Pigeon Pie was given to me very recently, and it seemed to be just what the doctor ordered, so I couldn’t help but start reading it almost straight away.
Written during the first few months of the second world war – its tone is tongue-in-cheek and satirical. Mitford could not then have known the terrible catastrophic toll the war would take. Britain was in the throes of what came to be known as the phoney war. In a note added to the beginning of this novel in 1951 – Nancy Mitford urges readers of the second edition to remember that the novel was written before Christmas 1939, published on the 6th May 1940 it was…
“an early and unimportant casualty of the real war which was then beginning”
(Nancy Mitford Paris, 1951)
However, Nancy Mitford was a great wit, a famous tease – she could winkle out the humour in most situations. Later of course she came to take the war very seriously indeed – and was instrumental in having her own sister (Diana Moseley) and her brother-in-law interned.
Pigeon Pie is not Nancy Mitford’s best novel, but it is as entertaining and engaging, as I always find her to be.
Lady Sophia Garfield thought she knew what the outbreak of war would be like, the reality seemed in fact rather disappointing. Wanting to do something for her country – and vying to outdo her life-long enemy Olga Gogothsky – nee Baby Bagg – she had bagged herself a prince and now affects the role of foreign princess – Sophia dreams of becoming a spy. Married to dull Luke, Sophia is not unhappy, she realises she no longer loves her husband, but consoles herself with the dashing Rudolph, practically under her husband’s nose. Irritated by her German maid Greta – wishing she could just sack her – Sophia loves her home comforts, her French bulldog Milly and tea at the Ritz. The third member of this far from conventional household is Florence, a member of the Boston Brotherhood, a religious organisation, that Sophia’s husband has been involved with for a few years.
“Sophia and Rudolph loved each other very much. This does not mean that it had ever occurred to them to alter the present situation, which seemed exactly to suit all parties; Rudolph was unable to visualize himself a married man, and Sophia feared that divorce, re-marriage and subsequent poverty would not bring out the best in her character. As for Luke, he took up with a …soulmate called Florence, and was perfectly contented with matters as they stood.”
Despite really wanting to be a beautiful, female spy Sophia finds herself allocated to a first aid post. In these, quiet days of the phoney war – there are an awful lot of practise runs. Sophia is sure there must be spies all over the place, and her position at the first aid post provides her with the perfect opportunity of rooting them out. She is convinced that she must learn to wink in Morse code as soon as possible and sets about practising while at the first aid post.
There is shock and embarrassment when it is revealed that Sophia’s godfather, singer Ivor King – is broadcasting nightly from Germany having thrown his lot in with the enemy. His broadcasts so absurdly entertaining that no one thinks of missing one.
Having dreamt of being a beautiful, female spy, Sophie is certainly not expecting to unearth a den of espionage right under her nose. Finding an agent in a wardrobe, a cryptic message written in pencil on the shell of her morning boiled egg, Sophia’s a little slow in realising exactly what is going on. Her maid appears to have disappeared, and then her beloved bull-dog is held hostage. Friends it seems may not after all be friends, and Sophia can’t be sure who to trust.
“Sophia began on her egg and was attacking it with vigour when she saw that something was written on it in pencil. Not hard-boiled, she hoped. Not at all. The writing was extremely faint but she could make out the word AGONY followed by 22.
Sophia was now in agony, for this must be, of course, a code. She knew that spies and counter-spies had the most peculiar ways of communicating with each other, winking in Morse and so on; writing on eggs would be everyday work for them.”
With Luke abroad, and Rudolph bored stupid by daft stories of female spies told to him by Olga, who can Sophia get to help?
This is all delightfully done – Sophia is really quite hilarious – Mitford characters are quite infectious I find. It doesn’t do to take all this too seriously – it is simply all rather jolly good fun.