As part of our 2014 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions about the featured work—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. You may use the questions to reflect back on each book once you’ve finished it or to guide you as you read. Either way, we hope these features will enrich your reading experience. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)
If there is a more fascinating family than the Mitfords in recent history, we have yet to meet them! Our April selection, Hons and Rebels, is the “fabulously true story” of Jessica “Decca” Mitford, the fifth of six aristocratic English sisters whose personal and political scandals during the early- and mid- twentieth century continue to captivate us today. In this “gloriously entertaining” memoir, Decca recounts her unconventional childhood, her elopement with Winston Churchill’s nephew, and their adventures in Spain and the United States. If you’d like to hear Decca ruminate on her life, head on over to the New York Public Library’s website and listen to her 1988 interview with journalist Christopher Hitchens.
Last but not least, be sure to scroll down and vote in the second round of our Tournament of Classics 2014!
1. “We were as though caught in a time-proofed corner of the world…The very landscape, cluttered with history, was disconcertingly filled with evidence of the changelessness of things” [p. 21]. Why is life at Swinbrook so insular? How did the politics and prejudices of Decca’s parents contribute to her claustrophobia?
2. Nancy and Decca come of ages at different moments in history, the 1920s and the 1930s. How does Hons and Rebels describe the difference between the two sisters’ experiences growing up? What does Decca think of the world of the 1920s? What were the sisters’ different concerns? What influence did Nancy and her set of friends have on Decca?
3. “Class was a delicate matter, a subject for intuition rather than conversation, one of those ‘borderline’ subjects, deeply felt but never discussed” [p. 59]. What were Decca’s earliest experiences of class? What were her parents’ assumptions about class? What feelings did the experience with Viola Smythe leave Decca with? Does Decca’s British experience of class have any resonance for Americans?
4. In a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in response to a review of Jessica’s book, Diana writes: “Doubtless the author realizes how ‘supremely unpleasant’ she makes her family appear. Perhaps the object of the exercise was to demonstrate her good fortune in escaping from them and their way of life. The portraits of my parents are grotesque…” Do you agree with Diana? How sympathetic or unsympathetic do you think Decca’s portraits of their parents are?
5. Describe how the divide between Decca and Boud begins and develops. How do you think that two sisters, close in age, with the same upbringing, ended up on such starkly opposed sides of the political spectrum? How does Decca reconcile her affection for her sister with Boud’s political beliefs? How is she able to create as sympathetic a portrait of Boud as she does?
6. “He was my whole world, my rescuer, the translator of all my dreams into reality, the fascinating companion of my whole adult life—three years, already—and the center of all happiness” [p. 279]. Describe Esmond. Why was he such a compelling figure to Decca? How does he strike you?
7. “What would Muv say?” is a thought that Decca has frequently after she runs away with Esmond [p. 268]. She writes that “too much security as children, coupled with too much discipline imposed on us from above by force or threat of force, had developed in us a high degree of wickedness, a sort of extension of childhood naughtiness” [p. 281]. How does Decca remain like a child even after she elopes? Do you find it surprising that she is able to break so completely with her family and former life?
8. “This was the shape—if shape it can be called—our life had taken long ago; to swoop down on a situation, a circle of people, become part of them for a brief time, glean what there was of interest and be off again” [p. 260]. How would you characterize Decca and Esmond’s lives during this time? Why did they adopt the lifestyle they did?
9. What differences in national character between England and America do Decca and Esmond discover? After Esmond’s death, Decca ends up settling in America for many years. What are some of the reasons she finds America appealing?
10. How would you characterize Mitford’s attitude to her youth? Has the passage of time altered her perspective on people and events? Does she have any regrets? Is this a happy or unhappy book, or are those not the right words to describe it?
Tournament of Classics 2014: Elite Eight
After a fevered first round in which several favorites fell (there’s a joke in here somewhere about very hungry caterpillars being eaten by ducklings), our readers have narrowed the Sweet Sixteen down to the Elite Eight of classic children’s picture books. Check out the updated bracket (click to enlarge) then vote below for the Final Four!