Friday, 5 March 2010

Wigs On The Green

It is never really necessary to give a long or detailed review of a Nancy Mitford; you know you either like her or you don't. As I have explained previously, I have been particularly interested in this novel because, like the guy you cannot have because he's with your best friend, it has been teasingly unavailable for so long a time.

Was it worth the wait? As I say, you're either on board with Nancy or you're not, and as I've also said, I most certainly am. Wigs on the Green is as barbed as we would expect, although I agree entirely with Nancy's assessment that Eugenia, the character based on Unity, is in no way offensive to her inspiration. Of course Eugenia is ridiculed; she is a Fascist, and as Laura Thompson states in her wonderful biography of Nancy, Life in a Cold Climate, "the point is that the war against Fascism was necessary and Fascism, in Nancy's opinion, was not." Eugenia is a Boadicea figure, an Amazonian Britannia, and impressive indeed as such. And Unity, apparently, was exactly this in real life. The book seems to me to be a fond tribute and a gentle dig rather than a cruel satire, and is entirely befitting the political climate in which it was written. The Mosley figure, however, upon incurring Diana's wrath, Nancy did entirely cut from the book - he is mentioned, but never appears.

Wigs on the Green does not have the pacey wit of The Pursuit of Love, but equally it is not as narratively frantic as Pigeon Pie. It is biting: an artist character introduced as a "surrealiste" suffers a response from the wonderfully named Jasper Aspect "that he had once written a play which took place inside Jean Cocteau's stomach. 'Unfortunately I sold the film rights,' he added, 'otherwise you could have had them. The film was put on in Paris and many people had to leave the Jockey Club and stop being Roman Catholics because of it. I was pleased.'" The re-publication of Wigs on the Green also uncovers one of Nancy's cleverest satires - Peersmont, the asylum for lunatic peers, "built on the exact plans of the House of Lords, so that the boys should feel at home." A visit to this "bin" reveals a Duke who considers that "Socialists put a perfectly exaggerated value on human life...what on earth does it matter if a few people are killed, we're not at war, are we? We don't need 'em for cannon fodder." Nancy can stick the knife into her own kind with a lipstick coated smile. She also has a fair go at the institute of marriage, which she describes as "a great bore - chap's waistcoats lying about in one's bedroom, and so on." In fact, little is left out of the line of Nancy's witty fire.

This is another beautiful period piece, of a time and place, and by a class of person, very much rooted in the 'then'. For me, Nancy displays more brevity than Wodehouse, but does not come close to her great friend Evelyn Waugh, whose Decline and Fall is possibly the funniest satire of the era. And froth it may be, but life is all the sweeter for a bit of meringue.

5 comments:

Alison said...

Hoorah for Nancy Mitford! Her honesty and openness are endearing qualities and I love that no-one is exempt from her sharp-tongued (or should that be sharp-penned?) barbs. I am just grateful that I shall never be on the receiving end. I understand she would often reduce her sisters to tears with her relentless teasing, although she also loved them fiercly. What a wonderful woman she must have been to know...

Desperate Reader said...

I can't wait to get my hands on this - have been trying all week. Probably as well I'm waiting as I have a few things to get through first. Very pleased it's going to be a Nancy year.

Hannah Stoneham said...

Excellent review - thanks for sharing. I am on board with Nancy Mitford - although I wasn't when I first read her.... I have read this one and thought it was great - the voice is very cutting and it is more serious that her others I think. Great review - thanks very much

Hannah

bookssnob said...

I want this! Nancy Mitford is so hilarious and I must get around to reading more of her books.

Vintage Reading said...

I picked up the re-issued Wigs on the Green in the bookshop at the weekend but I've blown my book budget for this month and I really musn't ... Of course, your review has made me want to read it even more.