The first book I finished this year: Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, edited by Peter Y. Sussman (Random House – $35) started my year’s reading off on a high note. Jessica Mitford, for those unfamiliar with her name, was one of the famous (and infamous) Mitford sisters from an aristocratic English family. In addition to a brother, Tom (killed in World War II), there were six sisters, only one of whom managed to live her life in relative obscurity. Nancy became a best-selling novelist and lived in Paris; Diana married Bryan Guinness, heir to the brewing fortune, then scandalously divorced him and became the mistress (later wife) of British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Unity lived in Germany before the outbreak of World War II. She was a fascist and a devoted admirer of Hitler who shot herself in the head when England declared war on Germany in 1939. (She lived, but was brain-damaged for the rest of her brief life. She died in England in 1948.) Deborah, the youngest sister, became the Duchess of Devonshire after her marriage, and became an effective administrator of her husband’s estates, which included Chatsworth, the stateliest of stately English houses. And Jessica/Decca? She rebelled against her family early on in life. At the age of 11, she started her “running away” fund, and at the age of 15, she declared herself a Communist. When, in 1937 at the age of 19, she ran away with her cousin (later husband) Esmond Romilly, her independence from her privileged background was complete. They headed to Spain to cover the Spanish civil war, then moved to America. Esmond was killed fighting in World War II, and Jessica moved with her young daughter to California, where she married Bob Treuhaft, a left-wing lawyer. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Decca was a Communist Party and labor organizer; she was also active in the civil rights movement. At the age of 40, she began writing The American Way of Death, a scathing exposé of the funeral industry. It catapulted her into literary stardom when it hit the bestseller lists in 1963. From 1963 until her death in 1996, she was a writer, a teacher and a sometime rock star. Her letters reflect her passionate, humorous and idealistic personality. Beginning with a letter written in September, 1923 to her mother when Decca was six or seven years old, and ending with a letter to her sister the Duchess on July 13, 1996, 10 days before her death, this collection encompasses all facets of Decca’s tumultuous life. There are letters to famous people—Winston Churchill (Esmond’s uncle), Julie Andrews, Katharine Graham and Maya Angelou, to name a few. Her letters to her husband, daughter, son, and grandsons are loving, funny, and practical. Letters to her sisters (mostly Nancy and Deborah, with an occasional epistle to Pam; she wasn’t on speaking or writing terms with her fascist sisters, Diana and Unity), are always entertaining; they are liberally sprinkled with “Mitford-speak” and references to their unconventional childhoods. Decca’s letter writing style has an immediacy and charm that make her correspondence as entertaining as a novel. Peter Sussman’s introductory notes to each section provide ample background information for readers unfamiliar with the Mitfords, and his footnotes are a splendid enhancement of the text. I predict that Decca’s earlier works will come back into print if this collection whets public interest, and I, for one, will happily read anything else she has written. Do yourself a favor and read this book. You won’t regret it.
On the fiction front, Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (GP Putnam’s Sons – $25.95) is a wonderful medieval mystery. Set in England during the 12th century in the reign of Henry II, the tale begins with the arrival of Adelia in the city of Cambridge. Tensions are running high; three children have been murdered, and the townsfolk blame the local Jewish community for their deaths. The Jews have been herded behind the castle walls for protection, but the situation is volatile. Adelia, an Italian-trained “doctor of the dead” is in town to see what the bodies can tell her in order to solve the case. What the bodies tell her is that there is a sadistic monster on the loose in Cambridge who must be stopped before he can kill again. She joins forces with one of King Henry’s tax collectors who has been chasing the same man for several years, and together they manage to see justice served. Franklin’s writing is robust and evocative; you can almost smell the overcrowded castle and the stink of the streets while reading. There are several cameo appearances by King Henry II, who is most concerned that his tax revenues are adversely affected by the economic downturn in Cambridge since the Jews have been put into protective custody. Despite his seemingly grasping nature, the king is also portrayed as a hero—the hero who started the system of English common law, which applied to all men equally, no matter their station in life. Reading about a case in which fear and hysteria almost won the day certainly makes the reader give thanks for his pragmatism. Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this book just as much as mystery fans will.
Susan Taylor has been in the book business, in one aspect or another, since 1982. She recently returned to the Capital District after 14 years in the Boston area (which included stints at the Harvard Bookstore and the Wellesley Booksmith), and is happily re-employed at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza.