Hons and Wets

D.A.N. Jones

Nancy Mitford’s first novel, Highland Fling, is about a young British gentlewoman in the late 1920s, wriggling uneasily but divertingly in the generation gap of her time and class. Her parents’ generation seems to be stuck in the mud of the grouse moors: tough as old boots, the elders blaze away, pausing to reminisce about World War One and the filthy Hun. Her young friends (rather camp, resembling Driberg and Betjeman) offer a different lifestyle, a gossip-column world of nightclubs, Continental cities, private views and political dissidence. Caught between bright young aesthetes and grim, dim old hearties, the girl thinks wistfully, romantically, about her chic and forceful Victorian grandparents – and she is encouraged in this ‘nostalgia’ by her most Betjemanic young friend, Albert (‘Memorial’) Gates, a surrealist artist who annoys the elders with his modern, pacifist dissidence, as well as his eccentric reverence for ‘Victorian monstrosities’. The girl tells another chum about her splendid Victorian grandparents: ‘Brains often skip a generation, you know, and come out in the grandchildren. Poor mummy and daddy are both terribly stupid: darlings, of course, but narrow-minded and completely unintellectual.’ This engaging fantasy tells something about the imagination of Nancy and her five sisters, the Mitford girls, affectionately scornful of their parents, eager to emulate the grandeur of their grandfathers.

So it was quite a good idea for Jonathan Guinness (Nancy’s nephew) and his daughter Catherine to begin The House of Mitford with long chapters about the two grandfathers. Bertie (pronounced ‘Bartie’) Mitford and Thomas ‘Tap’ Bowles were both tremendous swells. They looked rather similar, something like Edward Elgar, and when they were in the House of Commons they worked together in a spirited, efficient and defiantly independent manner, never as lobby-fodder. Neither could be called ‘democratic’ or ‘anti-racist’; but Tap Bowles was always keen to praise the British working class (especially the crew of his yacht and other trusty servants) and to bring down the over-mighty (through his magazine, Vanity Fair), while Bertie Mitford was expert in studying the customs of foreigners in a friendly but patriotic spirit, encouraging Japanese and Germans to learn how to do things the good British way, teaching the hillbillies of the Wild West how to shoot buffalo cleanly, while keeping up a decent appearance and looking after their guns. Both grandfathers spoke unusually good French (among other languages) as a result of their unconventional upbringings. Bertie was the son of divorced parents; Tap was (less unusual at the time) an illegitimate child – and he fathered some more illegitimate children after the death of his wife, bringing up all his children in his own independent way, often on a yacht, all dressed in sailor suits, among his sturdy Suffolk seamen. Both grandfathers wrote very well about interesting subjects: they were learned, clever, efficient, schoolboyish, sportsmanlike. Tap might have been a hero for an H.G. Wells story, while Bertie belongs rather to Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle. They were members of the ruling class: they knew how to perform that function and play that role. Any granddaughter could be proud of Bertie and Tap.

But eventually Bertie’s dim son, David, became Lord Redesdale (his elder, grander brother having been killed in action) and David married Tap’s dim daughter, Sydney. David and Sydney did not know how to be Lord and Lady Redesdale: perhaps, as Highland Fling suggests, no one quite knew what lords and ladies were for after 1918. The dim Redesdales produced the six Mitford girls, so bright and silly, as well as an overshadowed son (killed in action). The parents will be remembered only for what their daughters did to them. The brightest, Nancy and Jessica, put the Redesdales into their books, as lovable comics (like the country-house retainers the Redesdales ought to have been). The silliest daughters, Unity and Diana, did worse: they persuaded their parents to become Nazi supporters in real, horrible life.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in