Nancy Mitford: A Celebration by Eleanor Doughty

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An Extract from The Mitford Society Vol. II

Friday 28th of November 2014 would have been Nancy Mitford’s one-hundred-and-tenth birthday. She has been enchanting the world for more than a century. While she might have described her early childhood as being “shrouded in a thick mist”, thanks to her own pen it has been immortalised and is now kept in libraries.

Almost no one nice, tastes allowing, does not carry at least one Mitford novel on the most well worn shelf of their bookcase. My thesis on Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies was inspired by forms of autobiography in Nancy Mitford’s two most famous novels, The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949). As such, I spent a blissful summer reading every word she had published, in preparation. In doing so, it quickly became apparent that this was preparation for not just a long essay – what now seems a pointless piece of prose – but preparation for just getting on with things. For the novels are learning manuscripts, too. Within the novels come portions of life advice, dressed up to amuse. A Talent to Annoy, the Charlotte Mosley-edited collection of Nancy’s journalism, is a most appropriately chosen title, for at all times, she is provoking a reaction.

The modern age thoroughly ill prepares one for many events, yet lessons for life are found most riotously in Nancy’s novels. Her world, viewed with a piercing stare, might be ridiculous but it is elegant. The now-famous closing line of The Pursuit of Love says it all. The narrator, Fanny, is describing her cousin Linda to her mother, The Bolter. Fabrice, Fanny explains, was “the great love of her life, you know”. (Nancy attaches the crucial “you know” to remind us of that quality self-assurance that runs in the Mitford veins.) The Bolter: “Oh, dulling,” said my mother sadly. “One always thinks that. Every, every time.” In one fell swoop, Nancy eliminates love-affairs from the equation. Perspective shines through. It is an oft-quoted passage, and is, I hope, used by best friends and mothers in times of need. It never dates.

The writer Andrew O’Hagan identifies Nancy’s style as belonging to the “posh aesthetic”. The novels are consciously privileged – it is unmistakable. This quality, O’Hagan claims, “Appeals to readers who want life’s profundities to scatter on the wind like handfuls of confetti.”

To-be readers in bookshops – that is, those that have not been kindly gifted a Mitford novel by a discerning friend or relative – might baulk at the prospect of one of Nancy’s novels. A series of books that consciously prod the upper echelons of society? In this climate? No thank you. Looking past this, the joy of the novels is found in the blinding, piercing satire – in the mocking of her sisters, friends and extended family.

As with all things literary, context will prevail. The “posh aesthetic” has a lot to answer for. O’Hagan claims that for Nancy “everyone is impersonatable”, which they are. She makes it her business to mortify her sisters in Wigs on the Green, satirizing without limit Diana’s second husband Sir Oswald Mosley. In June 1935, writing to Diana, she puts up a defence: “it would be absurd to suppose that anyone who was intellectually or emotionally convinced of the truths of Fascism could be influenced against the movement by such a book.”

Nancy Mitford’s prose was built to surpass the world’s hideous nature with comic tolerance. Her teasing forms alliances that lessen the pain and suffering, from which she was not exempt. To shriek – as the Mitford girls did – was to usurp sadness. It is “so much more stylish to laugh at death,” Andrew O’Hagan claims, encapsulating the appeal. Nancy’s protagonist Linda Radlett in The Pursuit of Love dies on the penultimate page of the book. It is dealt with economically, and moved on from. “It killed her” is sufficient. A parallel is found in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, published in 1930. Simon Balcairn, gossip columnist and wet-blanket aristo, commits suicide. Waugh writes matter-of-factly of this event: “but soon he fell into a coma and presently died”. The next paragraph notes a family resemblance in death, before the chapter ends. In the next, a new gossip columnist is appointed. Life goes on.

In 1932, aged twenty-eight, Nancy sat down to pen her second novel, Christmas Pudding. Wise beyond her years, on life, love and its necessary accoutrements, she presents her thesis on the world’s woes. Imagine, if you will, this read in her voice:

“The trouble is that people seem to expect happiness in life. I can’t imagine why; but they do. They are unhappy before they marry, and they imagine to themselves that the reason of their unhappiness will be removed when they are married. When it isn’t they blame the other person, which is clearly absurd. I believe that is what generally starts the trouble.”

The solution to this goes unmentioned, but we mustn’t be ungrateful. Nancy Mitford’s talents were not limited to the telling of dangerously close-to-home truths. Too often one searches in vain for just the right way of putting it, and more often than not it is found inside a Nancy novel. She nails emotion through her own experience, limited though some may claim it was. She had when writing, no qualifications – no literary agenda. She just wrote.

“She was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love. Twice in her life she had mistaken something else for it; it was like seeing somebody in the street who you think is a friend, you whistle and wave and run after him, but it is only not the friend, but not even very like him. A few minutes later the real friend appears in view, and then you can’t imagine how you ever mistook that other person for him.’

It is only right to thank the eldest Mitford sister, Nancy, born 24th of November 1904, for all that she has given to bookshelves worldwide.

Oh, and happy birthday.

Nancy Mitford, 24th November 1904 – 30th June 1973

Eleanor Doughty is a freelance writer whose work can be found most often in the Daily Telegraph. She has been described as “an absolute scream” but admits this might be open to interpretation.

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