LET'S PRETEND THAT WE KNOW NO more of Nancy Mitford than we do of Shakespeare, that we have a tempting outline of her life with one or two intriguing details, but no family notoriety, no volumes of letters, no newspaper articles or gossip. In fact, let's pretend that Nancy Mitford's novels weren't written by the famous Nancy Mitford but by some entirely obscure Mary Smith, who happened to be a middle-class daughter of a greengrocer, possessed of ambition, eloquence, and extraordinary powers of observation. If we did so, how would the novels hold up?
There are eight of them, written over the course of thirty years. Vintage has reissued five, Wigs on the Green (1935), The Pursuit of Love (1945), Love in a Cold Climate (1949), The Blessing (1951), and Don't Tell Alfred (1960), leaving only Highland Fling (1931), Christmas Pudding (1932), and Pigeon Pie(1940) out of print. The jokes are funny, and they are daring, tossed into the narrative in an offhand way. Sophia, the protagonist of Pigeon Pie doesn't hear about the start of World War II because she has been visiting her father in Scotland, "a widowed peer, who could write his name, Maida Vale, but little else." When Sophia's wealthy husband gets involved with "the Boston Brotherhood, one of those new religions which are wafted to us every six months or so across the Atlantic," she must put up with Florence Turnbull, who remarks, "Personally, the only people I care to be very intimate with are the ones you feel would make a good third if God asked you out to dinner."
In Wigs on the Green, a bored married woman known as "the local beauty" is persuaded by a charming scoundrel that her potential lover is a dashing representative of eastern European royalty, when in fact he is a London office worker who has just received a small legacy. In the meantime, her husband goes to a cattle sale to buy a cow: "He bought the wrong one at an exorbitant price only to discover that his purchase was lacking in that desirable piece of anatomy — the udder." All of Mitford's characters accept infidelity as routine and unimportant, all of them are suspicious of Americans and their earnest professions of belief, and all are observant and irreverent — chaos is not only inevitable but desirable, or at least amusing.
But there is no real sense, in the pre-war works, of the grandeur and sophistication Mitford would achieve in the last four. There is, in fact, considerable evidence, especially in Wigs on the Green and Pigeon Pie, that Mitford's world view — compounded of knowing frivolity and evenhanded acceptance of the various political forces that are about to clash so tragically — is overwhelmed by her material. She can organize her story, more or less, and she can give her characters vivid life, but she can't acknowledge the meaning of their opinions or their actions. Her characters are imprisoned in a wo...read more