This is one of those Mitford novels that’s fallen by the wayside over the years. It’s very tied to its period, which is perhaps why it hasn’t become a favourite; steeped in the social and historical context of the ‘phoney war’, many of the jokes and references are clearly meant to refer to specific people who have now slipped into obscurity. As such, it feels more like something that should have been privately printed in pamphlet form and giggled over at London house parties by those in the know rather than a novel for general circulation. Having said this, though, it’s still a very enjoyable tale, filled with the usual Mitford acerbic wit, ridiculous characters and finely observed minutiae of upper class inter war life that make her novels such gems.
Lady Sophia Garfield is beautiful and wealthy, married to Luke, a pompous businessman she realised she didn’t love during her honeymoon. Both have their own lovers and are perfectly happy to remain married for appearances’ sake. They live the high life in London, the centre of a rich, titled and socially prominent set, and Sophia has a charmed existence. That is, until war breaks out. It is September 1939 when the novel opens, and Sophia is petrified that bombs will begin to fall on her head at any minute. To alleviate her fears, she decides to sign up for some war work, and becomes a highly enthusiastic assistant at her local First Aid Post. Things seem to be going swimmingly, especially as no bombs have appeared. That is, until her beloved godfather, the nation’s favourite opera singer, is found murdered on Kew Green, just when he was about to undertake important patriotic duties. Then Luke decides to become a devotee of a new American Religious cult, and her house becomes overrun with followers at all times of night and day. If that wasn’t enough, her friend Olga, a perfectly nice girl from the home counties who developed a Russian accent when she married a British raised Russian Prince, is claiming that she is a beautiful spy, and putting Sophia quite in the shade with only her secretarial duties at the First Aid Post.
All of a sudden, life becomes incredibly exciting for Sophia. Her esteemed godfather turns up in Germany, apparently having betrayed his country. Her German maid disappears mysteriously after being taken into the First Aid Post as a fake casualty. And Luke’s live in lover Florence, a fellow cult devotee, also gets a job at the First Aid Post, and seems to be up to some shady shenanigans. Sophia realises that she is the centre of some potentially perilous goings-on, and soon she will find herself with far more serious war work than she could ever have dreamed. Though, as she quickly finds out, being a glamorous female spy is not quite as appealing in practice…
Mitford intends to satirise the earnestness and paranoia of the early days of the war, when very little actually happened but everyone was ready for action and keen to get involved in any way they could. Unfortunately, as Mitford says in the preface to my Orange Penguin edition, the book was a victim of its publishing date; when it was written, the phoney war looked like it would never become real. By May 1940, when it was published, the conflict was in full swing, and her lighthearted mockery of the war and British-German relations must have seemed horribly distasteful. I’d certainly be very interested to read some contemporary reviews, as I can’t imagine it having an overly positive reception when it came out.
However, read now, with our historical distance, it is a charming and funny account of the upper classes’ reaction to the war, and a fascinating insight into how little life changed for these privileged few, despite rationing and other restrictions. Lady Sophia is still swanning around in her chauffeur driven car, swaddled in furs and dining out in restaurants that serve pink champagne by the bucketload, oblivious to the thousands of men being mown down mere miles away. However, at least she has the brains to realise that her life cannot carry on as it is, and is prepared to change her ways. Mitford clearly realised this too, and there is a faint whiff of nostalgia in her tone as she laughs at a world that was so soon to come to an abrupt end. After all, the war ripped the Mitford family apart, and even Nancy could surely not find much to laugh at in that. As a curiosity and a rather unique look at wartime in Britain, Pigeon Pie is well worth a read, though do bear in mind that it’s certainly not Mitford’s best.