Posts Tagged ‘Nancy Mitford’


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.

Nancy Mitford

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Someone bought me this lovely edition of Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding from Capuchin Classics, and I have to confess I can’t remember who it was, I purposely saved it to read over Christmas, and I’m so glad that I did. I began reading it in the quiet of Christmas morning, before the big family Christmas lunch and present unwrapping that takes over the rest of the day. It was a perfect, light accompaniment to Christmas, and one I shall be keeping to read again one day.

While Christmas Pudding certainly doesn’t show Nancy Mitford at the height of her deliciously, sharp brilliance, there is still a delightful Mitfordian absurdity about this, her second novel, which makes it utterly readable. There is in fact something slightly Woodehousian about this society comedy, in which Christmas actually only plays a very small part. For here we have an impoverished writer, an infamous and enormously popular society beauty in her mid-forties, a young Etonian baronet, a romantic heiress, a devoted couple with a new baby, an eligible, though slightly dull lord and a slightly terrifying mamma who devotes herself to all things hunting. Bright young things, and landed gentry, a world Nancy knew well, and there is just a hint of Mitford’s bitter streak – but naturally it is suffused with humour.

“If I had a girl I should say to her, ‘Marry for love if you can, it won’t last, but it is a very interesting experience and makes a good beginning in life. Later on, when you marry for money, for heaven’s sake let it be big money. There are no other possible reasons for marrying at all.”

Paul Fotheringay is the writer, his first book Crazy Capers has just been published – to some success – only Paul saw it as a terrible tragedy; the world thinks it the funniest book of the year. Down hearted, Paul is determined to write a book the world will take seriously. Paul is a typical bright young thing, though destined to have to manage on a mere £300 a year, Paul shudders at the idea of real work, and is surrounded by a circle of society friends who know how to party, many of whom are much wealthier than he is. One of Paul’s greatest friends is Amabelle Fortescue a wealthy society beauty, a widow at the centre of society, she has a Cartier account and the much younger Lord Lewes is still annoyingly in love with her. Amabelle, with her great insight, realises at once that Paul has wanted his book to be taken seriously and suggests he try to write a serious historical biography. With Amabelle having taken a house for a couple of months around Christmas near the estate of Compton Bobbin, Paul hits upon the idea of writing the life of Lady Bobbin’s grandmother, a nineteenth century poet. With all the papers and journals of the lady poet at Compton Bobbin, Paul writes to Lady Bobbin requesting permission to study them and write his biography with her blessing.

“Mother, of course, takes a lot of exercise, walks and so on. And every morning she puts on a pair of black silk drawers and a sweater and makes indelicate gestures on the lawn. That’s called Building the Body Beautiful. She’s mad about it.”

Lady Bobbin is a fairly fearsome chatelaine, and master of the fox hunt, refuses absolutely to entertain the idea, dashing Paul’s hopes. Until that is Amabelle comes up with a plan to get Paul into Compton Bobbit in the guise of the young Sir Rodderick (Bobby) Bobbin’s tutor. Bobby another great pal of Amabelle’s is in his last year of Eton, and anxious to avoid the sportsmanlike instruction that his mother wants him to have in order to secure a place at Sandhurst. With Paul and Bobby in cahoots they can both get what they want. Also part of the gang are Sally and Walter Monteath and their new daughter, they are dreadfully poor, very much in love, and exist largely by cadging off wealthy friends, and already plan on hocking some of the christening gifts. Walter and Sally are very much the embodiment of the bright young things, they have little thought for the future, no actual employment, and parents they may be, but they still party fairly hard, until the sun is up.

Safely installed at Compton Bobbin, with Lady Bobbin off hunting every day, Paul is free to examine the papers of Lady Maria Bobbin, while Bobby is able to please himself. Obliged to ride out occasionally to maintain the fiction of Lady Bobbin’s timetable, Paul who is terrified of riding holds on for grim death until out of sight, when he and Bobby retreat gratefully to Amabelle’s temporary adobe next door, to gossip, while a groom is employed to exercise the horses. All this subterfuge is working wonderfully well, until Paul decides he is in love with Bobby’s older sister Philadelphia, who has also caught the eye of the far more eligible Lord Lewes – who in turn has had to finally believe that Amabelle doesn’t want him. Amabelle’s advice is sought, once more, and Amabelle happy to interfere, her experienced eye sees at once what disaster beckons.

“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.”

This may not be Mitford’s brightest or best, but there is still an awful lot to enjoy and delight in. Highland Fling and Pigeon Pie are the two Mitford novels I have yet to read, so I must seek them out one of these days.

Nancy Mitford

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the water beetle

I have been a bit of a Nancy Mitford fan for a long time now. There was a time when I got a tiny bit obsessed by books by or about the Mitford sisters (though Nancy was always my favourite Mitford). Nancy was a famous wit, her sisters were often on the receiving end of her sharp tongue, and she injected a great deal of humour into her most famous novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Those novels of course famously autobiographical, with Nancy disguising her own family in her bunch of hilariously eccentric and often endearing characters. As well as a number of novels, Nancy Mitford also wrote several non-fiction works mainly biographies of French historical figures but she also published two collections of essays.

While mooching around a second hand bookshop on a National Trust property in Devon, I came across The Water Beetle – a 1960’s volume of Mitford essays. As I had just finished a book that morning, I took the opportunity to read it right away.

This essay collection concerns a wide variety of subjects-including portrayals of historical figures, arctic explorers, and pieces inspired by Mitford’s own travels. For me the most engaging pieces were those that concerned Nancy herself. The opening essay – entitled Blor – was pure Mitford joy – anyone who has read Mitford biographies or letter collections will be familiar with that name. Blor was the Mitford nanny – and Nancy’s affectionate portrayal of her here brought back all those childhood stories from those wonderful biographies. The piece entitled Diary of a Visit to Russia 1954 – was fascinating too – and quite hilarious in a very typical Mitford way, saying so very much in this seemingly innocent recount:

(4th June 1954)
I asked to meet some soviet writers, but a message came from the Ministry of culture that the soviet writers had gone to the country, on the 28th May, to write. It seems they are picked up in buses, in alphabetical order (as it were Mauriac, Maurois, Mitford, Mithois) and carted off to a dacha, where they are obliged to show up 2000 words a day during the whole summer”

(from Diary of a Visit to Russia 1954)

I was surprised just how enthralling and poignant I found Mitford’ essay A Bad Time, about the men involved in Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. The recount of preparations, personalities and exploration are given a typical Mitford makeover – but for me made for great reading.

“Life during the first winter was very pleasant. Before turning in for good they had done several gruelling marches, laying stores in depots along the route of the Polar journey; they felt they needed and had earned a rest. Their only complaint was there were too many lectures; Scott insisted on at least three a week and they seem to have bored the others considerably – except for Ponting’s magic lantern slides of Japan. A gramophone and a pianola provided background music and there was a constant flow of witticisms which one assumes to have been unprintable until one learns that Dr Wilson would leave the company if a coarse word was spoken.”

(from A Bad time – 1962)

Among other things, included in this collection, are Mitford’s thoughts on reading, descriptions of French country life, tourists in Torcello and a memorable portrait of Augustus Hare who as a young boy had been teased and tortured by cruel relations, had ended up a writer of travel books, a snob and toady of a wealthy old woman. Overall this is a lovely little collection that will appeal to Mitford fans, a couple of the later pieces rather bored me if I am honest, but the collection is very definitely worth reading for three or four really superb pieces alone. This edition comes with some rather nice illustrations by Osbert Lancaster, which I really would have liked more of.

Nancy Mitford

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pursuit of love

I have had something of a Mitford addiction in the past – reading many, though not all, of Nancy’s novels and devouring several of the many books written about this extraordinary family. The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate are of course Nancy Mitford’s best known novels, and I have wanted to re-read them for some time.
In this novel undoubtedly her most autobiographical novel Nancy Mitford used her famous wit to lift the lid on the absurdities of aristocratic life – particularly the aristocratic life of the Mitford family.
Fanny – our narrator – having been dumped by her mother The Bolter (a thinly disguised Lady Idina Sackville) has been brought up by her aunt Emily, and spends holidays with her cousins the Radletts at Alconleigh a large uncomfortable house in the country. Aunt Sadie – sister to Emily and The Bolter is the vague mother to seven children. Uncle Matthew (again a thinly disguised Lord Redesdale – Nancy’s father) roars and stomps around the estate, hunting is his favourite occupation, and so when fox hunting is out of season he hunts the children instead. Constantly railing against anything he sees as foreign or anti British Uncle Matthew, dreadfully un-pc and terrifying to the children, is really quite hilarious.

“Uncle Matthew went with Aunt Sadie and Linda on one occasion to a Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet. It was not a success. He cried copiously, and went into a furious rage because it ended badly. “All the fault of that damned padre,” he kept saying on the way home, still wiping his eyes. “That fella, what’s his name, Romeo, might have known a blasted papist would mess up the whole thing. Silly old fool of a nurse too, I bet she was an R.C dismal old bitch.”

Life at Alconleigh is one of large unheated rooms, teasing and gossiping in the hons cupboard – the one warm place in the house. The Radlett children are unschooled, as Uncle Matthew doesn’t believe in schools, and so they are instead the charges of a governess. Of the Raddlett children Linda is the one closest to Fanny, a hopeless romantic, she is destined to marry badly twice before finding the love of her life. Growing up with her cousins running slightly wild at Alconleigh –when not living quietly with her dear Aunt Emily, Fanny learns about love through Linda, before marrying her own quiet Oxford Don.

“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 not 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.”

Linda lives outside the conventions of the day – just as Nancy’s sister Diana had – and horrifies her parents when her first marriage ends. Yet she resolutely pursues her own idea of love, finding it eventually in Paris as the world lies on the brink of war.
I find The Pursuit of love a wonderfully funny and touching novel, Nancy Mitford was a famous tease and in The Pursuit of Love she teases wonderfully, using her own wonderfully eccentric family as the model for her characters.

Nancy Mitford


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