Tag Archives: nancy mitford

Musings on a Golden – or gilded – Age

Phryne Fisher image

Image from phrynefisher.com

I find myself delving into fiction written in the first half of the 20th century as a way to relax and switch off the 21st. Mobile phones, computers, and the overall constant urgency that our lives are full of these days gets to me after a bit. I need to escape. So the 1920s and 30s in particular beckon. Maybe it’s the clothing. Maybe it’s the rise of the flapper, with her bobbed hair and her strident feminism. Maybe it’s the music. The pace of life was certainly slower and I feel myself calm down in the company of Mapp and Lucia, Fanny Logan and her Radlett cousins, or Lord Peter Wimsey. Toss in some Agatha Christie and Scott Fitzgerald for good measure, early Daphne du Maurier, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh… I am also the proud owner of three Girls’ Own Annuals from the 20s, complete with knitting patterns, recipes, very high-moralled articles (which I skim) and serial novels (which I devour).

I also enjoy reading recently-written novels set in the 1920s. Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series is wonderful escapism, and Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, while technically set in the early 1930s, is another I enjoy. Both of these are mystery series as I do love a good murder or two.

There’s a real difference in the tenor of novels actually written in the 20s and those modern books set in the 20s however. Times have changed and the political correctness we are inured to is very evident in modern novels. Vintage fiction can be sexist and racist, and while I condone neither in the big scheme of things, that’s the way things were back then. That’s the way people thought, and you have to accept that when you read these books. They are very much a product of their time.

Modern novels get around it; our heroine comes across a character being sexist or racist and pulls them up on it. How dare he call that man a Chink (or insert whatever racist term you like)? In the vintage books, this wouldn’t happen. Our heroine would probably refer to said victim in the same way, albeit possibly with a nicer tone in her voice. The humour can be waspish and brilliant, but any author who wrote such works today would be crucified by the mass media.

I suspect that modern novels set in earlier times wouldn’t get published unless a modicum or indeed large dollop of political correctness crept in there. Is this gilding the way people behaved almost a hundred years ago? Is it a slur on the authenticity of the period in which the book is set? And have we really become too po-faced in our acceptance of older fiction and the time and place it was written in? (Think of Enid Blyton’s Noddy, banned for years.)

Historical fiction tells us an enormous amount about the community and accepted behaviour and language of the time. That time existed and while we’ve moved on to a more complex age in just about every sense it’s that ring of authenticity, that behaviour and language which is audacious by today’s standards, that makes these books thought-provoking, compelling reading.

Oh yes, and it was the cocktail era. It’s been a long day. Time for a Sidecar.

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Oh, Fanny! The bliss! Nancy Mitford’s back in print!

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.

Don't Tell Alfred

My 1960 HB of Don't Tell Alfred

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.

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