An early Nancy Mitford novel that’s been out of print since the 1930s?! The excitement! These were my thoughts upon hearing Penguin were reprinting Wigs on the Green a couple of months ago. Imagine my disappointment, therefore, when the stream of negative reviews turned into a flood across the internet; blogs, newspaper reviewers, amazon reviews…everyone was dismissing it as a ‘period piece’, and a not particularly funny one at that. I opened my birthday present copy with trepidation, therefore, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t be let down by my beloved Nancy. I’m pleased to report that I wasn’t in the slightest; while not as good as The Pursuit of Love, or Love in a Cold Climate, it’s still an absolutely hilarious romp that pokes fun at not only the Fascist movement, but the idle gentry, romantic women, aesthetes, stuck in the past aristocrats and men in general. No one escapes Nancy’s sharp wit, and in this sparkling comedy she draws together a wide variety of eccentric and easily lampooned characters who happen to converge on the quiet country village of Chalford one hot summer in the mid 1930s.
Noel Foster, a man about town who has recently received a generous bequest from an aunt, decides to jack in his boring day job and devote his time to finding a suitable heiress for a wife. Foolishly, he phones his caddish, penniless friend Jasper Aspect to ask for advice, and before he knows what has happened, he and Jasper are on the next train to the sleepy village of Chalford, home of Eugenia Malmains, the teenage heiress to the greatest fortune in England. As luck would have it, as soon as the two friends arrive in the village, they come across the impressive Joan of Arc-esque figure of Eugenia, wearing a Union Jack for a shirt and a sack for a skirt, standing on an up-ended washtub in the middle of the village green, and haranguing the bemused locals with a speech on the benefits of the ‘Union Jackshirt’ movement. For ninepence a month they are joined up to the movement and in with a chance of wooing Eugenia, or so they think. After parting company with Eugenia, they meander back to their hotel to find that two glamorous and mysterious women, suspiciously named Miss Smith and Miss Jones, have arrived in the village. Noel and Jasper set about making their acquaintance, and it soon transpires that Miss Smith is really Mrs Poppy St Julien, and is on the run from her cheating husband, and Miss Jones is Lady Marjorie Fitzpuglington, also on the run, but this time from her dull but rich fiance, the Duke of Dartford. To complicate matters further, the next day the local beauty, the affected and simple Mrs Anne-Marie Lace enters the scene, and it isn’t long before both men have lost their hearts to the women they have met and have found themselves drawn into the life of the village and its eccentric residents.
All of the characters – and there are more I haven’t mentioned – are absolutely hysterical. Nancy Mitford’s ability to find the ridiculous in the people of her circle and transform them into the most wonderful caricatures of the early 20th century upper classes is nothing short of genius. The parody of Fascism, exemplified in the racist and xenophobic Eugenia, is wonderful, especially as I can well imagine Unity Mitford stalking across the grounds of her parents’ estate, spouting vitriol with a smile. The charming but useless Jasper is probably a very good representative of many of the idle men in Nancy’s own circle, living off the kindness of their friends and ingratiating themselves into the beds of many a beautiful woman. Lady Chalford, Eugenia’s grandmother, is a fearful, yet well meaning snob, not allowing anyone with a hint of scandalous behaviour in their backgrounds into her house. Anne-Marie Lace was probably my favourite, however; originally named Bella Drage, she spent a few months in Paris as a teenager and came back with a new name and an exotic foreign accent, and lives her life in a whirl of Hollywood inspired daydreams, unable to cope with the mundanity of her existence as the wife of a nice but dull Major and the mother of two pasty faced children. One village would seem too small to hold such a variety of larger than life individuals, but it does, and it hosts a Pageant for them to star in, to boot.
It’s not all cosy giggles; there are also some interesting undertones about the perils of marriage, with several unsatisfied women, cheating men and untrustworthy cads featured, and like I said in my previous post, I think that Nancy Mitford definitely had some issues when it came to committing to a marriage and trusting men. Anne-Marie’s rather Madame Bovary-esque character of the romantic heroine, whose love life hasn’t lived up to the fairy tale she imagined it would be, is a caution against having unrealistic expectations of what men can provide in a marriage. Her husband, rather like Arthur in The Pursuit of Love/Love in a Cold Climate, is oblivious to her emotional and physical needs, and treats her more like a child to be humoured than as a wife. Poppy St Julien has run away from the shame of having a husband who regularly cheats on her with younger models; he only asks her to come back when his latest bit on the side leaves him to get married to someone far more eligible. Only Eugenia is free from man troubles, but that is because her heart has been sold to the Union Jackshirt movement and she has no room for a man in it. And it is not only men that have caused rumblings underneath the tranquility of life in 1930’s England. Lady Chalford hasn’t left her home in sixteen years, unable to cope with the changing attitudes and behaviours of a generation she doesn’t understand; she thinks Eugenia has joined the Women’s Institute, not the Union Jackshirts! The Duke of Driburgh, Jasper’s dotty grandfather, also unable to cope with modern life, has been packed off to Peersmont, a mental home for ex Peers that is an exact replica of the House of Lords in the countryside near Chalford, where the inmates can pretend it’s still the 1890s. In a time of flux and change, with another war on the horizon, and radical politics and loose morals afoot, uncertainty and insecurity run underneath the surface of each character’s life. Far from being a simplistic farce, Wigs on the Green is a witty and astute commentary on life as Mitford experienced it during one of the most fascinating and turbulent decades in British history.
It’s a wonderful portrait of a world long gone and I adored every minute of it. It’s not overly sophisticated, it isn’t profound, and it won’t win any prizes, but it made me laugh, and every page sparkled with wit, humour and joie de vivre. What more could you want? I thought it was fantastic, and well worth reprinting.
*N.B. For those interested, ‘Wigs on the Green’ is a phrase originating in the 18th century, when it was popular for men to wear wigs. ‘Wigs on the Green’ implies that a fight or disagreement is about to break out, in reference to how men’s wigs would fall off onto the ground with the exertion of getting their fists out if they got themselves into a fight. Interesting, eh?!