The Other Nancy Mitford

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Nancy Mitford




The Other Nancy Mitford by Jane Smiley

Let’s pretend that we know no more of Nancy Mitford than we do of Shakespeare.

April 20th, 2011 reset - +

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.

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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 world where consequences are muffled by privilege and where all eccentricities are merely amusing.  The clue to the narrowness of this world is Mitford's failure to introduce it systematically or to depict it with much detail.  She writes from the center of that world, for an audience who knows what she is talking about, for whom more explanation would retard the pace of the jokes.

Between 1940 and 1946, Mitford found a deeper sense of conviction.  She used it not to make her work less comic or more doctrinaire but to make it even more daring and worldly, and to round her characters into brilliant figures.  One way that she did this was to turn to the very eccentric world of Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie, patriarch and matriarch of the irrepressible Radlett family.  The Radletts are decidedly not fashionable and so odd as to require organized delineation.  Uncle Matthew is an irascible, expressive, and even violent country squire whose only defense is his liveliness.  He hates foreigners of every sort, loves blood sports, and alternately shouts at his children and ignores them.  His great virtue as a literary character is that he is voluble and amusing, and around him the others coalesce, saying anything they please, no matter how ill-tempered, ignorant, snobbish, rude, or silly.  The manner in which this distinct and lively small world of Englishness takes on and responds to the world events of the next fifteen years is the subject of The Pursuit of LoveLove in a Cold ClimateThe Blessing, and Don't Tell Alfred.

The premise of The Pursuit of Love is as old as the English novel: a young girl from a good family is in search of a husband, except that what Linda Radlett discovers when she makes her marriage is not eternal happiness, but stuffy boredom.  She is in pursuit of love, not marriage, after all, and as a result she crosses the Channel and ends up in France, installed as the mistress of Fabrice Sauveterre.  Fanny, the novel's narrator, links Linda's new world and the Radlett world; she has grown up with Linda, she is young, she marries a Cambridge academic and is happy with her domestic life.  But as the daughter of "The Bolter," a woman who has made a career of amatory adventure, she has more varied opinions about traditional English marriage than any of the other characters in the book.  Her contemplative voice gives their brasher ones a context.  The result is that Mitford explores what love means in the modern world, and also that she perfects her technique of off-hand commentary.

In her last four novels, Mitford does not hesitate to take on large issues.  By setting the old theme of girl-in-search-of-love next to the onset of World War II, Mitford gets to question the equation that had prevailed in the English novel from the 18th century on, in which marriage and a good property settlement equal true love.  Part of the truth of Linda's and Fabrice's love is that it is fleeting — Fabrice is captured and killed during the war and Linda dies in childbirth. Another part is that it is, indeed, "true": Fabrice's active career in the French Resistance testifies to his integrity and to his ability to distinguish between idle occupations and sincere devotion.  He may live one way before the war and one way during the war, but, unlike Linda's husband, this is not due to ambivalence about the Nazis or their ideology, but rather because he is a worldly man and has a French aristocrat's refined sense of what is appropriate at any given moment.  In this, he is a bit like Matthew Radlett, who colorfully deplores the idea Linda's first husband proposes — that if England is really in danger, best to just follow the money you've posted in international banks, and ride the whole thing out.  Uncle Matthew has a plan for when the Germans attack his farm, and it involves both martyrdom and heavy German casualties.  By 1946, the war has clarified Mitford's world view.  She is still flexible about customs and private morality, but her political views are set: extremism to either right or left is not only dangerous but silly.  Those who loudly promote their views are the opportunists most likely to betray their avowals.  In a chaotic world, those with the gift of observation are the most trustworthy.

In Love in a Cold Climate , my favorite, Mitford perfects her cool analysis of character, and brings to life several simultaneously horrifying and amusing figures, none of whom she judges.  Though perfectly well-bred and married into the best property in England, Lady Montdore is a monster of social-climbing shallowness.  Her marriageable daughter, a reserved beauty, is dedicated to love, just like Linda Radlett, but the man she loves is Boy Dougdale, her mother's longtime companion and a well-known (at least among the children) child-molester.  She gets her way and marries her dreamboat.  Lady Montdore is then redeemed by the heir to the estate, a gay cousin from Nova Scotia who is on the run from some of his own rent-boy adventures on the Continent.  The final reconciliation is defined not in terms of property, family, or wealth, but by affection, comfort, and caretaking — no matter how peculiar or unorthodox those relationships happen to be.

A defining characteristic of Mitford's later writing is the clarity of her style.  She is as straightforward and objective as Trollope.  Her narrators tell their stories, and are clear about the difference between what happens, how they view it, and how others view it. This style makes for smooth reading, and was pretty much outmoded when Mitford was writing.  Her contemporaries — Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Anthony Powell — cultivated styles that were more original, and therefore subjective.  The world, if it could be viewed at all, had to be viewed through a new lens, a necessary lens, that acknowledged the subjectivity of truth.Mitford approached the subjectivity of truth through dialogue, and what her characters say is more extreme, rude, and self-revealing than anything in Trollope or Austen; the English landscape is still there, but traditional proprieties are long gone, replaced by choices and dangers that are thoroughly modern.

Surely one of Random House's reasons for reissuing Mitford's works is that their themes and characters remain oddly current.  In The Blessing, a Frenchman, Charles-Edouard de Valhubert, marries a pretty Englishwoman in haste; he is being sent back to the front, and wants to be sure of an heir.  Grace Allingham is already engaged, but Charles-Eduoard prevails, and their son is six years old by the time his father returns to make up his mind whether to continue the marriage or end it.  (Since they are married at a registry office rather than in the Church, divorce is an option).  What follows is a romance of misunderstandings and missed connections, and the character repeatedly sticking his spanner into the work of reconciliation is Sigi, the child, who readily understands that single parents are more likely to spoil him — his continued welfare demands that he keep them apart. 

The subplot of The Blessing revolves, once again, around enthusiastic Americans — in this case Hector Dexter, who is representing the Marshall Plan in Europe and has failed, so far, to gain entrance to any of the more exclusive social sets.  As Grace explains, "They go back to the middle of America and tell the people there, who hate foreigners anyway, that the French are undependable, and so nasty that it would be better to cut the Aid and concentrate on Italy, where they are undependable, too, but so nice, and especially on Germany, where they are dependable and so wonderful, and leave the nasty French to rot."  Hector is a world class conversation-hogging bore, and when he finally gets around to his diagnosis, it's this: "There is a malaise in this country, a spirit of discontent, of nausea, of defatigation, of successlessness around us, here in this very city of Paris, which I for one find profoundly discouraging."  ("I wish I understood Americans," says Charles-Edouard.  "They are very strange. So good, and yet so dull.")  Mitford neatly subordinates the unfolding of Hector Dexter's activities to the reconciliation between Charles-Edouard and Grace, allowing the reader to survey the post-war landscape-social, personal, and political — without inflating or underestimating the interest of any part.  The subject of her confection is, in more ways than one, betrayal.  But she maintains her confectionary tone, and the result is bracingly clear and worldly.

Mitford's last novel, Don't Tell Alfred, returns to the Radletts and Fanny.  Fanny's academic husband, Alfred, is suddenly posted to France, and required to deal with such practical political matters as a disputed set of Channel Islands that are sometimes entirely submerged.  The children produced in earlier novels are now busy either (depending on your point of view) exploring their world or making trouble.  Uncle Matthew returns, also, a sort of venerable object of curiosity who goes to fashionable parties.  High society has turned into pop culture, and Mitford's world is recognizably modern.  Fabrice and Charlie, two of Fanny's sons from The Pursuit of Love, have made friends with Sigi from The Blessing and left Eton to take on the management of a working class rock and roll singer.  Another, David, has become a follower of a Zen master, and another, Basil, has disappeared, only to turn up a few pages later with The Bolter's newest husband — a boy his own age.  These two have a plan to fleece English tourists on the Continent.  Basil consistently refers to his partner as "Grandfather."  Mitford abandons the traditional English comic love plot for a broader and less defined narrative arc.  There is no solace in marriage, or any agreement on what love is.  Though the war did not succeed in destroying pre-war culture, the generation of children born during and just after the war is busy doing so.        

The dilemma for Fanny is whether to interfere with the freedom her offspring have claimed and the destruction that portends.  Her problem is personified by a tabloid gossip journalist, Amyas Mockbar, who makes a point of humiliating officials such as her husband in his paper, the Daily Post.  Fanny can neither ignore Amyas nor combat him, but must wait for circumstances through which he comes to grief on his own, just as she must wait for her children to learn their own lessons, and for the French government and the English government to realize that the oft-submerged islands they're contending over aren't worth it.  The novel is more episodic than the three previous novels, a structure that mimics the new, enlarged size of Fanny's world.  In the earlier novels, the boundary between safety and chaos is distinct, but once the war is over and forgotten, there is no longer a boundary — only a frontier that Fanny must learn to negotiate. Published in 1960, before the Beatles, before the generation gap, Don't Tell Alfred remains eerily prescient about parenting and the speed of cultural change. 

But is it enough that Mitford's novels are a delight to read, that they remain laugh-out-loud funny, and that they are beautifully constructed as well as daring in several ways?  Could it be that they have a relevance to our modern lives that books by Mitford's contemporaries, however great they are (Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Anthony Powell), no longer quite have?  If Mitford's works weren't overwhelmed by her fame, would we respect them more? 

The hallmark of Modernity was the recognition of the subjective — that a novelist's (or an analysand's, or a regular person's) inner life shaped his or her sense of reality, and, in fact, was Reality.  The assertive style of Mitford's contemporaries made this point: a reader's pleasure in their books was in being overwhelmed by an alien language that represented a more authentic world view than old-fashioned realism.  The idea that such representations were literature's primary function held sway for at least two generations, and still has powerful partisans, but what the reissue of Mitford's novels shows us is that an author can acknowledge the presence of many subjectivities.  She can clear the stage by adopting a transparent style, and then let the characters contend.  She can shamelessly address all sorts of issues as social dilemmas, and thereby ponder them.  She can observe, as Mitford did, so acutely that her eye becomes a finely ground lens, not dimming our vision, but heightening it.  Nancy Mitford wasn't the first English novelist to undermine her own reputation by over-sharing her personal life; when Anthony Trollope published his autobiography, he discussed money so relentlessly that he lost his audience for sixty or seventy years.  But now the notorious Mitfords are fading into the past, and it is time for Nancy Mitford, the great novelist, to step forward.

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