Wednesday, April 20, 2016

an Esmond Romilly bibliography

Romilly, Giles and Esmond. Out of Bounds: The Education of Giles Romilly and Esmond Romilly. London: Hamilton, 1935.
Romilly, Esmond. Boadilla: A Personal Account of the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigade. London: Hamilton, 1937.
Toynbee, Philip. Friends Apart: A Memoir of Esmond Romilly and Jasper Ridley in the Thirties. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1954.
Mitford, Jessica. Hons and Rebels. London: Gollancz, 1960.
----. Faces of Philip: A Memoir of Philip Toynbee. New York: Knopf, 1984.
Ingram, Kevin. Rebel: The Short Life of Esmond Romilly. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985.
Mitford, Jessica. Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, ed. Peter Y. Sussman. New York: Knopf, 2006.
Whitford, Meredith. Churchill's Rebels: Jessica Mitford and Esmond Romilly. London: Umbria, 2014.

As an offshoot of my enthusiasm for the writings of Jessica Mitford, I found a passing interest in her first husband, Esmond Romilly. He was an interesting fellow. A journalist of precocious talent - he ran away from a prestigious English public school at 15 and founded a magazine for public school rebels (which won him some schoolboy acolytes, including another budding journalist, Philip Toynbee) - Esmond fought in, and then covered, the Spanish Civil War, and as a result of writing about both his sets of adventures became perhaps the only person ever to have published two autobiographies before the age of 20. (These I haven't read.)

Like several other young British intellectuals (Auden, Britten), Esmond left for the U.S. in 1939, along with his wife, Jessica (aka Decca), whom he'd eloped with on his second trip to Spain. But after Winston Churchill (who was his uncle, peculiarly enough) became Prime Minister the following year, Esmond felt it was now worthwhile to fight for the cause, so he joined the Canadian Air Force, but his plane was lost on a mission over the North Sea in November 1941. He was only 23.

His widow, stuck in America with a small child, stayed there, remarried, and became a late-blooming journalist herself, winning fame in her 40s. Her first book, Hons and Rebels, a memoir of her childhood and first marriage, was where I learned about Esmond. It's full of amusing stories about their elopement and their trip to America (among the lasting friends they made there was Katherine Graham, future publisher of the Washington Post), and more tragic ones like the death from TB of their first child. Decca's numerous relatives indignantly disavowed the book, but according to Meredith Whitford, latest researcher in the field, most of its eccentric stories are true, though sometimes edited, and they didn't live in quite the poverty and isolation Decca painted.

More details are available in a wonderfully readable and pellucidly edited collection of Decca's letters, including the heartbreaking tale, which she couldn't bear to recount herself, of her difficulty in accepting that Esmond was dead.

Decca had been inspired to write her memoir after reading the one by her and Esmond's old friend, Philip Toynbee. Decca and Philip were both egoistic people - you'd hardly publish a memoir if you're not - but Philip was self-centered to a degree denied to most people. His book is interesting, but it's mostly about him, and could have been subtitled How My Friends Colored My Life. Whitford depicts Philip as a great patsy whom Esmond could goad into misbehavior and who'd believe his tall tales.

For more about the two of them, there's the brief memoir of Philip that Decca wrote after his death. This provides a different perspective from a close observer. What it says about Philip is not as complimentary as Decca apparently thinks, but it does include this portrait of their time together.

Lastly there are two full biographies by outside journalists. Kevin Ingram's is entirely factual, in truth too factual, and rather dully written. I found myself skimming large wads of intense detail about Esmond's two periods of military service, and the book ends abruptly with his death.

Meredith Whitford's book is a joint biography of Esmond and Decca, and while she doesn't cover Decca's later life either, at least there's an epilogue to round the story off. The material on Decca and on the marriage comes mostly from Decca's memoirs and from various letters; this is not an oral history. Whitford places great faith in the accuracy and full coverage of contemporary letters. The material on Esmond has far more that'd be unknown to readers of the other books, and, as it's far more readable and less drowned in detail than Ingram's, I learned much more from it, especially on Esmond's childhood and personal background.

Whitford's problems are enormous chapter-length digressions onto other topics (though if you wish to learn about Esmond's brother Giles' experiences as a POW during WW2, that's here), and her political scene-setting is not always accurate. (Churchill's becoming PM was not due to Labour refusing to serve under Halifax, which they did not do.) But it is overall a good book, the one I'd recommend for an outside perspective.

I own copies of Decca's memoirs and her letters, but all the rest of these I got from libraries and didn't take notes, so I can't remember all of what was where. It must have been Philip Toynbee who wrote that he hardly felt he knew Decca at this time, because when she and Esmond were together he did all the talking and Decca was a wallflower (something that should surprise anyone who knew her in later life). But it couldn't have been Toynbee who reported that Virginia Durr, their host in D.C., initially had the same impression of Decca, until she blossomed after Esmond left for the Air Force. Did that come from Ingram? I can't remember. Certainly I was struck by the fact that Whitford says nothing about this impression either way; nor does she repeat Toynbee's anecdote that, after Esmond returned to England, he asked him what Decca thought of his leaving, to which Esmond replied that it was his decision alone.

Decca's own accounts depict herself as charmed by Esmond and in awe of his ingenuity (even when it ludicrously failed, as it often did), but not of herself as shadowed by him, and indeed she insists that they had at least one furious argument.

One curious thing Decca says in the introduction to the memoir of her later life, A Fine Old Conflict (New York: Knopf, 1977), is that, after Russia abruptly found itself on the Allied side in June 1941, she and Esmond decided to join the Communist Party. "Whether Esmond [then immediately off to England] ever did so, I do not know." What makes this curious is that neither Whitford, nor (unless I glazed over it) Ingram investigates this question at all. Nor does it fit with their pictures of Esmond's earlier political views. He comes across as a definitely anti-Communist leftist; unless his views had changed - which they could have - he would have considered the Party too flawed a vehicle to ride in pursuit of social justice, a goal to which Decca's devotion was so strong she was willing to overlook mountains.

I think there's room for more research here.

No comments:

Post a Comment