‘The book about you is going to be wonderful,’ Nancy Mitford wrote in May 1934 to her sister Unity, who had gone to Nazi Germany to have lunch with Hitler, ‘you are called Eugenia let me know if you would rather not be.’ Wigs on the Green, the only one of Nancy’s novels not to be republished after the war because, as she wrote to Evelyn Waugh, ‘too much has happened for jokes about Nazis to be regarded as anything but the worst of taste,’ is finally reprinted today after 65 years. Until now it was the book that seemed so alluring in footnotes and endnotes: satirical, excoriating, the one that caused Diana to break with Nancy for years.
Wigs on the Green doesn’t begin with Eugenia, but with Noel Foster, who has come into enough money from a dead aunt to allow him to catch an heiress. But Noel, who works in an office, doesn’t know where to find one. Luckily his friend Jasper Aspect remembers that ‘England’s largest heiress’, hidden by her batty grandparents in the village of Chalford, must be just about marriageable age. And there on Chalford Green they find Eugenia, on an upturned bathtub, recruiting for the Union Jackshirts with ‘the aspect of a modern Joan of Arc’. Beside her is her dog, the Reichshund. She wants to install a new leader, save ‘our unhappy island’ and bring down its ‘putrescent democracy’. ‘The girl’s a lunatic, but she’s not stupid,’ Jasper says. If she ‘had been born twenty years sooner she would have been a suffragette’.
As it’s a farce, more young heiresses turn up in the village and the Union Jackshirts decide to put on a pageant re-enacting George III and Queen Charlotte’s visit to Chalford House. Mad King George is welcomed by a guard of honour: Union Jackshirts on one side and Pacifists on the other. Soon the Pacifists are attacking ‘the defenceless Comrades with life preservers, knuckledusters, potatoes stuffed with razor blades, bicycle bells filled with shot, and other primitive, but effective, weapons.’ The Union Jackshirts are ‘not only unarmed, but also sadly hampered by their full-bottomed coats, ill-fitting breeches and wigs’: wigs on the green in all senses. Eugenia rouses her troops, saves the day and delights her grandmother: ‘How wonderfully realistic that was.’ Her happy ending is a visit to Union Jack House in London to meet Captain Jack himself; the others only get weddings.
Because it was Unity who cooed ‘poor sweet Führer’ and Diana who married Oswald Mosley, it’s sometimes assumed that the other Mitfords were goodies, or at least had no Fascist sympathies. In fact Nancy and her husband joined the British Union of Facists in December 1933 – he ‘looked very pretty in a black shirt’ she remembered later – and they were members long enough to attend the Olympia rally in June 1934. All this inoculated Nancy, the story goes, to the extent that she could write a novel mocking Mosley, Unity and the BUF later that year.
When Unity found out that the book wasn’t just about someone falling in love with her, she wrote to Nancy from Munich: ‘You can’t possibly publish it, so you’d better not waste any more time on it… you might have a little thought for poor me, all the boys know that you’re my sister you know.’ But Nancy needed money, and besides, she wrote back, their lefty sister Jessica had ‘read Wigs on the G. & said that it quite inclined her to join the movement. I swear that’s true.’ Diana was harder to please. To placate her and stop Mosley from suing for libel, Nancy took out three chapters about Captain Jack, and wrote to Diana:
And yet, consider. A book of this kind can’t do your movement any harm. Honestly, if I thought it could set the Leader back by so much as half an hour I would have scrapped it, or indeed never written it in the first place.
The 2 or 3 thousand people who read my books, are, to begin with, just the kind of people the Leader admittedly doesn’t want in his movement. Furthermore it would be absurd to suppose that anyone who has intellectually or emotionally convinced of the truths of Fascism could be influenced against the movement by such a book.
I still maintain that it is far more in favour of Fascism than otherwise. Far the nicest character in the book is a Fascist, the others all become much nicer as soon as they have joined up.
So Nancy says that her silly book won’t hurt the movement, it won’t be read, it won’t dissuade anyone who is already committed and it sticks up for Fascism anyway. And despite all this being said to try and get her sister not to sue her, the funny thing is that she was right.