Thursday, October 27, 2011

Irrepressible by Leslie Brody

Title: Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford
Author: Leslie Brody

Genre: Non-Fiction (Biography / 1930s / 1950s / 1960s / American History / Civil Rights Movement / Journalism / British Ex-Pat / Literary Family)
Publisher/Publication Date: Counterpoint (10/2011)
Source: The publisher

Rating: Loved!
Did I finish?: I tore through this book.
One-sentence summary: Well-written biography of muckraker Jessica Mitford.

Do I like the cover?: I adore the cover -- the font, the image, the layout -- it's perfect.

I'm reminded of...: Nancy Milford, Barry Werth

First line: Soon after Jessica Mitford moved with her family to Swinbrook House in Oxfordshire, she began to plot her escape from it.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy -- I'm telling you, you want to know about the fabulous Decca Mitford!

Why did I get this book?: I love the Mitfords, and I love muckrakers, and I love female journalists. I couldn't resist.

Review: In a high school journalism class, I read some excerpts from Jessica Mitford's amazing book The American Way of Death, an expose and exploration of the American funeral business (her book was said to have influenced Robert F. Kennedy's coffin choice for his brother). It was much later that I learned this Mitford was related to that other Mitford I knew, Nancy.

Born in 1917, Jessica was the sixth of seven children born to an English baron and his wife. Jessica's childhood was influenced by the privilege of her family's wealth, status, and name as well as the wildly diverging personalities of her sisters. All were passionate and brilliant, determined to mark their place in society; Jessica's early liberal political leanings were in stark contrast to her sisters Unity and Diana, who were dedicated Fascists and supporters of Hitler. An impetuous elopement with her second cousin lead to Jessica being cut out of the family. After her first marriage ended, she married an American and became a Communist. She actively worked in the Civil Rights movement and wrote sharp, invective examinations of American society.

At less than 350 pages, this biography reads quickly albeit a tad dry. I tend to favor more 'relational' biographies, the ones where the biographer openly acknowledges her place in the story, but this is one of those more formal types where the biographer is invisible. As a result, the writing style is very precise, very sharp, almost journalistic in style. Many sentences are shaped by a direct quote of some sort (i.e., Decca reveled in being "busy, busy, busy.", page 135) but that isn't to say that Brody doesn't write well or without passion (Suddenly, they were in a psychosexual crucible, with all the vino and cheap gin they could drink. He had a bitter edge. She had a wicked mouth. Finally, they were just kids., page 19). Mitford's life -- already fascinating -- snaps along in Brody's hands, one fascinating episode after another, and so this felt like a considerably shorter book.

Even if you're unfamiliar with Jessica Mitford, give this book a try: she's a fascinating women whose life reads like an over-the-top historical novel. I think anyone interested in post-WWII Britain and America will enjoy following this radical and brilliant writer through some of the most influential events in 20th century history.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Irrepressible to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this short form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 11/11.


  1. I am in love with the Mitford sisters. They just seem so glamorous. I have read two of Decca's books, one of which (The American Way of Death Revisited) I count among my favorites. I certainly need to read this book.

  2. @Lola: Isn't she brilliant? This book is brisky and snappy and doesn't linger with her childhood, which might disappoint, but covers great detail about her work in the US which is just amazing and so fascinating to read.

  3. I know virtually nothing about the Mitford sisters, other than the fact that I should know about them and that they were very eccentric. Though this was a drier biography, it sounds like something that I could really learn a lot from, and I loved the passion of your review. Glad to hear that you enjoyed it! Great review!

  4. @Heather: Thank you! It's not a comprehensive biography of her, but I actually really enjoy the focus on her professional life -- her sisters and family are fascinating but she's such an extremely interesting woman.

  5. I haven't read any books about the Mitfords and I feel like I should. Glad to hear you enjoyed it!

  6. I have no knowledge of these sisters...hmm, but it sounds interesting and I usually love these types of biographies...I'm an odd duck in that way.

  7. I don't know even what I guess I "should" know about them, LOL. No clue who they are... the cover is sort of scary, LOL!

  8. I have heard the phrase the Mitford sisters , but that is it

  9. She is totally new to me but sounds fascinating- would love this book, I think! Thanks so much for a great review and the introduction.

  10. I'm not familiar with the Mitfords, but this definitely sounds like a fascinating read! Given the time period and subject matter, I think I'd really enjoy this one.

  11. "The Mitford Sisters" was one of my favorite books of 2010, although she's not too kind on Jessica and Pam is all but absent. I have all sort of Mitford-related books in my TBR and wishlists. Someone should do a PhD on the fascination inspired by this family.

  12. I've never heard of the Mitfords, but I do enjoy a biography wherein the biographer is absent. I am not a huge fan of the relational biographies, as I feel it loses some objectivity that way. This sounds great though! I will definitely have to check out this family!