Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The early Nancy Mitford

What better way to emerge from the ghosts and gloom of October--and distract oneself through the drizzle and sleezing rain of the opening of November--than to dive into the frothy nonsense that is an early Nancy Mitford novel? While I've long been a fan of Mitford's best-known, most-respected novels, Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, until this week the only one of her early books I'd read was Wigs on the Green. It's funny, if slight, but it didn't lead me to her others--I suspect because Mitford herself was so dismissive of them, at least in her letters to Evelyn Waugh. In a letter of November 5, 1951, Mitford told Waugh that Hamish Hamilton had just come over to convince her to let him reprint Wigs and Christmas Pudding, and "I gave way, though I know unwisely." Three days later, she was on the topic again:
I'm in a great state about my early books. I think I told you Jamie came over specially to ask me for them to be reprinted, which softened me. Then I read them. Well Wigs on the G. which isn't too bad, I find, is a total impossibility. Too much has happened for jokes about the Nazis to be regarded as funny or as anything but the worst of taste. After all, it was written in 1934. I really couldn't quite have foreseen all that came after. So that is out. Xmas Pudding is pathetic, badly written, facetious & awful. I can't conceive why he wants it & the fact that he does has shaken my faith in his judgement.
Mitford's embarrassment likely contains at least an element of performance: throughout the correspondence with Waugh, you get the sense that she views herself as a distinctly inferior talent, which results in wide-ranging, mostly comic self-deprecation. But given that her only real complaint about Wigs is its inappropriateness, and that later in the month she calls Pigeon Pie, her fourth novel, "better than the others," I'm willing to take her assessment  of Christmas Pudding mostly at face value.

Waugh's response is entertaining:
You could write a most amusing & interesting and popular work in this way: Describe yourself in 1951 taking up Wigs on the Green and rereading it for the first time since its publication. Print 2/3 or half of the original text with constant interruptions from your 1951 self asking: "Why did I say that?" or saying "This still seems funny, why?" So in the easiest & most informal way possible you could write your reminiscences & the history of the deteriorating world and the improving authoress.
Don't you wish she'd run with that idea?

With more distance, both in person and in time, Christmas Pudding looks much, much better than Mitford would have you believe. It's arch and artificial and light, but it also has the pleasantly anarchic heedlessness of '30s English comic novels, the sense that the old things of the world have lost their attraction and the new ones are mostly meant to throw around and smash up. What in Waugh is sour and in Anthony Powell is a bit confused in Mitford is a source of simple entertainment: having no responsibilities and no reason to prefer one action over another, the Bright Young Things simply do--they party and propose and pilfer and play, and Mitford show us how silly they are as they do it all. Eighty years later, for a few hours at a time, it can be wonderfully entertaining.

Much of the fun comes in simple descriptions of characters, and their limitations. Take this discussion of an eligible bachelor who proposes to a couple of different women in the course of the novel:
"I gather that Michael made a mess of everything as usual. He had only to go about it with a little ordinary sense and she'd have been crazy about him by now. Really that young man, I've no patience at all with him; he behaves like a very unconvincing character in a book, not like a human being at all."

"Yes, doesn't he. The sort of book of which the reviewers would say, 'the characterization is weak; the central figure, Lord Lewes, never really coming to life at all; but there are some fine descriptive passages of Berkshire scenery.'"
Or this riff on Lady Bobbin's confused love of Merrie England:
Lady Bobbin was always most particular that the feast of Christmas should be kept by herself, her family and dependents at Compton Bobbin in what she was pleased to call "good old-fashioned style." In her mind, always rather a muddled organ, this entailed a fusion of the Christmas customs brought to his adopted country by late Prince COnsort with those which have been invented by the modern Roman Catholic school of Sussex Humorists in a desperate attempt to revive what they suppose to have been the merrieness of England as it was before she came to be ruled by sour Protestants. And this was odd, because Germans and Roman Catholics were ordinarily regarded by Lady Bobbin with wild abhorrence. Nothing, however, could deter her from being an ardent and convinced Merrie Englander. The maypole on the village green, or more usually, on account of pouring rain, in the village hall; nocturnal expeditions to the local Druid stones to see the sun rise over the Alter Stone, a feat which it was seldom obliging enough to perform; masques in the summer, madrigals in the winter and Morris dances all the year round were organized and led by Lady Bobbin with an energy which might well have been devoted to some better cause. This can be accounted for by the fact of her having a sort of idea that in Merrie England there had been much hunting, no motor cars and that her bugbear, socialism, was as yet unknown. All of which lent that imginary period every attribute, in her eyes, of perfection.
You can imagine Jim Dixon drinking straight from the bottle about ten words into that description. Later, we get a bit more detail on Lady Bobbin's holiday spirit:
Christmas Day itself was organized by Lady Bobbin with the thoroughness and attention to detail of a general leading his army into battle. Not one moment of its enjoyment was left to chance or to the ingenuity of her guests; these received on Christmas Eve their marching orders, orders which must be obeyed to the letter on pain of death. Even Lady Bobbin, however, superwoman though she might be, could not prevent the day from being marked by a good deal of crossness, much over-eating, and a series of startling incidents.

The battle opened, as it were, with the Christmas stockings. These, in thickest worsted, bought specially for the occasion, were handed to the guests just before bedtime on Christmas Eve, with instructions that they were to be hung up on their bedposts by means of huge safety pins, which were also distributed. Lady Bobbin and her confederate, Lord Leamington Spa, then allowed a certain time to elapse until, judging that Morpheus would have descended upon the household, they sallied forth together (he arrayed in a white wig, beard and eyebrows and red dressing-gown, she clasping a large basket full of suitable presents) upon a stealthy noctambulation, during the course of which every stocking was neatly filed.
As you might imagine, their prowling is not particularly welcome:
Forewarned though they were, the shadowy and terrifying appearance of Lord Leamington Spa fumbling about the foot of their beds in the light of a flickering candle gave most of them such a fearful start that all thoughts of sleep were banished for many hours to come.
Mitford also offers more than a few barbed aphorisms, most centered on marriage (a state she'd yet to experience at twenty-eight, when she wrote the novel, but which would, in her case, bear out her skepticism). There's the acid of
Oh, I don't expect to be her first husband, naturally.
The fact of being in love with somebody is a very good reason for not marrying them.
Then there's the question of money:
"If I had a girl I should say to her, 'Marry for love if you can, it won't last, but it is a very interesting experience and makes for a good beginning in life. Later on, when you marry for money, for heaven's sake let it be big money. There are no other reasons for marrying at all.'"
Mitford's best, most piercing line comes in the center of this reflection:
"Oh, dear," said Paul gloomily, "it really is rather disillusioning. When one's friends marry for money they are wretched, when they marry for love it is worse. What is the proper thing to marry for, I should like to know?"
To which his friend Amabelle replies,
The trouble is . . . that people seem to expect happiness in life. I can't imagine why, but they do.
I started this post with Mitford's epistolary friendship with Evelyn Waugh, and that exchange leads me back to them. In April of 1952 Waugh wrote to Nancy,
Just had a letter from a group of American school girls asking me the Secret of Happiness. Me. I wrote back sharply that they were not meant to be happy but if they thought they were, you were the one to consult.
Indeed. It doesn't get more perfect Evelyn, more perfect Nancy.

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