Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford

pigeon_pie_nancy_mitford

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.

13 comments

  1. I’ve read quite a bit about the infamous Mitfords and what overwhelmingly strikes you is that there is always an attitude of “them” and “us” in these books and that however bad the situation is or appears to be, that they themselves will miraculously come out of it very nicely indeed. I’d also like to read as you say some contemporary reviews – what the average man on the street thought about these infamous sisters and their writings. It couldn’t have gone down well I presume.

    1. Oh yes – their outlook on the world is certainly interesting and I can’t say I love them as people, but I also can’t help but find their lives and attitudes fascinating. I would really be intrigued to read contemporary reviews – though I suppose they probably knew most of the people who were in a position to write reviews then and never received a negative comment!

  2. Hi Rachel, I read this recently. You’ve done a great job of summarising a slightly bizzare and improbable plot. I admire Nancy Mitford’s writing so much that I can easily overlook the ‘problems’ of this novel. I enjoy her clever, sharp, witty style immensely; perhaps it gets ignored due to her subject matter, like a lot of the middlebrow authors. Thanks for your review.

    1. Thanks Merenia! Glad you enjoyed this. I love her style, too – the substance is often lacking, but when you’re laughing so much, you tend not to notice!

    1. Yes me too – the only novel of hers that I have loved without reservation is The Pursuit of Love. The rest have been enjoyable, but I do wonder without the notoriety of her sisters, whether Nancy’s novels would have stayed in print as long as they have.

  3. I do not like Nancy Mitford at all. I find her world one of snobs and people who think they are better than others. I cannot relate to her at all. I think part of it is that she and her sisters and their Nazi sympathy has put me off them. I feel uncomfortable reading them. Their letters made me dislike them all Sorry

    1. No need to apologise! I can completely understand your dislike. I find their attitudes incredibly questionable but Mitford’s novels do certainly show an acknowledgement of the absurdity of their lifestyle, which is something, I suppose!

      1. Ooh…are you serious?! I was going to write that I have yet to see a copy of this book in my travels but didn’t dare in case you wrote…’shall I pop it in the post to you?’. That would be lovely, Rachel, I would be an appreciative recipient! You are allowed some grace time in order to change your mind in case you offered while sipping too many glasses of Pimm’s or something like that. Thank you!

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