Nit, Sick and Bore

India Knight

  • The Mitford Girls: The Biography of an Extraordinary Family by Mary Lovell
    Little, Brown, 611 pp, £20.00, September 2001, ISBN 0 316 85868 4
  • Nancy Mitford: A Memoir by Harold Acton
    Gibson Square, 256 pp, £16.99, September 2001, ISBN 1 903933 01 3

Either you love the jokes or you don’t, with the Mitfords. The biting, ferocious ‘teases’, the flippancy, the apparent inability to take anything particularly seriously, are everything, not least because they encapsulate all that used to be good about Englishness, and all that is grotesque also. The jokes, always cruel, both charm and repel; without them, you’re left with girls in pearls living borderline tragic lives, or with the po-faced, lumpen Unity Mitford – galumph, galumph – who, unlike her five sisters (in descending order: Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, Decca, Debo; there was also a brother, Tom), had little talent for levity. So the jokes are crucial. One occasionally gets the impression, from Mary Lovell’s compelling, fluent and problematically sucker-uppy biography, that she isn’t always entirely sure whether the jokes are funny or not: she quotes the tried-and-tested ones over and over and leaves out the new ones thrown up by Nancy Mitford’s enormous, enormously funny correspondence, or by Jan Dalley’s recent biography of Diana Mosley. You rather imagine her, nose pressed up against the glass, longing to roar along with the Duchess of Devonshire (whom, she informs us, she once met at dinner), but not quite knowing how.

Of course, some people miss the joke altogether – posh girls sniggering: what’s funny about that? – or disapprove because the joke is inevitably a small, casual cruelty, small casual cruelties being the one thing at which the Mitfords, in their varying ways, all excelled: small cruelties, and larger ones, too. So, for instance, some people don’t think it’s at all funny that, throughout her life, Nancy Mitford called her sister Debo (said Duchess of Devonshire) ‘Nine’, this supposedly being her mental age. Diana was ‘Bodley’, because of her large head; Pamela was ‘Woman’, or ‘Woo’, because of her love of domesticity; Jessica was ‘Susan’ as well as ‘Decca’; Unity was ‘Bobo’ or, later, ‘Heart of Stone’. Nancy once wrote to Unity in Berlin to tell her that she’d done some research into their family history and had discovered a great-grandmother Fish, which made them one-sixteenth Jewish.

Some of the funniness is verboten because it still glitters with privilege of the kind that is now actively welcomed only by Daily Mail readers, which leads to the gruesome possibility of the Mitfords eventually being appreciated only in Surrey. Nevertheless, it is still funny that Nancy’s aesthete Oxford friends, invited home for the weekend, should be ‘shaken like rats’ by Lord Redesdale (the father), told they were ‘hogs’, ‘sewers’ and ‘damned puppies’ (‘I’d rather take a housemaid shooting than you, Lord Clive’) and swiftly ejected from the house while the three smallest children broke into a melancholy chorus of ‘Oh, we don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go.’ And that Nancy once pointed out to the three youngest sisters that the middle parts of their names were ‘nit, sick and bore’. (To Debo: ‘Everyone cried when you were born.’)

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