Honourable Rebel

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Jessica Mitford found the act of sitting down to write formidably hard. ‘’Tis now 12:30 on the first day I was to really work all day on the book,’ she reported to her husband and daughter in May 1959. ‘As you can see, in spite of the good news I’m as bad as ever – ANYTHING to keep from it.’ The ‘good news’ was that after several attempts to place her book she had finally secured publishing deals in both Britain and the United States. The book in question was a memoir which she wanted at various points to call ‘Red Sheep’ and ‘Revolting Daughters’ but which is known today as Hons and Rebels.

Hons and Rebels is a tale of two halves. Its first part describes Jessica’s upbringing at Swinbrook in the Cotswolds, territory familiar to Mitford-lovers from her older sister Nancy’s The Pursuit of Love. All the crucial ingredients of Mitford-lore are present: the vacant mother and booming father, the sisterly teases and the sisters themselves: sharp Nancy, fascist Diana, Nazi Unity, domesticated Pamela, Communist Jessica and country-loving Debo.

Their nicknames and private languages are here too (‘Honnish’ and ‘Boudledidge’ are just two of the dialects the sisters speak), providing a backdrop against which Jessica sketches her emerging political identity. One of the themes of the first part of Hons and Rebels is the gradual accumulation of funds in Jessica’s ‘Running Away Account’ which she opens aged 12 at Drummonds Bank.

Hons and Rebels departs from a familiar Mitford narrative at the point at which Jessica meets her cousin Esmond Romilly. She falls in love with the idea of Esmond long before their meeting, drawn to him by his well-publicized rebellion against the public-school system. When they do finally meet her dream of romance becomes a reality, and together they elope to France and then Spain where they become caught up in the chaos of civil war. After res

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About the contributor

Daisy Hay is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Exeter and the author of Young Romantics. She wrote this piece during a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard University, an academic gig so luxurious she will probably never recover from it.

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