When a new Mitford related book is released the online hype can be phenomenal. This new kindle biography on Jessica Mitford has only been released and already it has fellow Mitties clicking ‘download’. The biography itself surprised me– I should mention that I was sent an advance review copy of Churchill’s Rebel by Endeavour Press–it is a book crafted around Esmond Romilly and Jessica Mitford’s life together. To Meredith Whitford’s credit she has used a niche approach to the never ending story of the girls, the book itself launches straight into Romilly’s background rather than the subject so prominently featured on the cover.
“The Boy Romilly” as he was not so affectionately known by his father in law, Lord Redesdale, is always depicted as the villain in Jessica’s story. The rebellious public school boy who led her astray and estranged her from her family. But is that entirely true? Romilly’s side of the story has been painstakingly researched by the author. She delved into endless archives on both sides of the Atlantic (the Churchill Archives in England and Jessica’s papers in America). She also flew from Australia to New York to interview Jessica’s children.
My friend Joseph Dumas (a friend of Jessica’s and author of the foreword to my book) praised the biography as being “the most rounded portrait of Esmond Romilly I have ever encountered”.
I’ve conducted a question & answer session with the author because I always believe it is best to hear the story from their point of view.
When did you become interested in the Mitfords?
I became interested in the Mitfords when, at about 19, I found “Hons and Rebels” and “A Fine Old Conflict” in the library — until then I’d never heard of the family and hadn’t yet read any of Nancy’s novels; although I soon fixed that! I think I then found Giles Romilly’s “Hostages at Colditz” (also p/a “The Privileged Nightmare”. Soon after that, IIRC, David Pryce-Jones’s book about Unity Mitford came out, and then came a whole rush of Mitford books, and I just kept buying them and reading them. One thing that attracted me, odd though it may sound, is that Lord Redesdale sounded so like my own father — my dad of course had no title but was a land-owner, and had the same humour and occasional temper, the insistence on punctuality, the abhorrence of “mess”, the rather old-fashioned outlook (makeup! the horror!) and even used some of the same expressions. Jessica’s depiction of the vague, unaffectionate mother rang a bell, too… Other than that, the Mitfords’ lives could hardly have been more different from mine, but they are interesting, aren’t they. Do admit. And of course, the more I came to know about politics (not taught at my hi-falutin’ girls school), the more that aspect of their lives fascinated me.
Who is your favourite girl?
Well, Decca. Politically I’m of a leftish persuasion; but I like her humour, and the dogged way she fought for civil and black rights. I think in some ways it was easier for an Australian like me to relate to American political interests — back in the 70s, I mean, when I first began my Mitford voyage; Vietnam and so on. In some ways I could relate to Diana, having, like her, married young to escape a boring home and then divorcing at about 22, like her, but her politics put me off. Nancy can be very funny in her writing but is too affected to appeal greatly. So: Decca. Least favourite: Diana cos of politics, and Pam seems a bit dull. (Sorry.)
Did you learn anything new about Decca whilst researching?
I learned a great deal about Decca in researching the book. I’d better admit that I was frightfully annoyed by the anti-Dec & Es bias in Mary Lovell’s book, and thought at first of writing an article on that aspect. Then I started researching Esmond much more — read his two books etc, found out more about his family, got really interested in the Romilly side. I made contact with Giles Romilly’s son Edmund and daughter Lizzie, and met them when I was in England, and got a lot of useful info from them. The Literature Board of the Australia Council gave me a research grant to go to the USA and UK to use archives there, without which of course I couldn’t have written the book. I had hoped to find letters between Esmond and Churchill, but found none, disappointingly. He rather seemed to cut himself off from most of his family after Spain and marrying Decca — probably there was a lot of disapproval, and of course the death of their baby daughter, at 5 months, clearly affected both Decca and Esmond very deeply, and I think there was a natural wish to get right away from those memories. As a historian I believe in using primary resources wherever possible, and the family letters (mostly from the Jessica Mitford Archive in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room in the library of Ohio State University) often throw a very different light on people and events from that given in secondary sources. One thing I did find is that “Hons and Rebels” (written without access to the mass of family letters, including Decca’s own; she only found them after her mother’s death, after “H&R” was published) rather misrepresented her and Esmond’s circumstances — e.g. they were never nearly as broke and bohemian as she remembered. One thing I did discover is that the famous Toynbee story of D and E behaving badly at Lord Faringdon’s house, Buscot Park, was a mixture of false memories and stories Esmond amused himself by telling the gullible Toynbee. As I note in my book, it never happened! Re cutting off from Dec’s family — I certainly think Esmond disapproved of them (altho they were his relations too) and wasn’t keen on too much contact, but I think Decca did a lot of her own cutting off. However, as letters show, there was in fact a certain amount of contact all round, with friends as well as family.
I was impressed by your research into Esmond Romilly’s life. Nancy, Diana and Debo always paint him as some sort of villain. Do you think he played a part in keeping Decca from her family or do you think it was entirely her own choice to cease contact?
Esmond: Nancy called him the most horrible human being she’d ever met, and I bet he thought the same of her! They only met, of course, when Nancy and her husband were sent to beguile Decca home from France after she and Esmond eloped; not ideal circs in which to make friends! (BTW, I found from letters, there really WAS a plot to abduct Decca and bring her home on a Royal Navy ship!) I think the general bias against Esmond is part of the Mitford Industry’s attempts to promote a particular view of the family, which involves public disapproval of Decca, whose life and politics the others could never understand. That said, I think Esmond was someone you either loved or loathed, no middle ground, and no doubt he could be as irritating as any teenage boy — have to remember he was only 18 when they married, 19 when their baby died. Decca says, I think in “H and R” that he had matured a lot by the end of his life — he died at 23. Certainly letters prove that most of their American friends, and his comrades and superior officers in the RCAF, liked him greatly. But for all the Esmond-bashing that goes on in the various books produced by the Mitford Industry, you can find just as much to disapprove of in what one might call the other Mitford Men. When Diana Lady Mosley died her obit in the NY Times referred to Esmond as “a wastrel nephew of Winston Churchill” — quickly corrected, because Decca’s children live in NYC; but honestly, wasn’t Peter Rodd far more of a “wastrel”? And to save up that bit of spite for so long… And one must remember that the Mitfords never sympathised with Churchill’s politics, and held it against him that Diana and Sir Oswald Mosley were interned during the war, so Esmond was held guilty by association. (Also all those old adulteries in the previous generations make it hard to be sure just who was related, how, to whom, and there may have been certain reservations about Esmond and his mother because of that; also he and his mother both liked to gamble, which wasn’t a Mitford vice at all.) But I ended up thinking very well of Esmond — and of his brother Giles, who deserves his own biography. (I think his daughter thinks of writing one.)
What do you think would have happened had Esmond lived?
Had Esmond not died… well, he and Decca almost certainly planned in 1939 to live permanently in the USA, but as we know she was on the point of joining him in England in 1941 when he was killed. It’s heartbreaking to read her joyous telegram saying she’d made arrangements to fly to England, with Dinky, next week, then as if in reply she got the ‘gram telling her Esmond was dead. So, if he hadn’t died then, she would have joined him in England, and altho it’s only a guess I think they would’ve stayed there. Had Esmond survived the war I think he would have tried to go into politics in some capacity, especially with the “Khaki Election” of 1945 sweeping Labour into power. Possibly Decca would’ve done the same at some point. At the least I see them working in leftish politics or local government, and no doubt both writing. But who knows?
Will you write a sequel about Decca & Bob?
Re bio of Decca and Bob Treuhaft: the published collection of Decca’s letters (ed. Peter Y Sussman) almost amounts to a bio, but I strongly believe Bob deserves his own biography. I won’t be writing it, though, because I simply don’t know enough about American politics — one module at university isn’t enough! But Ben Treuhaft gave me a recording of Bob’s speech in front of the HUAC and it’s superb — funny, and a damning indictment, from a legal and moral perspective, of the whole stupid thing. So although I hope there’ll be a biography of him, I won’t be writing it, sadly. He was clearly a great bloke. Peter Sussman would be the chap to write it — he knew the Treuhafts, is a damn good writer, and also a great bloke. (Hey — I see the possibilty of a book of Mitford Men…)
I asked Mitford to write a short biography of herself. It seems all authors who end up writing about the Mitfords tend to have something (however small) in common with the family!
Moi: oh dear, too boring. Born and raised in South Australia, loathe living in the country (farming family), wasn’t allowed to go to university so got married much too young, and divorced. Worked for Federal and State governments. Married again; husband is a mathematician and Bridge Grand Master and I can’t even play Snap, which may be part of why we’ve lasted. Went to uni as a mature student in the 90s and got a BA in History, English and Classics from the University of Adelaide. Wrote “Treason”, a novel about Richard III, which won the 2002 international Eppie Award for Historical Fiction and which still sells well, gets 5-star reviews and some lovely fan mail — especially since the recent discovery of Richard III’s remains kicked the book up into Amazon’s Top 100 Movers and Shakers. Became a publisher for a while, and published a lot of good books, till the tax system here in Australia, and the lack of interest within the literary world (we published e-books, you see, shock horror, back at the start of the century) meant we had to close. Wrote “Shakespeare’s Will”, which is largely about Shakespeare’s married life and his (putative) affair with the Earl of Southampton. When my publisher, Bewrite Books, had to close this year, Endeavour Press took on both novels as well as the Decca and Esmond book. Went back to uni in 2010 and got a Master’s in Creative Writing. Am now doing a Ph.D. on Margery Allingham, at Flinders University. Have been director of “Between Us” Manuscript Assessment Service since 1998. Am married (31 years on the 7th of May, and we’ve staggered on thru my 20 years of CFS/ME and husband’s brush with cancer; we both seem to have recovered now). Have 2 adult children; son is married, with 2 kids, daughter still at uni and at home. Have 2 cats and spend far too much time talking to them. Have 2 more novels in the works but must focus on the PhD. BTW. I like to tell people I’m lucky enough to be a synaesthete, and enjoy the funny looks when I explain.