Poison Penmanship

Poison Penmanship by Jessica Mitford


Why I chose this book

The cover of this book grabbed me immediately.

There’s something about the typewritten manuscript, scratched and scrawled over in pencil, that does it for me.

I’d wallpaper my downstairs loo in this if I could.

Plus, the name of the author jumped out at me: Jessica Mitford. I’ve been completely obsessed with the Mitfords ever since I read Mary S Lovell’s gripping biography of the six society sisters, The Mitford Girls. Since then I’ve been working my way through Nancy Mitford’s delightful novels, but this is the first time I’ve read Jessica’s work.

Poison Penmanship, playfully sub-titled The Gentle Art of Muckraking, didn’t disappoint, and got me thinking: how can I apply Jessica’s writing techniques when writing for brands?


A spunky investigative journalist

Jessica, born into wealth and privilege in 1917, received no formal education but was always a keen reader. She married young and left England in 1939 to live in America, where she worked as a spunky investigative journalist.

This book is a collection of her exposés of unscrupulous organisations, all originally published throughout the 1960s and 70s. It reads a bit like a Famous Five romp, and the baddies might have got away with it if it weren’t for the smarts of this pesky reporter.

The articles are entertaining and have aged much better than Enid Blyton’s books because of Jessica’s progressive socialist politics. I recognise the unscrupulous salesmen at The Famous Writers School in today’s multi-level marketing scams that prey on the vulnerable. And the toxic approach to female bodies displayed at the Elizabeth Arden Maine Chance spa in Arizona still rings depressingly true today.


The power and personality of tone

But let’s talk about tone of voice, because it’s Jessica’s fabulous tone that makes this book such a stonking read and this is what we can try to emulate in our brand writing to give it more power and personality.

She sets out her stall on the front cover with her delightful subtitle: The Gentle Art of Muckraking.

Muck. Raking.

Such grubby words, so elegantly elevated.

If Poison Penmanship is the brand name, this is the strapline that sums up the personality and the content of the brand in one neat package.

It’s like a little elbow in the ribs and a wink to let us know that we don’t need to take things too seriously. I’m starting to sniff out the signature Mitford wit already.


Jessica has an honest and chatty tone that draws us into her inner circle. Lot’s of brands try this, not all successfully. It has to come from the heart and have an element of vulnerability to avoid sounding trite (you’ve seen it many times; the over-enthusiastic imitation of Innocent).

With commentary on her articles she takes us behind the scenes on her investigations, showing us the story-behind-the-story that made her journalism possible. She is transparent about the challenges of getting a commission from an editor and getting her expenses paid.


“My plane was two hours late, a circumstance that rattled me terribly, but at the airport I was at once enfolded in the tranquilizing Maine Chance ambience. I was met by a gliding lady (they all glide at Maine Chance rather than walk), who turned me over to a driver – “our little driver” she called him, although he appeared to be of normal stature.”


Jessica is clever and funny. She writes with elegant prose and robust insight, but with a lightness and warmth that keeps us skipping through the pages. I love her dry humour. She continues to refer to the little driver with a straight face but a twinkle in her eye. We are on #TeamJess one hundred percent, and her targets are on the other side, looking nervous and somewhat ridiculous.

Because she chooses her targets carefully and never punches down, her wit is zesty without being acid. It’s a delicate balancing act but Jessica executes it with total confidence and the lightest touch.

This spirited humour is not right for every brand of course, but it’s the principle that we are talking about. At its core Jessica’s journalism is driven by a powerful sense of justice and this is why her tone of voice is so clear and sure. She’s dogged in her pursuit of her culprits, and we can hear her positively chime with delight when they get their just desserts.

It’s purpose that drives her narrative, and can drive the narrative for your brand too, if you believe in what you do with the same conviction as Jessica Mitford.

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