Is Nancy Mitford no longer understood?

 2nd February, 2009

When the loo-paper gets thicker and the writing-paper gets thinner, it’s always a bad sign at home.

Mitford, Nancy . Love in a Cold Climate. Hamish Hamilton, 1949 (Penguin, 2010, p. 172)

It is pretty standard, nowadays, to denigrate her as frivolous and out of touch, but I’ve always had a sneaking liking for Nancy Mitford, easily the loveliest of the Mitford sisters. Conventional modern Britain has obviously lost sight of a lot of the values that underly her books and are no longer understood in a country where Mr. Blair and the late Princess of Wales are held up as role-models. A lot of these contemporary prejudices have to do, of course, with her choice of vocabulary, well-illustrated, I think, in the above sentence taken from Love in a Cold Climate, which I have just finished reading, and that manages to refer to both loos and writing-paper. But there is more to Nancy Mitford than that. Two factors stand out in my own personal experience.

First, I am attracted, of course, by her fondness for France, where she lived for the last thirty years or so of her life, which is something that obviously binds me to her: it is fascinating how France has always featured prominently in the lives and thoughts of some of England’s greatest sons, the first Duke of Wellington being, perhaps, the most striking example. Nancy Mitford’s relationship with Gaston Palewski, whom I count as one of the most prominent actors of France’s reconstruction in the post-war period, is of course echoed in this book by the character of Sauveterre, by whom the narrator is captivated at the beginning of the story. But the book is dotted with innumerable, accurate, yet fundamentally totally English instances of observation of the intricacies of post-war French society.

The second reason why I like Nancy Mitford is the detachment with which she viewed the England in which she grew up: her point of view was never one of rejection—she was English to the core—but it was open-minded and her books show a deep understanding of the social structures and mannerisms of England in that period, something which those who have reviewed her work fail to understand. That she is perfectly aware of the absurdities of a system does not mean it has to be overturned, as this passage illustrates:

Nervous shock, said Davey. I don’t suppose she’s ever had a death so near to her before.

Oh yes she has, said Jassy. Ranger.

Dogs aren’t exactly the same as human beings, my dear Jassy.

But to the Radletts, they were exactly the same, except that to them dogs on the whole had more reality than people.

Ibid. (111)

Nancy Mitford’s writing, in that sense, is hardly just frivolous. It implicitly embodies a very English approach to the issues of the day: her emphasis is on the value of an age-old system miraculously maintained where it had vanished elsewhere combined with an insider’s view of its absurdities and the overall conviction that social structures are, on balance best left untouched but should not be taken too seriously.

English too is her approach to love-making. While important, it is not something to get carried away with:

I’ve loved him ever since I can remember. Oh, Fanny—isn’t being happy wonderful?

Ibid. (129)

I felt just the same myself and was able to agree with all my heart. But her happiness had a curiously staid quality, and her love seemed less like the usual enchanted rapture of old establishment, love which does not need to assert itself by continually meeting, corresponding with and talking about its object, but which takes itself, as well as his response, for granted.

Two opposing characters in Love in a Cold Climate, illustrate this observant, wittily detached, modern yet ultimately sympathetic approach: Uncle Matthew, the archetypal, old-fashioned, prejudiced and red-faced English country squire, whose life seems to revolve principally around his pet hates — anything foreign, cissies, intellectuals and Socialists — and Cedric, a very modern, exotic figure, probably inspired by Hamish St Clair-Erskine, a Scottish folle whom Nancy Mitford had rather hopelessly dated in the early 1930s.

I also confess a weakness for Nancy Mitford’s style: totally unpretentious, always elegant and with a choice of vocabulary for which she has grown famous, the result of breeding, good taste and sound judgment. Critics tend to focus on it as a reflection on a class-system, instead of looking at it for what it really is: the embodiment of early twentieth-century England at its very best.