Albion Monitor /Features


There is a Moral to it All

by Laura McCreery

Fursland's dissertation was on Mitford's midlife period

While working on a Ph.D. in psychology in 1988, Anthea Fursland decided to devote her dissertation to a case study of a woman's midlife period.

She wanted to expand on Daniel Levinson's theories of life transitions, especially the midlife period around age 40. His research suggested that men experience this transition by reexamining their lives and then modifying their courses for the future.

"My first choice was Virginia Woolf, to be honest," Fursland says laughing. "She had such a fascinating life."

But Fursland became convinced that a living person whom she could interview would be a more interesting choice.

"I don't remember the day I thought of Decca [Jessica Mitford]," she says, "but I remember thinking she'd be someone interesting."

Recognizing Decca at a Jesse Jackson fundraiser, Fursland decided to throw caution to the wind and approach her on the spot.

"I walked up to her, my heart pounding," Fursland recalls. "And I said, 'Jessica Mitford?' And she said, 'Yes.' I grabbed her hand and shook it and said, 'My name's Annie Fursland, and I'm a Ph.D. student. I want to do some biographical research, and I wondered if I could use you as my subject?'"

Here Fursland leans her head back and thickens her own English accent to imitate Decca. "Eeewwww, I'd be delighted."

Decca expertly sidesteps touchy themes

From that brief but hopeful beginning, Fursland embarked on an intense period of study. She read Decca two volumes of autobiography, two biographies of her oldest sister, Nancy, the autobiography of another sister, Diana, and another volume about the Mitford family. Then she wrote Decca a note to follow up.

"She phoned me up at some God-awful time like 7 AM, because she always gets up so early," Fursland says, "and I went round to her house."

Jessica Mitford gave Fursland access to all her personal files and directed her to a collection of personal papers at The Ohio State University. Fursland also conducted three interviews with Decca in the summer of 1989.

"It was quite fun," Fursland says of the interviews. "Decca's a very engaging person."

"She doesn't find it easy to talk about personal and emotional issues," she adds. "I would often find that we were beginning to go towards something more personal, and she would veer off and tell me an anecdote. I'm sure a lot of that was unconscious, but it was sometimes hard to keep her on track."

Fursland warms easily to the subject of her research. Although the interviews occurred six years ago, the experience seems to jump into sharp focus in her memory.

"I think part of the difficulty of [keeping Decca on track] was that I felt somewhat in awe of her and in some way protective of her. I didn't want to force her into anything that would make her feel uncomfortable."

Asked if her own English background was a factor, Fursland thinks carefully and appears to surprise herself with her answer.

"Yes. I think I colluded in her reticence," she says, adding that an American might have felt less wary of probing personal issues. That may be, but many a fearless American interviewer also has been stopped cold by Decca's expert sidestepping of touchy themes.

A "dual dream" of activism and intimacy

After the interviews, Fursland approached her Levinsonian analysis with an open mind, even some doubt, as to whether the existing theories about midlife reappraisal would fit Decca.

Instead of a single life path, Fursland felt Decca 's early life was characterized by a "dual dream" combining political activism and an intimate partnership.

"It wasn't with her an either/or, it was a combination," Fursland says. "Both of the men she married shared with her an intense concern and commitment to political action. Esmond Romilly had served in the Spanish Civil War. Bob Treuhaft was a trade union lawyer."

Fursland views the two parts of the dual dream as totally intertwined.

"It wasn't just having a relationship and having the political commitment," she says. "It was having a relationship with someone with whom she could share the political commitment.

"She wanted -- and I don't think she would ever have consciously articulated this, but this is the way her life was -- an intense personal relationship with someone with whom she shared all of that. I don't think she could have spent years in the Communist Party while married to someone who didn't share it. That wasn't in her realm of thinking, to split off. It was all one."

Only in mid-life did she became prominent in her own right

Decca changed course at midlife. Until then, her political activism was central to her dream. "Around mid-life she became the writer. She developed her career in journalism -- outside of politics, but still very influenced and shaped by her political opinions," Fursland says.

Decca's writing career brought her a new and rather enjoyable fame and financial stability. Many years after leaving her well-known family in England, she became prominent in her own right.

In the end, Levinson's theory of the midlife transition fit well with Mitford's experience of reappraisal and restructuring.

"She started her autobiography when she was 39, and this was in some way a kind of reappraising her life -- looking back," says Fursland. "Also, she decided at age 40 to leave the Communist Party. This must have involved a great deal of thinking and working through.

"Decca recognized that her previously held assumptions about the Communist Party were no longer applicable. She was able to leave the Party but not turn her back on it, not throw the baby out with the bath water."

About the spark that set all this into motion, Fursland believes Decca's brief but intense first marriage -- after a sheltered childhood -- set an unusual precedent for commitment, both personal and political.

Fursland places the romance in the context of upper class English life in the 1930's, citing the deep humiliation the elopement caused her family. "We think of elopement as a kind of romantic thing," she says. "I think it was an intense, very rebellious act, something that's almost incomprehensible."

She also says, "I think she idealized Esmond from before she met him," adding that Romilly was Decca's only adult role model. "He fulfilled every expectation she had of him, at least that was the impression.

"She idealized him and also journalism. He was a journalist, she became a journalist. I don't think that's a coincidence."

The Making of a Muckracker

Albion Monitor October 9, 1995 (

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