Poor Hitler

Andrew O’Hagan

  • The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley
    Fourth Estate, 834 pp, £25.00, September 2007, ISBN 978 1 84115 790 0

People who are serious about the business of not taking themselves seriously can have enormous fun as writers. The world of posh writing is full of minor writers getting away with murder, as in this passage from Julian Fellowes’s recent novel Snobs:

They lived in a large flat in Elm Park Gardens, which was almost at the wrong end of Chelsea and not quite to Mrs Lavery’s taste. Still, it was not exactly Fulham nor, worse, Battersea, names that had only recently begun to appear on Mrs Lavery’s mental map. She still felt the thrill of the new, like an intrepid explorer pushing ever further from civilisation, whenever she was invited for dinner by one of her friends’ married children. She listened perkily as they discussed what a good investment the ‘toast rack’ was or how the children loved Tooting after that poky flat in Marloes Road. It was all Greek to Mrs Lavery. So far as she was concerned she was in Hell until she got back over the river.

The writing is undistinguished, the language is clichéd and the values are shot to hell, but the paragraph knows how to present grotesque thinking as common sense, and to do so with the kind of ease that passes for charm in posh writing. It is as right for the occasion as a birthday cake, a little too much perhaps, a little pink, and not necessarily very good for you, but quite delicious. Anybody interested in the question of literary style – or the history of felicity – will understand why it used sometimes to be said that the right had the best jokes. They did have the best jokes, if one understands a joke to be a remark that succeeds at someone else’s expense, or at the general expense of earnestness, of which there has been a necessary preponderance on the left. In any event, most of England’s great stylists were right-wing – or became so – and it is hard to think of many caring novelists making light of a crisis in Abyssinia.

Posh people had more jokes just as they had more teacups, and when they sat down to write both were in evidence. More than that, however, the posh aesthetic appeals to readers who want life’s profundities to scatter on the wind like handfuls of confetti. The great enemy of the posh aesthetic is effortfulness, which is why aristocrats find the middle classes so absurd. All that labour, all that seriousness: so much more stylish to laugh at death etc. Upsetting and attacking people makes good reading, which explains why certain people will always think Evelyn Waugh a genius and D.H. Lawrence a bore. For the devoted toff, effort and compassion are embarrassing in life and horrific on the printed page. The English upper orders learned from Oscar Wilde how to abhor earnestness and embrace triviality, but even Wilde would appear strained next to the Mitfords. The lesson of the girls: it’s not what one says but how one says it. English prose is in love with teasing, dismissive tones like theirs – often the tones we think of when we think of good writing – but leaves the experimental and the ethically careful standing in the street like a frowning man with a tin cup. This is most true of Nancy’s novels and Hons and Rebels, Jessica’s famous memoir, but it’s true of the letters too, which now appear in The Mitfords, a collection edited by Charlotte Mosley.

The man in the street was never Nancy Mitford’s sort of thing. In fact, she found the very notion of the public quite ludicrous. (How she would struggle today!) Her idea of perfect bliss, she once said, was lots of peasants happy in their cottages as she whiled away her time even more happily in the big house. That is quite funny, of course, and it reminds you that the whole, wonderful Mitford achievement depends not only on a perfect ear for the unacceptable note, but also for exhibiting a terrific childishness in all things. It is very U to be childish about the complications of life, and people who hate the Mitfords must also hate the reality of life in the playground: the tongue-poking, the victimising, the shrieking in the face of the socially insecure. In the writing game, nothing seems as natural as laughter, and nothing as well parsed as dismissal.

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[*] In the New Yorker, Ogden Nash wrote a riposte to Nancy’s Encounter essay. His poem was called ‘Ms. Found under a Serviette in a Lovely Home’.