Decades Later, Nancy Mitford’s Novels Resonate

A mid-20th century author’s insights on intimacy and politics are relatable and reassuring even today

Decades Later, Nancy Mitford’s Novels Resonate
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

Family strife and divisions over politics and world affairs. Politicians and world leaders ranging from the incompetent to the bumbling to the dangerous. Looming wars and conflicts. Inflation. The rich-poor divide. Sometimes it can be a challenge differentiating between the world events occurring around the time Nancy Mitford wrote her novels, which came of age after two world wars, and the events of the past couple of years, at least when it comes to the zeitgeist.

As an American living in Germany, married to a European citizen with small children, sometimes it all can feel a bit overwhelming. I find a lot of solace in reaching for a novel or a story that speaks to me in some way, even if it was written decades prior. During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Capitol insurrection and Brexit, I kept finding myself returning time and time again to Mitford’s work, because the novels are simultaneously relatable and strangely reassuring even in the most stressful and uncertain times.

Best known for her insightful and richly witty send-ups of love and romance, “The Pursuit of Love” and “Love in a Cold Climate,” Mitford also produced insightful journalistic works and wrote a number of full-length books during the 1930s and 1940s that dealt with similar subjects, but with heavier political and social satire and content. Though some of her work did not necessarily age well, in part due to the nature of the now-anachronistic satire, they make for valuable reading for their social commentary and putting a spotlight on a certain time and place that’s often forgotten. The old hoary chestnut of history repeating itself can be starkly apparent in her written work, but what makes her prose special is its dark yet optimistic dry wit and uncanny observations of human folly.

Though I am not British myself, Mitford’s sensibility has always struck a chord with me through our shared experiences in trans-Atlantic circles and relationships, and her entire latter life was spent in France, so a life away from home country is something I also deeply identify with. I have lived in Germany for many years now and have no plans to return to the United States permanently, similar to Mitford’s choice to spend her last decades almost exclusively in Paris.

Born into an old-money aristocratic English family in 1904, Nancy Mitford was the oldest child of seven children who would go on to become internationally known for their escapades, writings and political affiliations (except perhaps for poor Tom, the only son, who was killed fighting in World War II). Mention the name Mitford to literary buffs, history nerds and the Old Left from before the 1960s, and you’ll get knowing nods and enthusiastic responses. From muckraking journalism to Fascist marches, from classic novels to becoming one of Britain’s premier experts in raising chickens, the Mitford siblings did it all, making the headlines any number of times during the ’30s, ’40s and beyond. I myself fell head over heels into the world of Mitford; whether it was often-uproarious correspondence between the sisters or the various scandals nearly every Mitford child faced at one point or another throughout their adolescence and adulthood. In today’s culture of celebrity shaming and splashy tabloid headlines, the Mitford sisters would have been sure to be just as frequently reported upon as they were in their heyday.

In Pigeon Pie, written in the earliest days of World War Two, Mitford gives us a darkly humorous spy novel which she was later to regret in some ways, (similar to her later feelings on Wigs on the Green, which we’ll visit later) as the results of the war as it progressed were naturally anything but humorous. It’s a campy read featuring over-the-top German spies, a British pop star, and a religious cult. The novel’s main character, Sophia, has a few revelations throughout the novel, but altogether the book’s tone is generally light-hearted and laced with mockery. Nevertheless, whenever I turn to Pigeon Pie, despite its occasional problematic moments of sardonic attempts at comedy, a lot of its characters and dialogue still parallel strongly with current events. For instance, this quote that still poignantly resonates:

“Carlyle has said that identity of sentiment but difference of opinion are the known elements of pleasant dialogue. The dialogue in many English homes at that time was very far from pleasant.”

With this quotation Mitford was referencing British opinion on the possibility of war in the United Kingdom, but it felt like another connection drawn between families in the United States and the United Kingdom in 2021: families where the “Trumpers” or the supporters of Brexit are sometimes unable to communicate with fellow family members who share other viewpoints, and still more exacerbated by COVID denial and anti-vaccination sentiment. There are families for whom the “difference of opinion” is simply too much, and the ties are severed, or at best severely strained. I’ve personally known families back in my home country of the United States where parents and children have ceased communicating with one another completely due to political disagreements or pandemic-related subjects.

As a result, her books written both before and after World War Two really hit home for me in regards to family dynamics. Though my own immediate family is (mostly) fairly like-minded when it comes to politics, I have many friends and acquaintances who have experienced something rather different since 2016. Parents and children, to use a Mitford phrasing, may not be “on speakers” over some of these issues and the wounds might be lifelong.

Nancy was no stranger to this particular situation herself, because that is precisely what went on in the Mitford family before the outbreak of World War II. She and her feisty and intelligent sisters had some radically different views when it came to politics, not to mention their parents’ own views. To give a brief rundown of the Mitford family pre-war dynamics: One daughter was a member of the British Union of Fascists (Diana), another a Nazi (Unity), a third a Communist (Jessica) and yet another a dedicated Conservative (Deborah, although not till a bit later on). Pamela and Tom remained relatively neutral, although Tom had both Nazi and antifascist friends and sympathies. He also fought in the war, tragically going missing in action.

Initially, Mitford mother Sydney was a Nazi sympathizer and traveled to Germany several times to visit Diana and Unity there, which put her in conflict with the Mitford father David, who was avidly against Germany as an entity from the start. Nancy herself was an anti-Nazi with some vague socialist leanings, but she was not as intense in her views as activist Jessica (who also later became a muckraking journalist) and certainly nowhere near as politically involved.

Dogmatic political ideals and beliefs combined with strong personalities caused a lifelong rift between Jessica and Diana. After Unity made a suicide attempt when war was declared between England and Germany, Jessica’s anger about the war was directed toward Diana and permanently exacerbated when her husband, Esmond Romilly, was killed fighting for Canada in 1941. Diana and her husband, Oswald Mosley, the head of the British Union of Fascists, spent a large chunk of World War II imprisoned in England. She stuck by Mosley’s side for the rest of her life. Jessica ceased to speak and communicate with Diana and avoided any personal contact with her for the rest of their lives, with a brief exception when they took care of Nancy in her final days dying of cancer.

Another topic that often comes up in Nancy Mitford’s works is nationalism and the status of immigrants, a literary exploration that captures my interest. Having chosen to spend my life in a different country — Germany — as an essentially permanent foreigner while my children grow up completely integrated and fluent in the local language from the get-go, I’m drawn to these themes, particularly in novels written decades prior. Particularly as an American living on the European continent, where many people tend to be relatively immersed in my home country’s politics, I enjoy reading Mitford’s takes on how Brits were viewed abroad and how Americans were viewed in England in the 1930s and ’40s. During the years that Nancy was writing, nationalism and immigration were hot-button topics throughout Europe and the United States; they continue to be so to this day.

This quote jumped out at me during a re-read of one of Mitford’s novels recently:

Patriotism is one of the primitive virtues of mankind. Allow it to atrophy and much that is valuable in human nature must perish…respect for parents, love of the home, veneration of the marriage tie, are all at a discount in England to-day, society is rotten with vice, selfishness and indolence.

While this remark could easily have come out of the mouth of a modern-day politician espousing the values of Brexit (or simply substitute the United States for England for an American equivalent), it’s actually part of a speech from Mitford’s satirical novel “Wigs on the Green,” written in pre-World War Two England as a send-off of British Fascists and Nazi sympathizers.

In the novel, two young urban men come down to a British countryside village to pursue love — or rather, to be quite frank, marriage for money. On their quest, they meet Eugenia Malmains, a young heiress and devotee of the Union Jack Party. Eugenia’s character is a send-up of Nancy’s sisters Unity and Diana, who were devoted respectively to Hitler and Oswald Mosley and their obsession and loyalty with the fascist movements in the early ’30s. The main characters are drawn in to join the Union Jack Party, and the novel ends with an intentionally ridiculous battle between the party members and the local Marxists. Nancy later did not want the novel to be reprinted, as her sister Unity attempted suicide on the eve of war between Britain and Germany, and she felt that it was simply hitting too close to home and lacking good taste for its further publication. However, the novel was republished years after Nancy’s death, and it’s a fascinating read.

The novel sheds light not only on how so many Brits at the time were fascinated and sometimes even seduced by local or foreign fascist movements but also how difficult it was for many to take extreme politics seriously. This seemed poignant to me during my re-reading of the novel, as so many of today’s extremist movements are homegrown, like the Proud Boys in the United States or the so-called “Querdenker” in Germany, my adopted country.

While Nancy was an ardent Francophile with some general leftist tendencies, her primary strength and talent was her pen, and she was not as directly politically involved as some of her siblings. Nevertheless, she found a way to skewer everyone on the political spectrum, which I’ve found lacking in a lot of contemporary literature and journalism. While her social milieu was predominantly well-educated British and French upper-class society, she was able to turn a sharply observant eye on societal flaws and faux pas. Consider this rollicking repartee from “Love in a Cold Climate”:

“Nonsense,” said Aunt Sadie, who believed in no illness except appendicitis. “There’s nothing wrong with Polly, she needs a husband, that’s all.”

“Oh! How like a woman!” said Davey. “Sex, my dear Sadie, is not a sovereign cure for everything, you know. I only wish it were.”

“I didn’t mean sex at all,” said my aunt, very much put out by this interpretation.

Nancy occasionally makes reference via fictional characters in her works to her mother’s extremely alternative medical beliefs, which even for their time were generally considered very much out of the box. She refused to vaccinate any of the children for fear of putting toxic materials in “the Good Body,” which in her mind was capable of healing itself of very nearly anything. The children were served whole-grain bread (she felt that white bread was a “dead bread”) and were not given pork products as per the Old Testament. Doctors were brought in for an appendectomy or broken arm, but she was noted for pouring out the prescribed medications as soon as they left. Overall, the children pulled through, but perhaps relevant to the current COVID climate and its divisions and effects within families, there was one particularly notable result of Sydney’s health policies. Since daughter Jessica had never been vaccinated against measles and also had no immunity to it from childhood from contracting it either, when her 4-month-old daughter Julia caught measles, the nurse reassured Jessica that the baby would have protection from breastmilk antibodies, assuming that Jessica had either been vaccinated against measles or developed immunity from having it as a child. Unfortunately, since neither were the case, Julia had no such protection and succumbed.

As a general rule, Nancy Mitford tended to leave no stone unturned when it came to a bit of roasting, particularly with respect to issues from within her own family. The Mitfords were noted for their “roaring” at each other’s quirks and interests. Aunt Sadie was a fictional version of her mother Sydney, and she came under Nancy’s (occasionally cruel) ink in a number of her novels. While the Mitford family wasn’t always particularly fond of being caricatured in Nancy’s books, as well as Jessica Mitford’s famed memoir Hons and Rebels, it certainly helped to immortalize them in literary canon.

Mitford had a subversive talent for exposing the general lack of humor of any extremist political movement, as displayed here by this brief dialogue from Wigs on the Green:

“Hail!” she cried, throwing up her arm in the Social Unionist salute. “Snow,” replied Noel, laughing immoderately at this very poor joke. Eugenia regarded him with lowering brow.”

As evidenced time and time again by politicians and their followers for whom satire is perhaps too foreign and French of a term, they excel taking one’s self and dogmatic beliefs to an extreme degree of over-the-top sincerity. To be frank, one of the things that I think is sorely missed from other writers of Mitford’s caliber, is the general lack of parody and the ability to see the flaws in one’s own beliefs. I have yet to read a contemporary American or British novel, or magazine piece, that subtly yet hilariously reveals that not everything is black and white. Humans are nuanced, and so are political schematics and global viewpoints. In a world of vitriolic comments on social media or the supposed “cancellation” of various celebrities, everyone is taking themselves very seriously indeed.

Nancy Mitford truly excelled in pointing out hypocrisy on all sides, including the more liberal members of her society circles. In “Christmas Pudding,”, one of her earlier works, she delivers an absolutely side-splitting send-up of British countryside aristocracy in all its absurdly snobbish trappings. Take this quote from a dialogue between a supposedly left-wing duchess and her snobbish country neighbor, in which the neighbor questions the duchess as to why, if she so believes in a communist-esque society, she doesn’t give up her vast manor to the masses:

“I can’t, for no reason at all, take a step which would deprive all those old friends of work, food, even of a shelter over their heads. … I only say that if the whole system by which we live at present were to be changed we ourselves would all be a good deal happier than we are, and better in every way.”

She also depicts a number of her characters, such as young idealistic artists and writers in “Highland Fling, Don’t Tell Alfred” as well as “Christmas Pudding,” as being utterly hypocritical as the conservative parents and crusty elderly folk that they often despise. Content to live off the allowance given to them by their parents and go to cocktail bars every night, they profess to be progressive whilst of course doing next to nothing (or absolutely nothing) to further their supposed causes. Having encountered any number of people in my life both in the United States and elsewhere who fit this description, I admit I gleefully chortled over her rather savage portrayals of said characters. I was reminded of meeting (in my own words) Burberry Marxists, who would extol the virtues of liberal doctrines, equal distribution and radical labor theory. They would then take their parents’ credit cards and hit up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on a regular basis or visit the impoverished countries plundered by colonial powers — a frequent rant or topic of discussion for such types — and proceed to stay at a five-star resort for the aforementioned villainous colonial figures, sipping mai tais on the beach.

Additionally, Mitford loves to poke fun at the wealthy British upper class, who openly look down at those in less fortunate circumstances and fully believe that the have-nots are completely responsible for their circumstances. She references this in a number of her works, including the Scottish romp “Highland Fling”:

“The House of Lords. The work that goes on here, you wouldn’t believe it. There’s no place like it for work, and all unpaid….I’ll tell you one thing, Walter, the reform of the House of Lords will be the downfall of England.” While “Highland Fling” is a largely lighthearted work without much gravitas (and well worth a read for containing one of the funniest scenes in written history about the Highland Games and a missing picnic basket), it does cast the spotlight on generational divides, an age-old theme that also comes up time and time again in today’s media. Take this brief snippet between young artist Albert and the elderly General Murgatroyd:

“People of your class notoriously enjoy wars and fighting … you have been educated to that end. Your very recreations consist entirely in killing things, and it is clearly more exciting to kill men than rabbits or foxes.”

I leave you with a final quip from Mitford’s “Pigeon Pie,” a little jab at my fellow Americans:

“Luke hates jokes and hates the war,” she said, “ … so isn’t he lucky to be going to America where they have neither?”

Darkly funny to the last, and able to peel apart onion layers of the nuanced problems from every side of the political spectrum, Mitford is sorely missed. I’m just glad we still have her books that I can read over and over again so I can laugh and cry all at once.

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