Sunday, June 17, 2007

Excerpt from Mitford's 'Hons and Rebels'

I'd read Jessica Mitford's 'American Way of Death' sometime last year, and while I enjoyed her ascerbic wit, the subject matter was kind of dated and more than a little esoteric. I'm glad I gave 'Hons and Rebels' a chance because it's utterly disarmingly funny. Here's a section about her early childhood that made me chuckle:

"Unceasing tug-of-war was waged with Farve by Nancy, Pam and Diana, the three grown-up daughters, to be allowed to have their friends to stay. Since my mother rather enjoyed having visitors she was often an ally, and these battles were frequently won. My brother Tom's friends - portly, blond young men known by Nancy as "the Fat Friars"- were an exception; they were always allowed.

For the three younger children, Unity, Debo and me, the company of one another was thought to be amply sufficient. Except for very rare visits from cousins, the three of us were brought up in complete isolation from our contemporaries. My mother thought the company of other children unneccessary and overstimulating. Nevertheless, there had been a time when we had taken on rare occasions to birthday parties or Easter egg hunts at the homes of neighboring county families.

Even this limited social life came to an abrupt halt, never to be renewed, when I was nine - and I inadvertently caused its cessation. I was enrolled in a dancing class which met weekly, rotating among various neighbors' houses. Little girls in organdy dresses and cashmere shawls, accompanied by starched nannies, were delivered by their chauffeurs at the appointed place to await the teacher, who came out from Oxford by bus. One fateful afternoon, the teacher was an hour late, and I took the opportunity to lead the other children up to the roof, there to impart some delightul information that had just come my way concerning the conception and birth of babies. "And - even the King and Queen do it!" I added impressively. The telling was a great success, particularly as I couldn't help making up a few embellishments as I went along. They begged to hear more, and swore solemnly on the Bible never to repeat a word to a living soul.

Several weeks later my mother sent for me. Her face was like thunder; one look and I knew what must have happened. In the dreadful scolding that followed, I learnt that one of the little girls had wakened night after night with screaming nightmares. She had grown pale and thin, and seemed on the verge of a mental crisis. Finally, her governess had pried the truth out of her, and had found out about the horrifying session on the roof. (Luckily for me, she did not reveal that I had brought the King and Queen into it.) Just retribution quickly followed. My participation in the dancing class was abruptly terminated; it was clear to everyone, even to me, that I couldn't be considered fit company for nice children after that. The enormity of my ill-advised act, the scope and enduring quality of its impact, was such that years later, when I was a debutante of seventeen, I learned from an older cousin that two young men of the neighborhood were still forbidden to associate with me.

Unity, Debo and I were thrown much on our own resources. As a lost tribe, separated from its fellow men, gradually develops distinctive characteristics of language, behaviour, outlook, so we developed idiosyncracies that would no doubt have made us a little eccentric to other children our age. Even for England, in those far-off days of the mid-1920s, ours wasn't exactly a conventional upbringing. Our accomplishments and amusements took distinctly unusual forms. Thus, at an age when other children would be occupied with dolls, group sports, piano lessons or ballet, Debo spent silent hours in the chicken house learning to do an exact imitation of the look of pained concentration that comes over a hen's face when it's laying an egg. Each morning she methodically checked over and listed in a notebook the stillbirths reported in the vital statistics columns of the Times.

I amused myself by giving my father daily Palsy Practice, which consisted of gently shaking his hand while he was drinking his tea: 'In a few years, when you're really old, you'll probably have palsy. I must give you a little practice now, before you actually get it, so that you won't be dropping things all the time.'

Unity and I united in the forbidden sport of 'teasing Debo.' The teasing had to be done well out of earshot of my father, as Debo was his prime favorite, and fearful consequences could follow if we made her cry. She was an extremely softhearted child, and it was easy to make her huge blue eyes brim with with tears - known as 'welling' in family circles.

Unity invented a tragic story involving a Pekingese puppy: 'The telephone bell rang,' it went. 'Grandpa got up from his seat and went to answer it. 'Lill ill!' he cried...' Lill was on her deathbed, a victim of consumption. Her dying request was that Grandpa should care for her poor little Pekingese. However, in all the excitement of the funeral, the peke was forgotten, and was found days later beside his mistress' grave, dead of starvation and a broken heart.

The story never failed to send Debo into paroxysms of grief, no matter how often it was retold. Naturally, we were severely punished for telling it. Months of allowance would be confiscated, and often we were sent to bed as well. A more borderline case would be to merely say, in tones fraught with tragedy, 'THE TELEPHONE BELL RANG,' in which case Debo howled as loudly as if we had told the whole story to its bitter end.

Odd pursuits, indeed, and little wonder that my mother's continual refrain was, 'You're very silly children.' "


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