Yes, I’m a Mitford-phile. I adore Nancy Mitford’s witty novels, sharp, observant and each a superb time-capsule of their era.
I discovered Nancy’s two best-known novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, when I was in my late teens. My school library had a 1950s hardback version of The Pursuit of Love, but its cover art of a cartoon 1950s woman chasing a chap and holding a gigantic butterfly net put me off. I never even opened it, just put it back on the shelf. Fast forward a couple of years and Pan released a paperback copy of both books in an omnibus as a tie-in with the TV series. Now THAT caught my interest; its cover had stills from the series showing the actors in beautiful 1920s costumes. I bought it and was instantly hooked.
I have re-read my paperback copy on an annual basis since then, and have hunted around for Nancy’s other books, with mixed success. It was with a howl of delight that scared the bloke taking money at the church fete that I pounced on a 1960 hardback of Don’t Tell Alfred several years ago, but after that the market dried up. Since eBay and Amazon appeared it’s been easier. Last year I bought a 1980s omnibus reprint of Pigeon Pie, Christmas Pudding and Highland Fling. This edition was called – as you might expect – Pudding and Pie.
But now, oh joy, six of Nancy’s books are being reprinted, including Wigs On the Green, which has been out of print since the 1930s. I bought Wigs on the Green and The Blessing (which I’d borrowed from the library years ago and yes, I gave it back) on eBay and they arrived yesterday. Needless to say I’ve already started reading, and can see why Wigs on the Green incensed Nancy’s younger sister Unity to the point where there was a severe rift between the two sisters. Nancy has written a massive tease on Fascism in Wigs on the Green. She refused to have the book re-issued after WWII; a tease it might be, but this was not a teasing subject any more.
As well as Nancy’s fiction I have her very readable bio of Louis XIV, The Sun King. This book has mixed reviews by the literati when it was published, but I enjoyed it. It’s well-researched and with Nancy’s touch it’s a very emotional bio. Noblesse Oblige I found in a second-hand bookshop years ago. I have bios on Unity and the Mitford sisters in general.
What makes Nancy Mitford (and her sisters) so appealing? You might shake your head and say the family was just a rather mad bunch of wealthy upper-class Brits, so why all the fuss?
In the case of Nancy her writing sparkles. She never claimed to write classic or serious literature. In parts, particularly in her early novels, the writing is sloppy here and there. But she observed life in her circle and captured it superbly. Slang, clothing, everyday life for the upper crust in the 1930s is written about with rapier-sharp wit, particularly in Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love. They are laugh-out-loud material, more than 60 years after they were published. Her characters are believable. Over the top but still believable, which is probably because the Radlett family was based on her own and some of their youthful exploits.
Nancy loved a tease. Nothing was sacred from her sense of humour, and the most perfect example of her teasing abilities is in Noblesse Oblige, the biggest tease of all her books. It made me realise, the first time I read it, our family was very non-U. My grandfather didn’t even say ‘serviette’; he called it a ‘serve-you-right’. Bless you, Nancy, for taking the mick out of the class system. Mind you I’ve called serviettes napkins ever since :-).
For me the books are addictive. I suspect I was born into the wrong era as I’m drawn to a lot of Golden Age fiction. (But like with any Good Old Days, they were only Good Old Days if you were wealthy!)
I do hope the reprints of Nancy’s book will draw new fans as well as delight old ones. In this age of tweeting, texting and instant gratification it would be good to think there are Gen Xers and Gen Yers who will become Mitford-philes too.