Every Penguin book contains a brief biography of the author. Nancy Mitford’s explains that she was brought up in “a large remote country house with five sisters and one brother” – the inspiration for the Radlett family in her sequence of novels that begins with The Pursuit of Love – and that like the girls in that book she was “uneducated except for being taught to ride and to speak French.”
Much as I love Nancy Mitford, I sometimes find myself wishing that she’d been denied the French lessons. With her most famous novels taking place largely or partially in France, there are endless opportunities for Mitford to drop chunks of that language undigested into her narrative. This is a common tic among British authors of her era. Evelyn Waugh does it too, though less frequently. And I’ve read writers from still earlier in the 20th century (Lytton Strachey comes to mind) who don’t hesitate to show off their erudition in Latin or even Greek, again without bothering to translate for the benefit of their more ignorant readers.
Where Mitford is concerned, usually I can piece together the gist of these lines using common sense and my 11th-grade French skills. But then I came to her little biography Voltaire in Love, about the affair between Voltaire and the Marquise du Châtelet. Here she takes the trouble to translate letters, but epigrams and verses are usually reproduced verbatim.
For instance, she offers this poem written by Frederick the Great of Prussia to his friend and correspondent Voltaire. The situation is that Frederick (or Fédéric, as the Francophile prince liked to sign himself), a young intellectual with pacifist leanings, has just come to the throne, and now must contend with the death of Charles VI of Austria. Charles had no male heir, and although he has arranged for his daughter Maria-Theresa to succeed him, the other royal families of Europe immediately begin plotting to lay claim to various pieces of the Austrian empire. Frederick is under pressure to extend Prussia’s borders at Austria’s expense. He writes:
Déjà j’entends l’orage du tambour,
De cent heros je vois briller le rage,
Déjà je vois envahir cent états
Et tant d’humains moissonnés avant l’âge.
“This may not have been very elegant,” Mitford adds, “but was perfectly clear.” Sigh. Here’s what I was able to make of it on my own:
Already I hear the something of the tambourine,
Of a hundred heroes I see something the rage,
Already I see something a hundred states
And many people something before the age.
With the help of a web translator I’m able to put together:
Already I hear the the storm of the drum,
I see the rage of a hundred heroes shine,
Already I see a hundred states invaded
And so many humans harvested before their time.
Not very elegant…but clear enough. Unfortunately I do most of my reading in bed, and I refuse to hump over to the computer each time some French verse appears. So I’m missing a lot.
In an article quoted by Humphrey Carpenter in The Brideshead Generation, Waugh claims that
because most women have not received a classical education, they write “as though they were babbling down the telephone – often very prettily, like Miss Nancy Mitford.”
…A condescending way to speak of his good friend Miss Mitford. (And doesn’t the slangy, jazzy style of Waugh’s earlier and best novels owe a lot more to telephone talk than it does to Sixth Form Latin?) I wonder what Waugh would say about today’s authors, few of whom have confronted Xenophon or Virgil in the original. Is all modern literature just babbling down the telephone?
A few months back I described how I often failed to pick up allusions in literature written before my time:
[I]t makes me wonder how many of these finer points I’m missing, when I read British novels a half-century old or older … I suspect if I slowed down and went through these novels with an eye to investigating such perplexments, rather than skipping ahead to get on with the story, I would find a mystery in almost every paragraph.
Mitford is usually pretty forthright, but she chooses to be vague in describing a “coarse and cruel” satire performed by opponents of Voltaire’s controversial Le Temple du Goût:
Polichinelle is ill – comes the doctor – orders a good beating and a purge – after which the Temple du Goût is carried onto the stage, in the shape of an object that can be imagined.
Alas, what could be imagined by the readers of 1957 cannot be imagined by me. Presumably by “purge” the doctor meant the application of an enema. So the object that is carried onto the stage is Voltaire’s book in the shape of – what, an enema bag? Can that be right?
How would you make a book that looks like an enema bag? I’m glad I’m not the prop guy for that play.
For all her modesty about enema bags, or whatever, Mitford is surprisingly free with the word “whore”. She uses it to describe her heroine, Mme du Châtelet:
In spite of her careful upbringing and the outlet provided by a diversity of interests, she always had something of the whore.
She goes on to relate the anecdote of a footman who was asked to pour hot water into her bath:
As she did not use bath salts the water was clear and she was naked in it. Without any embarrassment she separated her legs so he could pour the water between them. Eighteenth-century manners may have been free and easy, but this was not the ordinary behaviour of an honest woman.
Reading this passage out of context the modern reader might assume the author is prudishly condemning Mme du Châtelet. Actually Mitford is quite sympathetic to her, even when the Marquise is behaving (as she frequently does) like a jealous nutbar.
The word comes up again in describing two women that the Marquise’s erstwhile tutor and lover, Maupertuis, brought back from an expedition to Lapland:
Les tendres Hyperboréennes seemed very much less attractive in Paris than in their native land; soon he longed to be rid of them. He opened a subscription … with the proceeds he placed one sister in a convent. The Duchesse d’Aiguillon’s excellent butler found a husband for the other, but she turned out to be a disappointing wife, in fact a whore.
I was brought up short each time I came across the word “whore”. (It seems particularly unfair when applied to that unfortunate Lapp, hauled all the way to France then unceremoniously dumped on a stranger.) Nowadays “whore” is usually reserved for the extremest insult; one doesn’t throw it around as lightly as Mitford does; feminism has taught us all to be wary about passing judgement on women’s sexuality. But I don’t think Mitford is being judgemental; I think she’s just using “whore” as a synonym for “promiscuous”. It seems the flavour of the word has changed over the past half-century. Somehow feminism has actually added to the sting of the epithet, rather than diminished it.
Update, May 13 2009: Turns out I had more to say about Voltaire in Love.
In December I blogged about Nancy Mitford‘s The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing, and Noblesse Oblige.