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Excerpted from the Forward
In her 1954 biography of Madame de Pompadour, the famous mistress of French King Louis XV, Nancy Mitford writes, “Then there were the hours of chat, and here Madame de Pompadour had an enormous asset in his eyes; she was very funny. Hitherto the King’s mistresses had told few jokes and the Queen even fewer; he had never known that particularly delightful relationship of sex mixed up with laughter.” In Madame de Pompadour, surely Nancy Mitford’s devoted readers recognize the author herself. She might be restrained by custom (and the censor) from writing much about sex, but she excels at mixing romance with laughter, and at adding goodly portions of astute observation, neat character drawing, and daring opinions. Christmas Pudding (published in 1932, when Mitford was twenty-eight) and Pigeon Pie, written in the last months of 1939 and published in 1940, are not as well known as works Mitford wrote after the war, such as Love in a Cold Climate, but they foreshadow Mitford’s mastery of the comic form and her light but expert style. They also explore interesting issues of class and fashion, and they excavate many of the traditions of English comic form. But, most important, they are fun to read, which was likely Mitford’s dearest intention.
Nancy Mitford came by her literary talent legitimately. Her paternal grandfather, the first Lord Redesdale, wrote two volumes about his adventures in the British Foreign Service, stationed in, among other places, St. Petersburg, Beijing, and Japan. Her maternal grandfather, Thomas Gibson Bowles, founded the original British version of Vanity Fair magazine (1868–1914) and wrote many of its articles. Mitford herself was an avid reader as a child who, according to her friend and biographer Harold Acton, made obsessive use of her father’s richly endowed library. (Her father, the second Lord Redesdale, bragged that he had only read one book in his life, Jack London’s White Fang, which he maintained was “so frightfully good I’ve never bothered to read another.”) Mitford was educated mostly at home, but she was sent to a finishing school when she was sixteen. One of the best opportunities school offered was a spring trip with a group of other girls to Paris, Rome, and Venice. Mitford made excellent use of her chance—she wrote copious and amusing letters to her mother and other friends. Subsequently, after a rather dull year of “coming out” (into London society), she moved into her family’s house in London and emerged as a significant member of the 1920s “Bright Young Things” generation, a fashionable, notorious group of friends that also included writers Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, John Betjeman, and Sacheverell Sitwell.
In spite of her prosperous upper-class background, Mitford started out like most young authors—she had no source of income and turned to writing articles for a few pounds each for Vogue, Harper’s, and other popular magazines. At one point she was offered a gossip column for The Tatler, which she declined, but she did accept a position writing a column for The Lady: “A sort of running commentary of current events. . . . They are sending me to everything free, the Opera, the Shakespeare festival at Stratford, etc.”* The pay was five and a half pounds per week (about four hundred dollars in 2013 currency).
Novels had never been Mitford’s greatest reading pleasure— for that she preferred nonfiction, especially the works of Thomas Carlyle (also a great favorite of Charles Dickens) and Thomas Babington Macaulay—but her life of parties and adventures proved to be excellent fodder for her first work of fiction, Highland Fling (1931), and her second, Christmas Pudding (1932). She felt no hesitation about transforming the world in which she lived and the people she knew into literary scenes and characters (a great English tradition), but she did not have the same sort of literary aspirations as her friend Evelyn Waugh. She wrote for money, and also for her own enjoyment. Her sister Jessica reports, “For months, Nancy had sat giggling by the drawing room fire, her curiously triangular green eyes flashing with amusement, while her thin pen flew along the lines of a child’s exercise book.”Acton, who was then also living in London, reports that Mitford later was ashamed of her first novel, but it was a commercial success: “in a Christmas firecracker way, it was effective,” and it sold well. Nancy wrote to Acton, “I had a letter from an aged friend of mama’s saying that the silliness of my young people is only equalled by their vulgarity and that if by writing this I intend to devastate and lay waste to such society I am undoubtedly performing a service to mankind.”
Mitford’s romantic affairs were not going well, but they afforded her plenty of inspiration. She had a long and unsuccessful relationship with her first love, Hamish St. Clair-Erskine, who led an intimidatingly aggressive life as a bon vivant (in one letter she compared him to Lord Byron). None of her friends approved of the relationship. When she received some money from the sale of Highland Fling and decided to save it for her wedding, Evelyn Waugh told her, “Don’t save it, dress better and catch a better man.” In early 1931, Hamish was sent to America by his parents, much to Mitford’s dismay: “How can I possibly write a funny book in the next six months . . . when I’ve got practically a pain from being miserable and cry in buses quite continually?” She had, however, met an interesting woman, who was possibly the inspiration for Amabelle in Christmas Pudding, a “sweet and divine old tart called Madame de P. . . . She is nice and has lovely parties.” And not only was Hamish unfaithful; a year later, after his return from America, he went to Ireland and lost fifty pounds (equivalent to about thirty-eight hundred dollars today) betting on a horse. Mitford sent him twenty pounds, complaining that she had to use savings she had been planning to spend on clothing (“what is rather galling is that he always grumbles at me being so inexpensively dressed”). In the same letter, she remarks, “The book [Christmas Pudding] is rather good you know if only I can ever finish it.”
Christmas Pudding uses a similar premise to Highland Fling: a group of mismatched characters, young and old, find themselves thrown together at a country house for the Christmas season. The closest it has to a protagonist is Paul Fotheringay, who has just published a novel, “pouring forth into it all the bitterness of a bitter nature,” only to have it become a tremendous success, hailed for its humor. Paul’s destined beloved, Philadelphia Bobbin, has had something of the same “coming out” season as, perhaps, her author did. Now back home in the country, she “sat in her mother’s drawing room and looked at the fire. She hoped that death would prove less dull and boring than life.” Paul and Philadelphia must be brought together, and Mitford does this by means of Philadelphia’s brother, Bobby, who is still at Eton, and therefore about seventeen years old, and whose personality Nancy based on Hamish. Unbeknownst to his mother, Lady Bobbin—a foxhunting countrywoman with many horses and no patience for urbanity or much else—Bobby is planning his cosmopolitan future, to be lived, most decidedly, indoors.
Christmas Pudding centers on a party, at which each character arrives in some difficulty. Paul is pretending to be a tutor for Bobby in order to gain access to the letters of a Bobbin ancestress, whose writing might be sentimental and conventional enough to shift the tone of his literary career. Lady Bobbin can’t go hunting because of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in her parish. The benign Amabelle, a woman of a certain age who has been married and divorced many times, is looking for true love, or maybe just a comfortable home. Almost everyone has secrets that must be kept from at least some of the other characters.
Mitford always excels at the amusing paradox: success is not what a character thought it would be, true love and a happy marriage don’t necessarily go together, and it is possible to “adore that ironwork that looks like cardboard meant to look like ironwork.” In her way, Mitford explores issues of class, money, happiness, and respectability that Fielding, Dickens, and Trollope also examined, but, light as it is, Christmas Pudding reflects the changes that had been wrought upon English society; as befits a working woman living on her own in the recently minted twentieth century, Mitford is skeptical about the traditional happy ending that brings money and love together at the altar. Some couples in Christmas Pudding have money, others have love, but no one gets both. That this should be the case does not result in bitterness but practicality; of greater importance to her characters than domestic arrangements is a wide circle of amusing friends.
In 1933, she gave up on Hamish and took up with a young man named Peter Rodd. They were married on December 4. Rodd was an Oxford graduate and the opposite of a party animal; he was a lover of information and politics and appeared to have the chance of a promising career in any field, but he was slow to choose one. Eventually, he threw himself into the cause of the Spanish Civil War (July 1935–April 1939). He wasn’t the only one—Nancy’s sister Jessica Mitford, only nineteen, eloped with her second cousin Esmond Romilly, himself only seventeen, to Spain, where he served as a war correspondent for an anti-Franco London newspaper, the Daily Chronicle. In the first half of 1939, Nancy followed Rodd to Perpignan, France, where he was helping with the Spanish refugee effort. She wrote about it in letters and also later gave her experiences to the character Linda in her novel The Pursuit of Love. She honored her husband’s service, but the flood of refugees was both overwhelming and frightening, and Rodd was so preoccupied with them that he did not pay much attention to his wife, which was becoming a troubling pattern.
Soon after she returned to England, Germany invaded Poland, and the English declared war. Every Mitford had political opinions—Jessica became a communist; another sister, Unity, was a notorious intimate of Adolf Hitler; and a third sister, Diana, was married to the head of the British Union of Fascists. Nancy attempted to explore some of these issues in her 1935 novel, Wigs on the Green, her least successful effort, which led to a falling out with Diana over her mockery of fascism. By the fall of 1939, the die had been cast, but military operations had not begun—the last few months of 1939 and the first few months of 1940 became known as “the Phoney War.”
In late 1939, Mitford wrote Pigeon Pie, and it was published in May of 1940, an almost unexcelled example of bad timing for a comic novel, which Mitford acknowledged in a new dedication in a postwar edition. However, in Pigeon Pie she makes excellent use of the material at hand. It is in many ways an advance over her first three novels, and an excellent satire of the response of the former Bright Young Things to an imminent and frightening war.
Mitford’s protagonist is Sophia Garfield, who expects war, and who thinks she knows what it will be like—the end of the world. But she learns about it only through a newspaper billboard, and life continues much as usual, except that a “nasty lady” on the train to London says, “You mark my words. This will mean a shilling on the income tax.” Sophia is more selfless. She volunteers at a first aid post, though she is not of much use—she merely answers the phone and keeps her eyes open. Sophia’s life is complex: she is married to a wealthy man whom she doesn’t love, who has opened the family home to a group of Bible-thumpers from the United States. She is having an off-and-on affair with an old friend, which she knows will never end in marriage. Her maid is German, and two of her young friends work in the Foreign Office and are, to some degree, in charge of the war effort. The friend she is fondest of, Sir Ivor King, the King of Song, is a bald, world-renowned singer with “a remarkable collection of wigs,” whom the Foreign Office would like to enlist in a radio propaganda effort. All of her friends join the war effort, but, for now, most of their efforts go into self-promotion; one of her women friends, whom Sophia has known since they were children, passes herself off as a Russian princess and Mata Hari–like spy. Mitford winds up an amusing and neatly twisted plot in which Sophia uncovers a conspiracy.
Some of the best parts of Pigeon Pie are Sophia’s observations. Of the Phoney War she says, “The party looked like being a flop, and everyone was becoming very much bored, especially the Americans who are so fond of blood and entrails. They were longing for the show, and with savage taunts, like boys at a bullbaiting from behind safe-bars, they urged that it should begin at once.” When suspicious things begin to happen at the first aid post, Sophia notices them piecemeal, and then begins to put them together. Of course she foils the enemy, but how she does it is both savvy and amusing.
By September 1940, the war had commenced in earnest, and Mitford was writing letters about both her own and her husband’s travails: attempts to save orphaned children, friends losing their homes, narrow escapes from bombs falling close at hand. Acton reports on Mitford’s general good humor through the war: “When so many mooched about with long faces Nancy’s resolute cheerfulness was a tonic. . . . She appeared younger than her age and her humour had the gaiety of girlhood.” In 1945, at age forty-one, she finished The Pursuit of Love, which was an instant hit. Her marriage was falling apart, her sister Unity had attempted suicide, her sister Diana had spent a scandalous three years in prison as a Nazi sympathizer, and her only brother, Tom, had been killed in Burma. But Nancy was in receipt of a nice sum of money, and she bought a share in a bookshop and decided to move to Paris.
Over the next thirty-eight years, Mitford wrote three more novels (Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing, and Don’t Tell Alfred). Her last four novels were more complex and sophisticated than her first four—she gained a deeper understanding of her characters and the world that spawned them. Her style remained realistic and crystal clear, meaning that her satire goes down smoothly but with the bite of intelligence. Her love life remained irregular; she and Rodd separated and were divorced, and she had a long affair with a prominent French military and government official. She continued to be known as one of the famous, or notorious, Mitford clan.
According to Acton, France was where her literary career flowered, where she wrote in the form she had always preferred. After translating the seminal French novel The Princess of Cleves into English in 1951, she wrote four biographies—Madame de Pompadour (1954), Voltaire in Love (1957), The Sun King (1966), and Frederick the Great (1970)—and published a book of essays, The Water Beetle, in 1962. Her biographies are knowledgeable, but chatty and amusing, giving the reader a sense, similar to that in the novels, of coming to know Mitford’s subjects personally. They are not as “light” as the novels, but the novels themselves are not in fact as light as Mitford’s tone allows the reader to make them. They are perceptive about psychology and history, and they allow different voices to compete on stage; they are a record of their times and beautifully wrought works of art, as well.