The Pursuit of Laughter

In Britain between the wars, the Mitford girls—Baron Redesdale’s six glamorous, garrulous, gadabout daughters— were a constant source of public amusement and surprise. Readers of the popular press followed Nancy from her early 20s, when she was a founding member of the party-mad socialites known as the Bright Young Things. Jessica made news when she eloped with a communist to aid the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Diana married Brian Guinness, one of Britain’s richest men, at 19; a few years later she divorced him to live as an unmarried helpmeet to Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. Unity Mitford also fell in with the fascists, finding her way to Germany and the circle surrounding the Führer himself. When the two countries she loved went to war, she shot herself but failed to die and lived on for years as an invalid. Pamela mostly lived quietly, marrying and later divorcing the physicist Derek Jackson. Only Deborah, the youngest, is still living; at 90, she is the current Duchess of Devonshire.

Nancy Mitford (1904-73) became a novelist, drawing deeply from her family and its aristocratic milieu, often treating her siblings with affectionate mockery, most famously in “The Pursuit of Love” (1945). That novel is one of five new editions of her work just published by Vintage. Perhaps most interesting to her fans, however, will be the return to print of a little-known early novel, “Wigs on the Green” (1935), in which the mockery was more over-the-top than in her later fiction.

The novel combines a country-house romantic comedy with scattershot political satire, lampooning Oswald Mosley as “Captain Jack,” the leader of the Union Jackshirts. Eugenia Malmains, a cloistered but charismatic Jackshirt follower based on Nancy’s sister Unity, leads the local membership in staging (of all things) a historical pageant about George III. She sings the Union Jackshirt song—”We will whack / and we will smack / all traitors to the Union Jack”—and eventually does get a chance to whack some pacifists.

“Wigs on the Green,” with its send-up of Mosley’s movement, displeased Unity and caused an immediate breach with Diana. Nancy herself refused to republish the book during her lifetime. (Vintage’s volume is the first stand-alone edition since the 1930s.) Explaining her decision, Nancy said that, given later events, fascism no longer seemed a fit topic for humor.

For us now, the jokes at the expense of the Jackshirts don’t seem in particularly bad taste, but they do seem a bit labored. Perhaps because she had chosen such a large target, the comedy in “Wigs” is much broader than the subtle satire of her other novels. In truth, it is not one of Mitford’s better outings.

Two other Mitford novels from the prewar period—”Highland Fling” (1931), “Christmas Pudding” (1932)—are better, but unfortunately they’re not among the Vintage reissues. These books are light larks that take frivolous young protagonists and force them under some pretense into country houses alongside older, eccentric fuddy-duddies: a Bright Young Woman’s version of a common P.G. Wodehouse conceit. “Pigeon Pie” (1940), written in the early years of World War II, tells how a clueless society wife almost inadvertently saves London from the Nazis.

Yet these amusing novels pale in comparison with the two that followed, in particular “The Pursuit of Love,” the work on which Nancy’s fame as a literary artist now principally rests.

It was “The Pursuit of Love” that enshrined the Mitfords as the Radletts of Alconleigh, a family of idiosyncratic aristocrats ostensibly governed by an erratic, hunting-mad father but actually ruled by its unruly brood of incorrigible daughters.

The novel is a remarkable transmutation—a work of art that blends its satirical observations of its characters with a deep sympathy for them—but it is also a social document. The quirky tics and argot of the Radlett family are the Mitfords’ to a T. We are invited into the children’s clubhouse, where all humanity is separated into “terrific Hons” (not just fellow aristocrats but anyone they liked) and “horrible counter-Hons.” Nancy smuggles in bits of the sisters’ girlish private language and re-creates the game of nicknames and in-jokes that readers would later learn to decode in the sisters’ published letters.

Linda Radlett, the heroine of “The Pursuit of Love,” is a composite of several Mitford sisters. Her gentle disposition is that of Deborah, but like Diana she marries young, foolishly and rich; like Jessica, she runs off to Spain; and, finally, like Nancy, she falls rapturously in love with a French lieutenant just as World War II is beginning.

In her major fiction, most of Mitford’s most beloved characters can be classified as either innocents or sophisticates. The innocents—Polly in “Love in a Cold Climate” (1949), Grace in “The Blessing” (1951)—regard life as melodrama. (Both books are in the Vintage release.) The sophisticates see it as comedy. The innocents often occupy center stage, yet the sophisticates get the best lines.

“Poor Linda, she has an intensely romantic character, which is fatal for a woman,” says Lord Merlin, the eccentric aesthete who is a recurring Mitford character, based on the real-life Lord Berners, a friend of the Mitford family. “Fortunately for her, and for all of us, most women are madly matter of fact, otherwise the world could hardly carry on.”

Mitford had no time for the matter-of-fact; she had a soft spot for those innocents; still, her heart was with the sophisticates. Though her marriage-oriented plots seem to promise something sentimental, she always adds a cynical twist. Those who wed for love, or divorce for cause, tend to come across as romantic fools. “The Pursuit of Love,” for all its froth, is in fact a jarring summary of the rapidity with which women of Mitford’s generation could proceed from debutante, to new bride, to divorcée, to disgrace or death.

“Love in a Cold Climate,” which appeared four years later, hinges on a young woman who has set her heart on the aging homosexual who molested her as a child. The savage quality of the book’s satire makes it Mitford’s most ruthless grilling of the romantic mindset, though the reader casts about in vain for a sympathetic character outside the Radlett circle. The comparatively good-natured “The Blessing,” based on Mitford’s one-sided affair with an aide to De Gaulle, describes an English wife learning to accept her French husband’s philandering. Most of the time Mitford’s point is not merely to mock these women but to wonder at the inscrutability of the human heart.

Mitford’s final novel—”Don’t Tell Alfred” (1960), the fifth of the Vintage reissues—lacks the rich mix of comedy and heartbreak that marks her best work. Dropping any pretense to seriousness, it opts for a string of (admittedly pretty good) jokes about Franco-Britannic diplomacy, postwar tourism and Paris’s pop-music craze. In that sense, the novel was a return to the light comedy of her early books, of which “Wigs on the Green” stands slightly apart because of its political theme.

Yet it was during the middle years—in the immediate aftermath of a wave of cataclysms that shattered the stable society in which she had been reared—that Mitford wrote her most compelling works of fiction. Distracted temporarily from what she saw as life’s essential absurdity and frivolity, she was forced to confront the larger themes that literature at its best can address. During Mitford’s lifetime, the English aristocracy was broken on the rack of the Depression, World War II and the austerity that followed. “The Pursuit of Love,” her finest work, convincingly captures the shock of that process and the speed with which her world—and her own family—were forever changed.

Mr. Propson is an editor at The Week.


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