Albion Monitor /Features


The Girl in the Fortress

by Jeff Elliott

A rigid and stuffy culture defined by station

Decca tells a favorite story: "Unity [her sister] came in and said, 'Mum, Decca's on the roof and she says she's going to commit suicide.' And my mother said, 'Oh poor duck, I hope she won't do anything so dreadful.' Right you go. She was very blasé ."

It's a funny ancedote that reveals much about how Decca and her six brothers and sisters were raised. Of course Decca wasn't about to jump off the roof; Mitford children simply wouldn't do any such silly thing. They knew what was expected of them.

The England of Decca's youth in the 1920's and '30's was a rigid and stuffy culture, where everyone was defined by his or her station in life -- either as upper-class or something lesser. The Mitfords' were decidedly upper class: her father was a Baron and member of the House of Lords. This doesn't mean, however, that the Mitfords hobnobbed with the royal family at the Ascot races; Decca describes him as one of the "backwoods peers" who rarely even visited Parliment, and certainly was not one of the social elite.

It was emphasized to Decca early on that the classes simply did not mix. When she wanted to invite a some little friends over for tea, her mother said no: "If you have them to tea they'll invite you to tea with them, and you wouldn't be able to go. You see, I don't know any of their mothers."

This left Decca and her siblings isolated, with only themselves and relatives as childhood companions. It is interesting to note how many times she describes their home as a "fortress" in Daughters and Rebels; and function as a fortress it did, keeping the world at bay.

Even when they left the manor for vacations abroad, the children were isolated.

Decca: It was as though I were a figurine traveling inside one of those little glass spheres in which an artificial snowstorm arises when the sphere is shaken -- and no matter where I was, in a train, a boat, a foreign hotel, there was no escape outside the glass. Invisible boundaries kept me boxed in from the real life of other people going on all around -- there were rules against talking to strangers, seeing a film unless Muv had seen and approved it first, going anywhere without a grownup; there was the company of my own family exclusively; there was, above all, the crushing realization of my own limitations. *

I'd like to have gone to college but it was just impossible

Decca still resents that she was denied an education because of the attitudes of the day. Then there was a clear double standard for children's education: boys got one, girls didn't. Boys were expected to go away to boarding school, then off to a fine college. Girls moved from the nursery to the governesses' schoolroom across the hall, where they hopefully learned to manage servants and be thrifty. A little arithmetic and French, then to Paris for a year abroad. Their London season as a debutante followed, then the big wedding and children of their own.
Decca: I don't think I ever did [have an education] really, we just had a huge series of governesses, who used to leave as soon as they came, practically. I can hardly blame them; I think there were thirteen or so, always different governesses when I was in the school room, and that would be from around age eight until I was sixteen.

They all had a rotten time; our whole idea was to get them to leave as soon as possible, with various means of torture. One was terrified of snakes, and one of my sisters had a pet grass snake. We'd put it around the lavatory cord. So when she went to the loo, she fainted and screamed. And, of course, the doors were locked so they had to get the crowbars to get her out.

They never taught us anything; they'd teach us little bits. They didn't have a chance, really. I mean, one person know a bit of Latin and we'd learn a few things in Latin, and another one know a bit of algebra, I can still remember that a squared - b squared = a squared - 2ab + b squared, but she never said why. It seemed rather useless, although I remember it to this day.

The one that we liked was batty, and she'd didn't know anything about that kind of thing, you know, about algebra or Latin. She was a terrific shoplifter and she told us all the basics of shoplifting. How to distract the sales person and put a hanky over small objects such as lipstick, how to get books. Very useful. In other words, we never had anything that really equipped you for a job.

I'd like to have gone to college but it was just impossible. There are very stiff exams you'd have to take. Once I had the idea of going to grammar school. There was one nearby. So I went down to the grammar school and asked to see the headmaster, said I should very much like to attend the grammar school, as I wanted to become a scientist, an astronomer. He said, "Well, as you haven't been to school, I'll have to give you exams to see if you qualify." So he gave me these two books and said if I studied them, I could come back and do the exam. I was sure I could do it, I was about 12 or 11. I told my mother and she said absolutely not: I wasn't going to be a scientist. So then I knew I wouldn't go to school or to college, and I started saving up to run away. *

On her current resumé , Decca is blunt about this part of her past. It simply reads,
Born: England, 1917.
Education: Nil. Autodidact.

The Making of a Muckracker

Albion Monitor October 9, 1995 (

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