Monday, December 13, 2010

It's White Fang or Nothing!

One of the great pleasures of Deborah Mitford's charming and funny new memoir, Wait for Me!, is its portrait of David Mitford, Baron Redesdale, whom Mitford fans long ago came to know in the guise of Uncle Matthew in Nancy's The Pursuit of Love. Deborah acknowledges that in many ways her father really was like Matthew, but she paints him in a much gentler light:
Nancy made him sound terrifying but there was nearly, though not always, a comic undercurrent not apparent to outsiders. I adored him. He was an original, with a total disregard of the banal or boring.
In other words, exactly the sort of character best met in the pages of a novel or memoir--and for all Deborah's attempts to show her father's lighter side, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that, yes, he was essentially terrifying. If he was more bluster than anything, well, that's still an awfully large quantity of bluster to live with on a daily basis.

But in a memoir? Oh, there he's vastly entertaining. As when he went to the dentist in his mid-thirties,
and asked him to take out all his teeth. The dentist refused, saying it was dangerous. "All right then," said Farve impatiently. "I'll go to someone who will." An hour or so later there was not a tooth left in his head. Thereafter "my good dentures" chewed up Muv's excellent food.
Or his inordinate "horror of anything sticky":
I once asked him what his idea of hell was. "Honey on my bowler hat," was the answer.
Or this exchange about his brother-in-law, Denis Farrer, the Old Dean:
Fare was once talking to an acquaintance about the Farrers and said, "The only trouble with the Old Dean is that he married a ghastly woman." "Oh?" said the acquaintance. "I thought she was your sister?" "Yes, she is. A poisonous creature."
Or his brutal manners when Nancy brought home friends:
[M]y father waited for a pause in the conversation and said loudly to my mother at the other end of the table, "Have these people no homes of their own?"
The anecdote that made me laugh the loudest, however, also happens to be the most suitable for this blog: it's about books, and, specifically, about one of my old favorites, Thomas Hardy. According to Deborah, her father read only one book in his life, White Fang, "which he enjoyed so much he vowed never to read another." Learning this soon after their marriage shocked Mrs. Mitford, and she came up with a plan:
She persuaded him to listen to her reading aloud some classics, starting with Thomas Hardy. She chose Tess of the d'Urbervilles with its descriptions of farm and heath land, which she thought he would enjoy. When she got to the sad part, my father started crying. "Oh, darling, don't cry, it's only a story." "WHAT," said my father, his sorrow turning to rage, "do you mean to say the damn feller made it up?"
Which makes one wonder: Is it possible that David had misunderstood the nature of White Fang?

I suspect that Hardy--who was alive and well at that time--of all people would have enjoyed knowing that Tess was selected because of its depiction of the humble activities of rural life. The dismissal of it all as made-up, and thus pointless, however? I expect he would have replied with the self-righteous asperity of this passage from his explanatory note to the first edition of Jude the Obscure:
I would ask that any too genteel reader, who cannot endure to have said what everybody nowadays thinks and feels, to remember a well-worn sentence of St Jerome's: If an offence come out of the truth, better is it that the offence come than that the truth be concealed.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful Hardy story! The Mitford memoir has moved high on my list after reading a couple of reviews like this. Sounds lovely.