I’ve now read Nancy Mitford’s three most famous novels, The Pursuit of Love (1945), Love in a Cold Climate (1949), and most recently The Blessing (1951). She’s a very funny writer. Her themes are love and marriage, but she is rigorously unromantic about romance – and especially so about children.
Here is the narrator of The Pursuit of Love paying a visit to the book’s heroine, Linda, soon after the birth of her child:
[The nurse] went away and presently returned carrying a Moses basket full of wails.
“Poor thing,” said Linda indifferently. “It’s really kinder not to look.”
“Don’t pay any attention to her,” said the Sister. “She pretends to be a wicked women, but it’s all put on.”
I did look, and deep down among the frills and lace, there was the usual horrid sight of a howling orange in a fine black wig.
“Isn’t she sweet,” said the Sister. “Look at her liitle hands.”
I shuddered slightly, and said:
“Well, I know it’s dreadful of me, but I don’t much like them as small as that; I’m sure she’ll be divine in a year or two.”
The wails now entered on a crescendo, and the whole room was filled with hideous noise.
“Poor soul,” said Linda. “I think it must have caught sight of itself in a glass. Do take it away, Sister.”
The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate are centred on an unruly brood of rural aristocrats, the Radletts, young girls (the boys don’t figure much) who gossip in closets, heave dramatic sighs, and speak in a spirited pidgin of romance-novel dialogue and tabloid newspaper headlines. In Love in a Cold Climate, the Radletts’ neighbour, rich and beautiful Polly Hampton, exasperates her parents with her disinclination to marry. Expected to snag minor royalty at least, Polly remains mysteriously untroubled as the London seasons come and go, her less eligible competitors are all wedded, and her mother Lady Montdore becomes ever more furious with mortification. It comes out later that Polly has been pining since adolescence for her uncle-by-marriage, the creepy Boy Dougdale, known to the Radlett girls as the “Lecherous Lecturer” after they attend one of his talks at the local Women’s Institute:
“But the fascinating thing was after the lecture he gave us a foretaste of sex, think what a thrill. He took Linda up on to the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her; at least, she could easily see how they would be blissful with anybody except the Lecturer. And I got some great sexy pinches as he passed the nursery landing.”
The Lecherous Lecturer is tolerated despite his lech for little girls. Time passes, Boy’s wife dies, and Polly pounces, to her mother’s horror and the scandal of all. Boy’s past indiscretions with kitchen maids and neighbourhood girls are nothing beside his poaching of the most beautiful heiress of her generation. The level-headed Uncle Davey urges a less popular view – one that would be still less popular in our day, obsessed as we are with the sexual purity of the young:
“Personally, and speaking as an uncle, the one I feel for over all this is the unhappy Boy. … He can’t be expected to guess that because he strokes the hair of a little girl when she’s fourteen she’s going to insist on marrying him when she grows up. Bad luck on a chap I call it.”
Polly’s and Boy’s marriage is not a success, but neither is it a tragedy. In Mitford’s world all passions cool (except the passion of English girls for dashing Frenchmen, see below), and as the novel ends Polly is reconciling with her mother and infatuated with another age-inappropriate suitor.
The Blessing concerns the marriage of a naïve English girl to a debonair French aristocrat. Halfway through the book, the heroine, exasperated with her husband’s infidelity, takes their young son, the “blessing” of the title, and runs home to England. Little Sigismond, heretofore under the smothering care of his English nanny, has been a fleeting presence, instructed to “run along now” when noticed by his father. Now shuttled back and forth between England and France, Sigi revels in being the centre of his newly estranged parents’ attention, his tantrums indulged, his wishes granted, his pockets stuffed with bribes from their suitors. The child makes it his mission to prolong the estrangement, by deceit if necessary.
At the climax of the book, as his parents appear ready to reconcile, Sigi just fails in his attempt to get his father arrested for smuggling. The novel’s final words – a belated victory for grown-up civilisation over the tyranny of the Kinderarchy – are his father’s, “And now, please run along and find Nanny.”
Uncle Matthew, the loveably tyrannical Radlett paterfamilias in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, hews to the old aristocratic customs under which his female offspring are kept home and taught by a governess. He has a low opinion of the narrator, Fanny, educated at a day school in the modern manner:
“Education! I was always led to suppose that no educated person ever spoke of notepaper, and yet I hear poor Fanny asking Sadie for notepaper. What is this education? Fanny talks about mirrors and mantelpieces, handbags and perfume, she takes sugar in her coffee, has a tassel on her umbrella. … It’s a lucky thing that Fanny will have £15,000 a year of her own. … She’ll get a husband all right, even if she does talk about lunch, and envelope, and put the milk in first.”*
Here we get into the author’s other great theme, the idiosyncrasies of the upper class. Though we share a common language, and only a half-century separates us from Mitford’s world, these customs are as mystifying to modern North American readers (and, I suspect, to most British ones) as those of the Aztecs or Zulus. While I can easily recognise the humourous tone, what am I to make of this passage in The Blessing where a snobbish Frenchman shares with our heroine his impressions of the British class system?
“In England, as we know, everybody has a number, so when you give a dinner it is perfectly easy to place your guests – you look up the numbers, seat them accordingly, and they just dump down without any argument, Placement, such a terrible worry to us in France, never bothers you at all.”
“Are you sure,” said Grace, “about these numbers? I’ve never heard of them. Placement doesn’t bother us because nobody minds where they sit, at home.”
“People always mind. I mean the numbers in the beginning of the peerage. I subscribe to your peerage, such a beautiful book, and then I know where I am with English visitors.”
Does Grace’s confusion signify common sense, or naïveté? So ignorant that she doesn’t even know how many dukes there are in her country, Grace quickly gets a reputation around Paris society as a dimwit; to what extent is that reputation deserved? We sympathise with her, of course, because the Parisians’ obsession with heredity and Placement is absurd. Yet Mitford’s famous essay The English Aristocracy begins with a discussion of “precedence” – knights and baronets take precedence after lords, “except Knights of the Garter who come after the eldest sons and the daughters of barons, but before the younger sons.” This precedence might not determine who sits where at a dinner party, but one can hardly blame the Frenchman for his mistake.
In the same essay, Mitford helpfully expands on Uncle Matthew’s list of linguistic vulgarities. In the formulation she borrows from Professor Alan Ross, certain words are U and non-U (upper- and non-upper-class):
(Concluding her list, Mitford delivers us fully into despair with the information that “the issue is sometimes confused by U-speakers using non-U indicators as a joke. Thus Uncle Matthew in The Pursuit of Love speaks of his dentures.”)
If there is any common thread running through this list, it is a tendency of the middle-class speaker to prefer the fancy way of saying something, while the upper-class speaker prefers the plain: serviette vs. napkin, dentures vs. false teeth. In other words, the opposite of what you’d expect. Perhaps this vocabulary – out of date already at the end of World War II, if Evelyn Waugh’s answering essay An Open Letter to the Honourable Mrs. Peter Rodd (Nancy Mitford) on a Very Serious Subject is to be believed – marked a reaction by the upper classes to the usurpation of high-flown language by social climbing bourgeois: “If they think they can fool us with their fancy talk, we’ll turn the tables on them!” But really, it’s impossible for me to guess how these rules originated, or how seriously they were taken. Mitford’s essay, like Waugh’s reply (and all the other essays assembled in the Mitford-edited collection Noblesse Oblige), is pervaded with an irony impenetrable to this distant, middle-class colonial. When Mitford writes,
Silence is the only possible U-response to many embarrassing modern situations: the ejaculation of “cheers” before drinking, for example, or “it was so nice seeing you”, after saying goodbye. In silence, too, one must endure the use of the Christian name by comparative strangers and the horror of being introduced by Christian and surname without any prefix. This unspeakable usage sometimes occurs in letters – Dear XX – which, in silence, are quickly torn up, by me.
…is she mocking herself, mocking her stuffy fellow aristos, or lamenting what she really sees as an “unspeakable” vulgarity? I suspect there are elements of all three, but I’ll be damned if I can tell where the mockery ends and the lamentation begins. To me it’s all Uncle Matthew and his dentures.
* Funny how relics of these arbitrary rules survive even to our own time. I have heard Canadians insist that the “proper” way to serve tea was to add the milk first – a symptom of our ineradicable conviction, as universal in the United States as it is here, that the British way of doing things signifies class, as opposed to the slouching American way. In this instance, it is amusing to observe, the class to which modern tea-servers aspire is that of their middle-class British forebears, whom Uncle Matthew would be loth to allow through the front door.
Evelyn Waugh in his Open Letter speculates on the origins of the tea-first prejudice:
All nannies and many governesses, when pouring out tea, put the milk in first. (It is said by tea-fanciers to produce a richer mixture.) Sharp children notice that this is not normally done in the drawing-room. To some this revelation becomes symbolic.
While George Orwell – uncharacteristically silent on the sociological implications – in his essay A Nice Cup of Tea, makes the case for tea-before-milk:
[O]ne should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.
Me, I put the milk in next-to-last – followed, pace Orwell, by the sugar.
Update, Sept 21 2011: Another and more recent reference to the class implications of milk-first versus tea-first appears in Martin Amis’ Experience. In a footnote he recalls a conversation with his “well-born” childhood friend Rob:
It was a bad thing to be miffy. Being miffy meant you were the kind of person who, when pouring a cup of tea, habitually put the Milk In First.
M: And that’s common [working class], is it?
R: I’m not sure. It just is.
M: …What happens when you put the milk in second and the tea’s too strong and there’s not enough room in the cup to make it milky?
R: Then you get up and pour some of it down the sink and go back and try again.
This must have been the late ’60s, early ’70s. In a separate footnote, Amis frets, “But, lor, how much stuff there was about class in those days. Whatever else she did, Margaret Thatcher helped weaken all that. Mrs. Thatcher, with her Cecils, with her Normans, with her Keiths.”
In August 2008 I wrote about missing the finer points when reading older books, including those of Evelyn Waugh.