Saturday, December 6, 2008

"You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty"

I was lucky enough to discover an uncommon woman this year, one of those who inspire and whom you try to emulate. Jessica Mitford was born in 1917 in a famous family which was front-page news for years. The Mitfords, conversatives, embraced fascism with a passion equal to the one Decca had for communism. Despite her lack of education (her father thought it was a waste of money to send girls to school, something which Jessica would regret all her life), she was a writer and a journalist who created investigative journalism (long months of research to write about a complex subject as opposed to traditional journalism that focuses on the events of the day). Her book The American Way of Death remains today a major reference : she targets the funeral industry she accuses of taking advantage of its customers' grief to make profit. At the exact moment Jessica realises there might exist something other than fascism, she runs away from her parents' house and from the easy life that waited for her (she will never see her father again, a man whose portrait can be found in The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford, with the character of the horrible Uncle Matthew) and flies to Spain where republicans try to oppose Franco's regime. There, she meets one of her cousins, Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill's nephew (who doesn't want to hear from him again) who had joined republican forces and of whom she has read leftist newspapers he secretly gave away at Oxford. They get married and move to the USA where Jessica manages to find jobs when in her native country, her scandalous gesture is front-page news. She takes advantage of her free time to read and discover the USA - this period of exploration will allow her to have a glimpse of the issues that plague the country. When Esmond dies at war (he had enrolled in the Canadian forces and his planed crashed above Germany), Jessica breaks down (it will take her months to accept his death, and her autobiography stops just before the accident because, as she explains in her letters, she couldn't bear to write it down - Churchill in person will come and tell her).
However, the one who had seen nothing of the world becomes an autodidact - she takes up the torch Esmond left and participates in numerous marches in favour of African-Americans' civil rights, she organizes fundraising events to help the most underprivileged, physically opposes the Ku Klux Klan (she will be kept a whole night inside a church with several activists waiting for the police to dispatch the member of the KKK, an episode she relates but very briefly in her letters), all in all, goes in the streets to express her disappointment and works with her new husband, Robert Treuhaft, a lawyer, to defend African-Americans accused of all sorts of crimes, abandoned by justice (in her letters she explains that this is where the real work could be done on the field - in his notes, Peter Sussman explains that Robert and Jessica were in fact the only hope for some defendants, they went where even charities didn't go anymore, defending to the last difficult cases).

Jessica and Esmond Romilly at one of their jobs in the USA, in the Roma Bar of Miami (1939)

At the beginning of the 50s, they become members of the Communist Party (Jessica explains that there was then no other alternative because Democrats didn't do anything on the field, she preferred small structures and the Party gave her money she couldn't find elsewhere for her projects). She is then the target of McCarthyism in 1953 but her humour barely saves her. In 1958, Robert and Jessica leave the Communist Party as they have the feeling that they could accomplish more without its contraints. She spends the rest of her life fighting for inequalities : on the field but also in writing, she published books and newspaper articles targeting rich people like her sister Nancy who talk about a better world without lifting a finger to make it happen (by the way Nancy sounds very cold in all Jessica's answers to her letters). She doesn't speak to her sister Unity (though she was her favourite) when they separate, each at her end of the political spectrum, and the same goes for Diana who marries the leader of the British Fascist Party.

A few months ago, I read her autobiography Hons and Rebels, and her letters gathered and marvellously edited by Peter Y. Sussman the journalist. In a digital era, it seems difficult to believe that people would have the patience and the thirst for knowledge it takes to appreciate each of the 768 pages this collection of letters contains, and yet... Engrossing from cover to cover, it is a mandatory book for anyone interested in this exceptional life. Jessica appears as a generous and tremendously funny woman and everything from gossip on the many celebrities she meets (because she belongs to the Mitford family but she also meets more commendable, like activists and feminists, but also political men) to the developped narrative of how she occupies her days inspire and makes her, by the end, a familiar face.

In Jo Rowling's words :

"My most influential writer, without a doubt, is Jessica Mitford. When my great-aunt gave me Hons and Rebels when I was 14, she instantly became my heroine. She ran away from home to fight in the Spanish Civil War, taking with her a camera that she had charged to her father's account. I wished I'd had the nerve to do something like that. I love the way she never outgrew some of her adolescent traits, remaining true to her politics – she was a self-taught socialist – throughout her life. I think I've read everything she wrote. I even called my daughter [Jessica Rowling Arantes] after her."