- 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.
Lord Curzon was famous for saying a great many untrue things in a very true-sounding way. This makes him a hero of posh prose and many biographies have been written saying how marvellous he was, despite his reputation as an imperialist brute. Superior Person, the biography by Kenneth Rose, makes little mention of the bons mots, but some of them exist in what Curzon would have cringed to hear called the popular memory. ‘Gentlemen do not take soup at luncheon’; ‘Dear me, I never knew that the lower classes had such white skins’; ‘Gentlemen never wear brown in London.’ (‘It is necessary to admit,’ Harold Nicolson wrote in his own fawning Curzon biography, ‘that it required several months of close association with Lord Curzon before even the most well-intentioned observer could wholly rid himself of a sense of unreality.’) Nothing is funnier than a noun in the right place propped up by a perplexing adjective and such combinations are a mainstay of posh prose. Lines of this sort allowed people to think the great viceroy of India a wise and unburdened fellow, just as such lines allowed people to forgive the diarist Alan Clark any number of horrors so long as he raised a smile when he wrote them down. The talent to write poshly is quickly taken as the talent to write well. It remains a kind of honesty that English readers – or English readers of English writers – prize above thoughtfulness, and certainly above difficulty or discovery. Roy Jenkins writes nicely, but we prefer the bumbling, scabrous, impenitent confessions of a minor Tory toff.
Long before Nancy’s inspired wind-up on posh lingo was published in Encounter in 1955 – and long before the idea of a ‘booklet’ on left usage ‘flashed’ into Jessica’s mind – the Mitford sisters were devoting themselves to hilarity and agitation on the question of how people speak.[*] Mosley, in her fine introduction to this compendium of the girls’ letters, makes it clear how in thrall they were to ‘schoolroom custom’: all Nancy’s talk about spectacles not glasses, lavatory not toilet, and pudding not sweet is neither here nor there beside the letters’ familiarity with the inner mechanisms of the aristocratic style. There is humour in the very commas, as well as depths of snobbery you wouldn’t believe, and Mosley has arranged 77 years’ worth of sibling dramatics in such a way as to make the book a Mahabharata of English poses. Never – not in the works of Harold Acton, Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh combined – have sentences appeared so rhythmically in tune with a sense of the ridiculous, or so ready to snigger at the disaster of common beliefs. In that sense the book is a masterpiece – it contains the DNA of a national style – and in the future people will read it to understand both the charming lunacy of English manners and how a singular mode of selfhood could shape the language.
The Mitford mode starts early with a degree of strong belief that girlish wisdom (and ‘heaps of love’) will unravel the world’s enigmas. ‘Oh I am so sorry,’ Nancy writes to Pamela in 1929, ‘how beastly for you poor darling.’ Pamela’s engagement had recently been broken off. ‘Never mind I expect you’ll be rewarded by marrying someone millions of times nicer & obviously Togo would have been a horrid husband… Heaps of love, Naunce.’ There is a general respect, born of early life in the Redesdale household, for the utterly unreasonable, and each of the girls gains comfort from the idea that one can live a jolly life so long as one knows it’s all absurd. Even detectives and divorce are amusing if one keeps one’s head. Here’s Diana writing to Nancy while trying to get away from Bryan Guinness:
The detectives are extraordinary and just like one would imagine. It is really rather heavenly to feel that they are around – no pickpockets can approach etc. Isn’t it all extremely amusing in a way. I mean there is such a great army of them and it is all so expensive for Lord Moyne (may he burn in hell).
The sisters’ nicknames are very good, like a poem by Nash. Unity was Bird or Birdie, Bobo or Boudy or Boud, Pamela was Woman, sometimes Woo or Wooms. Diana was Cord or Honks and often Nard or Nardy. Deborah is always Debo, except when she is Hen or Henderson, which is sometimes also used for Jessica, who is mainly Decca but sometimes Squalor. Nancy is French Lady but sometimes just Lady; in everyday settings she answers to Naunce or Naunceling. Lady Redesdale is The Poor Old Female or Fem and her husband is most often Farve. Diana is sometimes called Bodley because she was thought by Nancy to have a big head. Nancy was best at names. She called Unity Forgery in a greeting that is almost a rubric of the Mitford style, ‘Darling Forge’, and she called Deborah Nine, because she was thought to have a mental age of nine. A crucial part of the posh aesthetic is to overplay the small things and underplay the large things: thus, a head cold is an utter tragedy and the invasion of Poland a bit of a bore. The main thing is to keep up the jokes, and over the years the letters become object lessons in how to defy vicissitudes with shrieks.
Debo and Nancy agree that the real crime with politics is that it makes people lose their sense of the ridiculous. At the time, 1934, Unity is writing excitedly about getting ‘a special salute all to myself’ from Hitler. Obviously, they didn’t all like Hitler, but it takes a while for most of the sisters to realise that being a Hitler groupie is more than a little un-fun, and Unity’s letters never give up on the idea that the Führer was heaven. ‘Poor Hitler,’ she writes to Diana; and again:
the Führer asked after you, & I told him you were coming soon. He talked a lot about Jews, which was lovely. News from Abyssinia & Egypt kept on coming through on the telephone, which was rather exciting. The Führer stayed in the Osteria for two hours, wasn’t it lovely. After he went Werlin drove me to see his new shop, which is wonderful.
‘Darling,’ Diana writes a year later,
I am sitting in a bower of orchids envying you, because I expect you are still in the Führer’s train. Yesterday was the loveliest and at the same time the most terrible day for me… the blick [sight] out of Magda’s window of the Führer walking across the sunny garden from the Reichskanzelei was the happiest moment of my life. I felt everything was perfect, the Kit [she called Oswald Mosley the Kitten], you, the Führer, the weather, my dress … The Führer’s orchids and Widemann’s roses, and the Kit’s orchids, and the ceremony.
‘Poor Hitler’ sounds like a tremendous tease, but it’s not – Unity loved Hitler and would die young because of him – and the reader of these letters feels baffled at the way the posh style celebrates and ennobles naivety. Those orchids blossom and sour in the mind; how can so much life be in thrall to so much death, and to what account?
Yet there is always the Debo perspective – the most natively aristocratic – which finds Hitler not very interesting, merely one of the ‘sights’. There will be prisons and bullets to come, but the future Duchess of Devonshire gets everybody back on track, signing her letters ‘André Gide’. Two further elements of the posh style are a) that everyone is impersonatable, and b) that one must always find the truth insufficient to one’s telling of it. Just as language has to be made up to meet the occasion, so do occasions to meet the language, and we often find the sisters writing letters in which they claim not to remember names or events or anything relevant, which is all to the good because it leaves more room for them and what they experience in their heads. Capitals and italics, wild abbreviations and alliteration (‘Bobbety was v. fine over Boofy’s buggery bill’), no full stops and liberal use of ‘heaven’ and ‘bliss’ and ‘do admit!’, but the best thing about these hundreds of letters is the sound of jokes being released like air from the pumped up tyres of social convention. Above all, these women had a way of living their lives and talking about themselves that was bravely characteristic: each of them wrote their own sentences – ensnared in the family style – and used them as a way of inhabiting the world on their own terms. They spoke up and placed their words just so, showing how your language is your person.
That is why their writing can sometimes seem like the definition of good writing: it is funnily exact and always in character. It is also very often quite empty, which is fine, so long as one allows that emptiness can just as often be experienced as a sort of abundance, though it’s more Samuel Beckett’s area than theirs. They loved convention but they weren’t conventional – a trick of the blood – and each brought up her children without the expectation that men would do very much except perhaps be slightly amusing and occasionally heroic. ‘Well dear,’ Deborah writes at one point, ‘I’ve smacked my ovary and taken it to Madame Bovary and the result is I’m in pig.’ Being pregnant was treated like another appointment, neither World War Two nor luncheon at the Savoy, but somewhere in between. The Mitfords weren’t feminists, and they weren’t Virginia Woolf, but it seems possible that Woolf would have had a nicer time altogether had she known how to have a friend like Nancy or Jessica Mitford. The world might have seemed less pressing, and more adaptable to her invented self.
Having a bad character can also mean being at home with one’s true predicament. It is taken for granted in the posh style, and certainly by the Mitford girls, that one is not necessarily very nice and that not being nice need not be the end of the matter. In April 1944, Jessica sends Nancy a letter from San Francisco talking about the new baby.
As you can see, Constancia is our pride & joy, she really is the prettiest child ever seen & has a frightfully nice character, there’s not a trace of Mitford in her. I left the OPA job & am working at the Joint Antifascist Refugee Committee, v.interesting & pleasant. I am now an American citizen, which is nice… Do come, Susan, I long to note you not getting on with Americans. Love from Susan.
Though many of the letters have been published in single volumes – many of Nancy’s, most of Decca’s – there is a benefit to reading them side by side like this, the main one being that one can see how political differences had no effect on what the Mitfords shared: their sense of what is terribly funny and of what constitutes good style. Jessica’s kind of Communism didn’t stop her from laughing like a hyena in the same old disdainful way. When Pamela divorced her husband and took up with an avid horsewoman called Giuditta Tommasi, Jessica quickly wrote to her husband to say that her poor sister had become ‘a you-know-what-bian’. She once or twice referred to her grandson as ‘Bongo-Esmond’ (a coining of Philip Toynbee’s) because he was black, and she also shrieked to discover that the lightsome actress Julie Andrews was in ‘deepest psychoanalysis’.
Funnily enough, it is Nancy, the best writer, who sometimes seems a little forced in her letters. Maybe it was the bad luck behind the good – the bad love, the ill health – but she sometimes seeks to make an impression in a way Debo never does. I think she knew that people would one day read the letters, which could explain the fake insouciance of ‘I seem to be on the best sellers list whatever that is.’ This is a piece of middle-class fuss – not insouciance – and over time her ear loses the knack of hearing the way self-deprecation so easily becomes self-reverence.
Mainly, however, the girls get funnier and more girlish the further from girlhood they travel, and the sentences tend to grow, as it were, thoroughly mature with immaturity. ‘Well Lady,’ Deborah writes to Nancy, ‘the inevitable has occurred, Dinky is going to have a baby by a black man. I’ve written the saga to Honks.’ Over the decades, it turned out that the ‘Boudledidge’ patter of the playroom was not merely a way of reaching into the depths of childish fancy, but a special method of surviving the adult world. It took seventy years, and the marriage of the Mitford bad character to old age, for Boudledidge to prove itself indispensable in the sisters’ efforts to capture the world’s foolishness. By then, Kay Graham, the owner of the Washington Post, could be described as ‘wourm … a freezing terrifier’.
The paradox of the posh sensibility in writing is that its brilliance depends on a certain kind of insensibility – even stupidity – in order for it to work its magic. That’s not to say the Mitfords were all stupid, more to admit that moral dullness was part of their genius, and thankfully the kind of thing they sought to write about was perfectly suited to the temper of their gifts. (Apart from Deborah, none of them went to school, which angered them even in old age.) Nancy actually had quite a foul life – as more than one of her sisters observed – but her prose was built to surpass the world’s rottenness with a kind of native wisdom and comic tolerance. If she had cared more about the lives of others she couldn’t have written as she did, and that would be a loss greater than the losses she allowed herself to feel. All the girls could speak of ‘death etcetera’ and they lived, despite their exclamations, in a general absence of dread. The only thing that really kindled deep regrets was their fallings-out with one another. And that is the great gift bestowed by their collected letters: the precise, posh antics of the most compellingly silly girls you can think of, girls who knew, after bitter and sometimes baffling experience, that there was nothing in the world quite so joyous as being ‘lovely us’.
[*] 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’.