Posts Tagged 'nancy mitford'

The Red and the Black: Julien’s game.

What two things do Nancy Mitford’s 1960 parlour comedy Don’t Tell Alfred and the 1959 Gary Cooper maritime adventure flick The Wreck of the Mary Deare have in common?

  1. They have at the centre of their plots an obscure chain of unpopulated islets in the English Channel, the Minquiers (or “Minkies”, as Gary Cooper calls them).
  2. By happenstance I found myself reading one and watching the other on the same evening in 2008.

A meaningless coincidence, but because of it Mitford, Cooper, and the Minkies will forever be linked in my imagination.*

stendhal the red and the black

Here’s another coincidence. Much of the action in the middle section of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black occurs in the French provincial capital of Besançon, a town that to my recollection I’d never heard of before. (A forgivable lapse of memory: I learn via Wikipedia that Besançon makes an appearance, disguised under the Latinized name “Vesontio”, in Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul.)

Besançon is the first stop on Julien Sorel’s journey from small-town obscurity to the heights of French society. He spends some unhappy months as a student in a seminary there, befriending the rector, who will eventually help him get appointed as secretary to a rich nobleman in Paris. By the end of the novel Julien finds himself back in Besançon – in prison.

Putting aside Stendhal, I opened up a collection of essays by G.K. Chesterton, and came across this:

For some time I had been wandering in quiet streets in the curious town of Besançon, which stands like a sort of peninsula in a horseshoe of river. You may learn from the guide-books that it was the birthplace of Victor Hugo, and that it is a military station with many forts, near to the French frontier. But you will not learn from guide-books that the very tiles on the roofs seem to be of some quainter and more delicate colour than the tiles of all the other towns of the world; that the tiles look like the little clouds of some strange sunset, or like the lustrous scales of some strange fish. They will not tell you that in this town the eye cannot rest on anything without finding it in some way attractive and even elvish, a carved face at a street corner, a gleam of green fields through a stunted arch, or some unexpected colour for the enamel of a spire or dome.

This helpfully augments Stendhal’s meagre description of Besançon as “one of the most beautiful cities in France”. Never having previously heard of the place, now I’d like to go there.

But the essay that appears just before the one quoted above is as eerily relevant to the reader of The Red and the Black. It’s called The Contented Man:

True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and it is rare. The absence of this digestive talent is what makes so cold and incredible the tales of so many people who say they have been “through” things; when it is evident that they have come out on the other side quite unchanged…

[W]e may ask of those who profess to have passed through trivial or tragic experiences whether they have absorbed the content of them; whether they licked up such living water as there was. It is a pertinent question in connection with many modern problems.

Thus the young genius says, “I have lived in my dreary and squalid village before I found success in Paris or Vienna.” The sound philosopher will answer, “You have never lived in your village, or you would not call it dreary and squalid.”

Julien Sorel, with his self-destructive pride and ambition, is the epitome of the small-town Uncontented Man, so much so that I’m tempted to theorize that Chesterton marked his visit to Besançon by reading The Red and the Black and writing these two essays back-to-back – except that they originally appeared in collections published three years apart.

Just a coincidence.


Working as a secretary in the house of the Marquis de La Mole, Julien is introduced to the Marquis’ daughter Mathilde. Beautiful, haughty, and too intelligent to take seriously the elegant fatuities of the young men of her social circle, Mathilde is attracted to her father’s clever new secretary, though he’s an uncultured hick from the provinces, far beneath her station.

Julien in his pride interprets Mathilde’s interest as mere condescension, and responds coldly; this only intrigues her further. Eventually, after many mutual misunderstandings, Julien realizes that he has accidentally captured the heart of the most eligible girl in Paris, and he determines to seduce her.

Unfortunately, after the successful seduction, he discovers that he’s in love with her – and worse for him, she discovers it too. As his sangfroid melts into gooey fondness, her admiration turns to contempt. She rebukes herself for ever having cared for him. He can only mope about, casting sad-eyed glances her way, while she ignores him to gossip with her society friends.

Before long, Julien runs into a frivolous Russian playboy, Prince Korasov, who diagnoses the situation:

“[She] is profoundly self-centered, like all women to whom heaven has given either too high a rank or too much money. She looks at herself instead of looking at you, so she doesn’t know you. During the two or three outbursts of passion for you that she’s allowed herself to indulge in, with great efforts of imagination, she saw in you the hero of her dreams, not what you actually are.”

Korasov outlines a scheme by which Julien can manipulate Mathilde’s jealousy to win her back. And this is where The Red and the Black begins to uncannily resemble a handbook of “game”, that semi-competitive sport wherein aspiring male “players” use principles divined from evolutionary psychology to imitate the “alpha” behaviours of our primate forebears and render themselves irresistable to women.

“Game” as propounded by its most eloquent evangelist, the blogger known as Roissy, is about 50/50 misogynistic bullshit and disturbingly spot-on social analysis. I refer you to Roissy’s Sixteen Commandments Of Poon. (Gird yourself, good liberals.)

Sixteen Commandments Of Poon The Red and the Black

Women want to feel like they have to overcome obstacles to win a man’s heart… The man who gives his emotional world away too easily robs women of the satisfaction of earning his love. Though you may be in love with her, don’t say it before she has said it.

He was astonished by the sorrow in her eyes; it was so intense that he scarcely recognized them. He felt his strength abandoning him, so mortally painful was the act of courage he was imposing on himself. “Those eyes will soon express nothing but cold disdain,” he thought, “if I give into the joy of loving her.”

Make her jealous. Flirt with other women in front of her. Do not dissuade other women from flirting with you. Women will never admit this but jealousy excites them. The thought of you turning on another woman will arouse her sexually. No girl wants a man that no other woman wants.

“Answer me at least,” she said at length in a supplicating tone of voice, but without daring to look at him. …”So Madame de Fervaques has stolen your heart from me…Has she made for you all the sacrifices to which my fatal love led me?”

A gloomy silence was Julien’s only answer.

Give your woman 2/3 of everything she gives you… Give her two displays of affection and stop until she has answered with three more. When she speaks, you reply with fewer words. When she emotes, you emote less… Refraining from reciprocating everything she does for you in equal measure instills in her the proper attitude of belief in your higher status. In her deepest loins it is what she truly wants.

Julien abandoned himself to his great happiness only at times when Mathilde could not read it in his eyes. He scrupulously performed the duty of addressing a few harsh words to her from time to time. Whenever her sweetness, which he observed with astonishment, and her unquestioning devotion to him were about to rob him of all his self-control, he had the courage to leave her abruptly.

Keep her guessing. True to their inscrutable natures, women ask questions they don’t really want direct answers to. Woe be the man who plays it straight – his fate is the suffering of the beta. Evade, tease, obfuscate. She thrives when she has to imagine what you’re thinking about her, and withers when she knows exactly how you feel.

He knew very well that the next morning, by eight o’clock, Mathilde would be in the library; he did not go there until nine o’clock, burning with love, but with his head dominating his heart. Not one minute went by, perhaps, without his repeating to himself, “I must keep her constantly occupied with this great doubt: ‘Does he love me?’ Her brilliant position, and the flattery of everyone who speaks to her, make her a little too sure of herself.”

You shall make your mission, not your woman, your priority… Despite whatever protestations to the contrary, women do not want to be “The One” or the center of a man’s existence. They in fact want to subordinate themselves to a worthy man’s life purpose, to help him achieve that purpose with their feminine support, and to follow the path he lays out.

His mind was preoccupied; he responded only halfheartedly to her expressions of ardent tenderness. He remained taciturn and somber. Never before had he appeared so great, so adorable to her…

[W]hat explanation could there be for Julien’s air of severity? She did not dare to question him.

She did not dare! She, Mathilde! From then on, there was something vague, mysterious, almost terrifying in her feeling for Julien.

Terrifying indeed. My biggest objection to “game” is that I fear it might be true. Are we really just prisoners of our genes, fated to fulfil the gender roles of our chest-thumping ancestors? Are women really happier when they “subordinate themselves to a worthy man’s life purpose”?

And what about men? The problem with game is that it’s misnamed. Game is no fun. Bending a woman to your will is a hell of a lot of work, and if you want the woman to stick around, the work never ends. Like Julien, you have to disguise your feelings, keep your mistress guessing, “scrupulously [perform] the duty of addressing a few harsh words to her from time to time”. Julien himself, once he’s completed his conquest, is miserable about it. His heart truly belongs to his earlier lover, the guileless Madame de Rênal.

Roissy, in his bleaker disquisitions on the cruelty of the modern sexual marketplace, communicates despair over the gamesmanship to which men are forced. He blames it all on feminism:

[I]n a mating landscape where women work and earn almost as much as men and, consequently, have devalued the traditional currency of barter in the mating market and shrunk their dating pool, men are responding to this disincentive to bust their balls for diminished sexual reward by dropping out (omegas), doping out (video gaming and porn consuming betas), and cadding about (alphas and practitioners of game).

There’s something to that – something, but not everything. To say “This is how we’re hardwired; accept it” ignores the paradoxical essence of human nature: It’s our nature to struggle to transcend our nature.

Personally, I’d rather we keep on trying to escape the backward pull of our primate progenitors. But in order to pacify our inner chimps, we first need to understand their desires. To that end I’m grateful for Roissy and Stendhal, in somewhat different measures, for documenting the darker manifestations of the human sex drive.


* A while back I described another such coincidence involving Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and an obscure London hotel destroyed in the Blitz.

Update, July 27, 2020: For the second time it was necessary to go in and redirect dead links to Roissy’s blog, which was shut down by WordPress for violating its terms of service. Roissy goes by the pseudonym Heartiste now. While making those edits I added a cover pic of The Red and the Black and linked it to my Bibliography page.

Voltaire in favour, temporarily.

In my haste to get down my thoughts on Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love I failed to mention that I was only halfway through the book.

nancy mitford voltaire in love

The second half begins rather depressingly. Voltaire, who has spent much of his life in flight from official persecution for his writings, around the age of fifty itches to be accepted by court society. He devotes his energies to fawning over Louis XV (who nevertheless doesn’t take a shine to him), kissing the Pope’s ass (with greater success), and writing dull encomiums to the glories of France. These chapters are an embarrassing record of social climbing and hypocrisy. At one point, when some literary enemies get under his skin, Voltaire uses his influence to get them arrested. “I am glad to think,” he smugly records, “that this affair will serve to distinguish those who deserve the protection of the government from those who deserve its displeasure and that of the general public.”

Luckily for the reader, our hero is too tactless to remain in favour with the King for very long. Our heroine, too, manages to get in trouble over her casual manners. Because her husband (the Marquis du Châtelet, content to have his wife more or less permanently taken off his hands by Voltaire) has a high rank in the military, Mme du Châtelet enjoys “certain privileges usually reserved for Duchesses … One of these was to travel in the Queen’s retinue.” She arranges to catch a ride with the Queen and a passel of important ladies. As Mitford describes it:

The Queen herself left with Mme du Luynes and three other Duchesses straight from the chapel as soon as Mass was over. Two more coaches were waiting in the Cour d’Honneur to bring Mesdames de Montaubon, Fitzjames, Flavacourt, and du Châtelet. Hardly had the Queen driven off than Mme du Châtelet hopped into one of them, settled herself comfortably into the corner, and called out something like: “Come on, plenty of room!” The other women, outraged by this lack of manners, all got into the second coach, leaving [du Châtelet] alone in hers.

Unhelpfully for those readers not at home with the etiquette of 18th-century Versailles, Mitford doesn’t explain just what was so offensive about the Marquise’s conduct. I’m guessing it’s a question of precedence; she was supposed to wait until her social superiors, the Duchesses, had taken their seats before she took hers.

It’s frustrating that instead of sharing witty observations about the books I read, I instead must expose my puzzlement over archaic customs and turns of phrase. On the other hand, I’m glad I was born into a era where I can afford to be mystified by the obscure social rules of our forebears.


Update, July 26, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Voltaire in Love, by Nancy Mitford.

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.

nancy mitford voltaire in love

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, Evelyn 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.

Update, July 26, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

In December I blogged about Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing, and Noblesse Oblige.

Nancy Mitford (and Milk In First).

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.

nancy mitford the pursuit of love

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 woman, 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.

nancy mitford love in a cold climate

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.

nancy mitford the blessing

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.” [1]

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.

nancy mitford noblesse oblige

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):

Non-U U
Home House
Ill Sick
Mental Mad
Mirror Looking-glass
Preserve Jam
Serviette Table-napkin
Wealthy Rich
Dentures False teeth
Glasses Spectacles

(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.


1. 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.

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: Yeah.
M: Why?
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.”

Update, Aug 8 2014: Rod Dreher points me to Carl Zimmer writing in the Nautilus about Why We Can’t Rule Out Bigfoot. It’s actually a discussion of a method of scientific experimentation known as the “null hypothesis”, a term introduced by the pioneering English geneticist Ronald Fisher.

The null hypothesis turns out to have its roots in a dispute over whether a fellow scientist could really taste the difference, as she claimed, between a cup of tea poured milk-in-first and one poured milk-in-last. Fisher tested the scientist’s miffiness by pouring four cups of tea milk-in-first and four cups milk-in-last, scrambling the cups three-card monte style, and asking her to say which was which. She correctly categorized all eight cups.

Read Zimmer’s article to see what this has to do with the existence of Bigfoot.

Update, July 26, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

In August 2008 I wrote about missing the finer points when reading older books, including those of Evelyn Waugh.

Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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