Friday, August 27, 2010

Delighting in the young Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford’s novels seem to have been designed specifically for a lovely summer night; they’re back-steps, cocktail-in-hand, end-of-work-week novels, light as air and wonderfully fun. I was pleased to learn recently that Vintage has returned a batch of them to print, to join The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, which they’ve long had available. The two Love novels are unquestionably better books: their voice is more distinct and individual, and both their comedy and their gentle satire feel more organic and natural than in the other books, which betray the distinct influences of the other comic writers of the period, in particular Wodehouse and Mitford’s good friend Evelyn Waugh. But to be reminiscent of those two is no sin, and fans of either would likely enjoy Mitford’s work.

Last night’s reading was Wigs on the Green (1935), Mitford’s third novel, and the only one never reprinted in her lifetime. It was left to languish for the sake of Mitford’s relationship with her sisters: its portrait of nascent British fascists struck a bit too close to home for Diana, soon to become Mrs. Oswald Mosley, and Unity, who would fall under Hitler’s spell and eventually attempt suicide rather than face the thought of war between England and Germany.

This many years later, the gentleness with which Mitford portrays the fascists takes a bit of getting used to: much like Wodehouse’s Roderick Spode, they are regarded as merely another offshoot of basic English eccentricity, very strange but without any hint of danger. Nancy herself, in a letter to Evelyn Waugh in 1951, wrote,
Too much has happened for jokes about Nazis to be regarded as funny or as anything but the worst of taste. After all, it waswritten in 1934, I really couldn’t quite have foreseen all that came after.
Fascists aside, however, the novel does offer plenty of charms.

It is built around a visit by a pair of very Wodehousian bachelors to a small village, in search of heiresses to woo--which offers much room for witty, drily 1930s dialogue about men and women, love and marriage, and fidelity (or its lack). My favorite exchange is this one, which finds one of those bachelors trying to talk Poppy, a woman he has fallen for, into leaving her husband for him:
”You can’t keep me,” said Poppy,” in the comfort to which I have been accustomed.”

“Same to you, my angel.”

“I dare say, but wives aren’t expected to keep their husbands.”

“I never could see why not. It seems so unfair.”

“Not at all. The least the chaps can do is provide for us financially when you consider that we women have all the trouble of pregnancy and so on.”

“Well, us boys have hang overs don’t we? Comes to the same thing in the end.”
That same bachelor, revealing even more clearly his feckless amorality, elsewhere offers his fellow fortune hunter this unforgettable piece of advice:
”There are times, my dear old boy, when love has got to take its proper place as an unethical and anti-social emotion.”
A line that could have come straight out of Waugh, no?

With that, I'll leave you to your weekend. May you spend it reading an author as delightful as Nancy Mitford.

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