My first brush with Nancy Mitford came about fifteen years ago on a visit to Chatsworth. I found an omnibus in the gift shop and as I had a nine hour train journey back to university to look forward to it seemed like just the thing to pass the time. My twenty year old self thought it was probably the most sparkling sophisticated thing she’d ever read. I think a reread is probably due – the omnibus included The Blessing, Love in a Cold Climate, Don’t Tell Alfred, and The Pursuit of Love and I think it’s probably fair to say that those four are the best that Mitford has to offer.
Still Mitford’s are big business as the steady stream of books by and about them prove, and this year sees the reissue of two more Nancy’s – ‘Wigs On The Green’ earlier this month from Penguin (along with very pretty new jackets for their other titles) and ‘Highland Fling’ in the summer from Capuchin. Outside of the four normal suspects the only other Nancy I’ve read is ‘Pigeon Post’ - about a year ago when I found a cheap second hand copy, so I’ve been very excited by these re-issues.
Right off it’s undoubtedly true that the earlier books lack something that makes the best ones so good. Taken on its own ‘Wigs On The Green’ is an occasionally funny period piece – not all the jokes have aged well, and it brings all the Mitford snobbishness firmly to the fore, there isn’t an awful lot for the reader to warm to. The thing is you can’t take it on its own – it’s a juicy bit of history with plenty to recommend itself to anyone interested in the Mitford’s, or anyone who wonders how fascism could ever have looked attractive. I’m quite interested in both so felt my money was well spent.
‘Wigs On The Green’ was responsible for a huge rift in family relations. Unity Mitford who is skewered good and proper (though with much love and affection) was furious, as was Diana for the less than respectful tone taken towards her husband and the cause of British fascism. (Nancy’s fascists are called the Union Jackshirts which I think is comedy genius.) Charlotte Mosley who writes the introduction suggests the reason that Nancy suppressed the book post war is because of the upset it had caused within the family, and following Unity’s attempted suicide there’s plenty of weight in that argument. However I think the pro fascist feelings expressed are altogether more to the point; it’s not the kind of book I imagine many authors would have wanted to own up to post war. I also think now is a great time to bring it back.
As an idealistic youth I leaned far further left than right and on the whole that’s the way that history has vindicated, to be exposed to a world where fascist hadn’t yet become the dirty word it is now is as shocking to me as it is fascinating. This is exactly what ‘Wigs On The Green’ does, as Mitford explained to her sisters in an attempt to patch things up all the nicest people in the books are fascist and the general attitude towards them is very pro. In place it really does make for uncomfortable reading yet she does make me begin to understand why fascism might have been attractive.
Attractive because it’s about the young and idealistic, a suggestion of romance, and for the upper classes of the day a return to an altogether more ordered and certain way of life. For Nancy who also flirted briefly with the politics clearly weren’t something to take to seriously – she laughs continuously at her Union Jackshirts in a way that suggests she finds such enthusiasm for a cause somewhat ridiculous, but in a way that also suggests that the very real threat they pose is underestimated.
For pure Mitford fans there is also a portrait of Peter Rodd (Nancy’s husband) in the form of the unprincipled Jasper Aspect. Apparently he was also part model for Evelyn Waugh’s Basil Seal, Jasper/Peter/Basil are cads of the first order, but not without charm. Nancy, not long married when she wrote this spends a good bit of time exploring love, marriage, and divorce. In short the writing is on the wall for all those with the gift of hindsight to read, and I am more excited than ever about ‘Highland Fling’.