Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Water Beetle – Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford fascinates me, (and a whole lot of other people obviously) at her best she (and her sisters) cast a spell of glamour, wit, and scandal which pretty much reduces me to a schoolgirl crush. At her worst she seems a ridiculous snob but I’m not sure that that doesn’t add to the glamour as well. In real life I don’t care for nicknames and find myself struggling to use them, I avoid wherever possible social circles as incestuously involved as Mitford’s clearly was, yet she makes it sound sophisticated and possibly even fun which is quite a gift. All of which is why I’ll pick up any Mitford thing that comes my way and at least give it a once over.

So it was with ‘The Water Beetle’ which I picked up for the princely sum of a £1.50 and which I thought would make a good stop gap whilst I wait for Capuchin’s reissue of ‘Highland Fling’ to appear. Getting ‘Highland Fling’ is proving to be a bit of a trial, amazon are currently sold out and neither local Waterstones has a copy (which is more especially annoying as the larger of the two branches in town is getting back to its bookselling routes by pitching about 15% of its floor space over to Paperchase. I like stationary but I prefer books, my stationary buying needs are well catered for in Leicester, my book buying needs aren’t and I fail to see how less book selling space is going to improve a bookshop. And it occurs to me that this is part the reason I called myself desperate reader. Hmmph.)

Slightly distracted from my point now but I’ll get back to it yet... so here I am patiently (ish) awaiting a means of purchasing a long anticipated book and looking for ways to while away the time, both factors which pushed me towards ‘The Water Beetle’ an assortment of Mitford essays which with one or two exceptions have aged remarkably badly. She gives a fascinating account of a visit to Russia in the 50’s and what Mitford fan could fail to be excited by ‘Reading for Pleasure’ an account of Nancy’s reading tastes, but the rest of the collection is Nancy as a woman of a her class and time – a Francophile to boot, I’m not so very pro French - the result of years in the wine trade rendered hideous by customers who don’t know what they’re talking about (no reason why they should) but who refuse to believe that I do. (People I’ve wasted the best years of my life on learning this stuff, I’m not just making it up, and if you persist in doubting me one day I’ll snap and use the ‘Oxford Companion to Wine’ in a way Jancis Robinson could hardly approve.)

Again – where was I? Ah yes, Nancy Mitford reading like a parody of Prince Philip – and this is the thing, I can’t warm to the woman in these pages, she put my back up more often than not, yet still I can’t resist her because even when she’s repellent she manages to be fascinating. I could only recommend ‘The Water Beetle’ to hard core enthusiasts but I would still recommend it. I plan to keep my copy with the various collections of Mitford letters I’ve amassed as a reminder of the other side of the women so carefully edited and presented in these anthologies, I rather think it’ll help me read more between the lines.

Finally has anyone read ‘Highland Fling’ yet – and if so what’s the verdict?


  1. Interesting post! I'd like to check this book out, but will bear in mind your thoughts! Always a treat to come visit your site!

  2. If you unearth it in a library or find a cheap copy it's definitely worth a look.

  3. I can imagine outside of her fiction she's a bit hard to stomach nowadays...I must read Noblesse Oblige as I'm sure it's along the same lines. I would be very interested to hear about her reading tastes though!

  4. I have A Talent To Annoy, selected essays of Nancy Mitford, I don't know how much crossover there is... but since I haven't read any of it, I suppose that's irrelevant! Having adored the Six Sisters letters, I bought up masses of Mitford material.. and went immediately into a Mitford slump. One day I will return, vigour renewed...

  5. I have Highland Fling on order & I'm looking forward to it. I bought Wigs on the Green earlier this year but haven't read it yet. I've had a bit of a Mitford year. I read The Blessing & Don't Tell Alfred earlier & I have her biography of Mme du Pompadour & Jessica Mitford's letters on my tbr table.