency to blend ink with alcohol, the location of her writing sites from a view of the Scottish shore to the luxurious environments of Lake Como to the Riviera, to her search for agents and publishers, all provide a vivid account of Decca at her desk.
Rarely does a turn of the book's many pages fail to reveal some new insight into or example of Jessica Mitford's remarkable personality, whether recounting ribald events centered around urine, probably apocryphal confusion between the District of Columbia and Columbia University, Decca's response to the loss of her children through miscarriage, abortion, disease, or accident, or her distaste for housework, presumably on the ground that it represented a circular rather than a linear endeavor.
It's somewhat remarkable that a woman as mercurial and dynamic as Decca could live happily to term with not one, but two loving husbands. Her second seems especially understanding in that, for all we know from Ms. Brody, he lived without cavil through two literary projects in which his wife was immersed in the life and loves of her first husband. Could this perhaps be a contributing cause of his later marital waywardness?
Brody's research is so searching as to uncover a Chichester production of a frothy musical named, The Mitford Girls, which Jessica attended but did not comment upon to any significant extent, at least in this book. The musical, which transferred to the West End if not to Broadway, was, in the opinion of this reviewer, totally delightful and featured a line attributed to Mother Mitford in addressing one of her brood that captured perfectly the tough love aspect of the family: "Don't put on airs, dear; nobody's looking at you."
Brody has an intelligent and appropriately breezy writing style that comports well with her subject. The text is enlivened by actual quotations from various writings, indicating, among other things, that the Mitford girls were addicted to ampersands and various abbreviations.
Ms. Brody has a palpable love of words. Her "Black berets sailed upon their spherical Afros . . . is merely representative of her excellent use of simile, metaphor, and alliteration. On the other hand, at one point—"She was instantly the expert, the authority on all things funeral"—"funereal" might have been a better choice and "debacle" perhaps a bit high voltage to describe a job firing after a scant three months of employment. But, on balance, can we ever thank Ms. Brody enough for "monde green," which apparently has nothing to do with Al Gore.
Once the story is over, the reader of Irrepressible is rewarded with a fine index, a useful bibliography, a section of notes, and a list of acknowledgments so encompassing as to make the reader feel somehow excluded in the thanks department.
Were Jessica Mitford still alive, she surely would be searching out and challenging perceived injustices and instances of political oppression. Perhaps it's a sad commentary on the permanence of social unrest that today she wouldn't have to go beyond her beloved Oakland to find it.
Click Here To Purchase Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford