This Is Not A Mitford Eulogy
Yesterday, the last surviving Mitford sister, Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire passed away at the age of 94. If you don’t know who the Mitfords are, ALLOW ME TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE (or, let Nicole change your life with this primer circa three years ago).
I have a problem, and I’m sure I’m the only person in the universe with said problem (I’m not like most girls) of mythologizing historical figures, no matter how recent the history. The Mitfords were fascinating, they were larger than life, and each one in their own way. It’s easy to strip away biographical complexities and focus only on their most obvious trait, profession, or ideology, casting them into role of kooky characters or personalities, like very fancy Spice Girls (Are you a Debo or a Decca?).
But, of course, these were women who were entwined with history — who were history — with at least two of them holding troubling (understatement) political views so entwined with the Mitford saga and their archetypes. There’s a reason why there never was a Fascist Spice.
(You know that scene from Arrested Development where George Michael makes that collage for his teacher, and tells his dad, “Yeah, she loves Saddam Hussein,” and Michael responds with, “I’m sure she doesn’t love Saddam. I’m sure she is interested in him as a subject, you know?” That’s the scene I refer to when trying to explain the Unity and Diana obsession to Mitford outsiders. And if they haven’t seen that episode of Arrested Development, well, I can’t help them.)
My favorite Mitford book is Hons and Rebels by Jessica “Decca” Mitford (aka Communist Spice, or Eloped-to-America-with-Her-Cousin-Spice). There are discrepancies between life as Decca remembers it and research made by Mitford biographers, and Jessica shares some uncomfortable traits; she is self-righteous and often blind to her own privilege. But she had her beliefs, and they were based in equality, and she lived them and fought for them. I’m drawn to Decca because, like most Mitford fans I’m sure, I want to see most of myself in her.
But she also holds a special type of fascination because she loved her political beliefs and still loved her sisters Unity and Diana (the Nazi and the Fascist, respectively), even if she did eventually stop speaking to Diana during the war. Hons and Rebels is, to me, the perfect book about coming into your beliefs and trying to make sense of your politics when the people you grew up with and the people you love are the very antithesis of those beliefs. It’s about trying to figure out what being a good person means in theory and in practice. It’s a stiff reminder that the Mitfords were real, their politics were real, their influence was real, and all that they contributed to the world, the good and the bad, were very, very real.
Anyway, I wanted to write something about Debo, and ended up writing about Decca and My Feelings, to the surprise of no one. Here’s a real eulogy.
Anna Fitzpatrick is a Toronto based writer who believes she is a Jessica but is actually probably a Pam.