In the early 1980s I began working on my first book, a biography of Nancy Mitford. Four of the six Mitford sisters were then still living, Pamela in the Cotswolds, Diana in Paris with her second husband Sir Oswald Mosley, Debo, wife of the Duke of Devonshire, at Chatsworth, and Jessica, always known as ‘Decca’, with her family in California. Throughout my research Pam, Diana and Debo were immensely kind and helpful, all of them possessed of great charm and a slightly idiosyncratic sense of humour. They invited me to stay, gave me access to hundreds of letters, and mined for my benefit lucid memories of their early lives and of their family and friends.
It was well over a year since I had begun my research when Decca came to London and agreed to see me. I was slightly apprehensive at the prospect of meeting her, aware of her somewhat confrontational reputation and her long career as a defiantly radical author and journalist. We met at the Chelsea house where she was staying, Decca grey-haired, rather stout, with a very old-fashioned upper-class voice, ‘grossly affected’ as one of her old friends described it. Although, unlike her sisters, I found her slightly intimidating, she answered all my questions and recalled a great deal that was invaluable about her childhood and in particular her relations with Nancy.
After the interview she asked me to walk with her down the King’s Road as she had a little shopping she wanted to do. It was just before Christmas and the place was bustling. As we entered a well-known stationer Decca immediately instructed me to distract the assistant standing behind the counter. As I did so I saw her out of the corner of my eye quietly sliding sheets of wrapping-paper into her handbag.
It must have been over a year later when we met again, Decca this time accompanied by her second husband, the campaigning leftwing lawyer Robert Treuhaft. I remember taking them both to a small restaurant near where I lived. It was at the time of the Falklands War, and during dinner Decca railed against the appalling behaviour of the British in launching such a brutal and unwarranted attack on the Argentinian Malvinas. Suddenly, by now far from sober, she pushed her chair back, clambered on to it, and began furiously berating our fellow diners, all of whom, to my immense relief, politely returned, after a moment of shock, to conversation with their companions and eating their dinners. Bob Treuhaft, for his part, sat amiably unconcerned, as if this were the kind of performance he had witnessed many times before.
The roots of such insurrection had been firmly planted during Decca’s early years, a period described with remarkable humour and perception in Hons and Rebels (1960). Born in 1917, Decca was the sixth of seven siblings who grew up at Swinbrook, a small village in the Cotswolds; here her father, Lord Redesdale, had built a large square house described by Decca as something between a lunatic asylum and a barracks. Of the seven children six were girls, the eldest, Nancy, born in 1904, the youngest, Deborah, always known as Debo, in 1920. Their brother Tom, his parents’ favourite, was away most of the time at school, and was later killed while fighting in Burma during the war. In childhood Decca was closest to the sisters nearest to her in age, Unity and Debo, with both of whom she racketed about, teasing and tormenting their elders. With Debo, who had a passion for the chickens her mother kept, Decca formed a society of two, known as The Hons (the ‘H’ pronounced as in ‘hen’), their aim being to provoke as much family mayhem as possible.
Decca’s relationship with her parents, always addressed as ‘Muv’ and ‘Farve’, was somewhat distant, her mother kind but emotionally detached, her father deeply eccentric, frequently exploding into terrifying rages. Both were staunch supporters of the Conservative Party, Muv canvassing for the Tories at elections, Farve attending Parliament to vote against such outrageous motions as allowing the entry of women into the House of Lords.
By her early teens Decca’s closest bond was with Unity, whose bizarre misbehaviour she much admired, despite their rigorously opposing views. The two of them shared a sitting-room, Unity’s territory scattered with fascist insignia, Decca’s exhibiting a hammerand-sickle flag and a small bust of Lenin. Both relentlessly rebelled against the series of governesses employed to teach them, none of whom stayed for more than a few weeks. As the years passed, Decca felt increasingly trapped, ‘caught in a time-proofed corner of the world . . . [while] the months and years dragged slowly by, like the watched pot that never boils’.
By the time of her first London season in 1935, Decca was smouldering: she hated the world into which she had been born and now longed to leave. A committed socialist, her mind was firmly focused on running away, and an irresistible opportunity presented itself the following year with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The war profoundly divided the Mitfords, Unity and Diana passionately proFranco, while Decca immediately became a committed Loyalist, determined somehow to leave England and join the fight in Spain. ‘Fortress aspects of life at home now came to the forefront with a vengeance,’ she recalled. ‘I was in headlong opposition to everything the family stood for.’
It was during this period that Decca met a young man who had himself been fighting for the Loyalists, now invalided home at the age of only 19. Esmond Romilly, a cousin of the Mitfords and nephew of Winston Churchill, had rebelled from an early age against the world into which he had been born. At 15, he had run away from school, shortly afterwards launching an anti-fascist magazine, Out of Bounds, which had immediately impressed Decca when she came across it. Esmond was ruthless and determined, with a ‘violent and rollicking personality’, as one of his friends, Philip Toynbee, described him. A left-wing extremist, although never a member of the Communist Party, Esmond despised his peers and loved to cause trouble. He was a born anarchist, Toynbee recalled, ‘belligerent, bullying, brave . . . the least introspective person I have ever known . . . his only conscious interest was in action’.
Decca met Esmond at a house-party and was immediately smitten. The two of them quickly bonded, within hours making secret plans to escape and join the war in Spain. This they achieved, Decca having tricked her parents into believing she had been invited to stay with family friends in France. Locked into a ‘conspiracy of two against the world’, the pair of them made their way to Bilbao, where Esmond found work typing dispatches for an English newspaper. Inevitably the couple were soon discovered and eventually escorted on board a Royal Navy destroyer en route to St Jean de Luz. Here, after a bitterly acrimonious battle with both their families, they were finally allowed to marry, in a brief ceremony on 18 May 1937, at the British consulate in Bayonne. Shortly afterwards the young Romillys returned to London, where they moved into a small house overlooking the docks at Rotherhithe.
With little money, they managed to survive for a while, Esmond for a brief period working as a stocking salesman. Both quickly became adept at dodging payment of bills and at stealing from the grand country houses to which they occasionally managed to wangle an invitation to stay. Decca soon became pregnant but lost her baby after only a few months. It was a devastating experience, fortifying the couple’s decision to leave for America, Esmond determined to avoid conscription and an imminent war of which he passionately disapproved.
Arrived in New York, the Romillys were quickly taken up by a number of left-leaning and wealthy Americans, who entertained them lavishly and at length in Manhattan, Westchester County and Martha’s Vineyard. Eventually they ended up in Florida, with Esmond, assisted by Decca, working as a barman in Miami, in Decca’s words, ‘the most unattractive town I had ever seen’. It was while in Miami, and after the German invasion of France in 1940, that Esmond’s attitude towards the war suddenly changed; he flew to Toronto to enlist in the Canadian Royal Air Force, while Decca, now with a small baby, remained behind, staying with friends in Washington.
This is where Hons and Rebels ends. Decca reveals nothing about the subsequent weeks and months, about joining her husband in Toronto, his transfer to England in August 1941, or his death only three months later, shot down during a bombing raid over Hamburg. It was not until nearly twenty years later that her remarkable memoir was published, by which time she had long been settled in California, had remarried and become the mother of two more children, as well as a famously fanatical crusader against right-wing movements and what she regarded as the corruption and injustices of the American way of life.
Relations with her English family remained complex – relatively peaceful over the years with Nancy, Debo and Pam, unrelentingly hostile towards Unity, who died in 1948, and towards Diana, whose fascist sympathies she was unable to forgive. After the success of Hons and Rebels, Decca wrote several more books, including The American Way of Death, an investigation into the deceptions and dishonesty of the funeral industry. But it is Hons and Rebels for which she rightly remains best known, a remarkable portrait of an eccentric family depicted by one of its most eccentric members.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 67 © Selina Hastings 2020
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 52: Hons and Rebels
About the contributor
Selina Hastings worked for fourteen years on the books page of the Daily Telegraph, then as literary editor of Harper’s & Queen. She has written six biographies, the first a life of Nancy Mitford (1985), her most recent of Sybille Bedford (2020).