Pigeon Pie by 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.

Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford in 1931

My attempt to be highbrow over Christmas by reading Charlotte Bronte’s rather melancholy Villette ended on Christmas Eve, when, trapped in the house thanks to torrential rain, I fancied something cheery to get me in the festive mood. Loneliness and self deprecation are not exactly natural thematic twins for the Christmas period; frivolity and humour are more in keeping with this time of year, and thankfully I had just the thing sitting on my bookshelf. I bought Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding years ago in a charity shop in Whitby; I actually thought I’d bought Highland Fling, as the person who donated it had accidentally (I presume) switched the dust jackets, and I didn’t realise that I had an entirely different Nancy Mitford until I got it home. As it was a Christmas themed novel, I put it on the shelf to be read at an appropriate moment, and naturally it has taken me three years to come back to it. Better late than never! It proved to be the perfect companion for the gloomy post Christmas days when the rain has not stopped, the wind has raged and the skies have glowered darkly without any respite. I’ve had a whale of a time, giggling away on the sofa while stuffing my face with Ferrero Rochers!

Christmas Pudding has a large cast of characters, all of whom are part of the same social circle through friendship, blood or marriage. The central lynchpin is Paul Fotheringay, who, licking his wounds from the disappointing critical reception of his first novel, Crazy Capers (everyone thinks it is a hilarious farce; he intended it as a profound tragedy), is on the lookout for something serious to write about that will save his reputation. A trip to the London Library and a leaf through the Dictionary of National Biography later, and he has hit on the perfect subject; Lady Maria Bobbin, Victorian poetess. Accordingly, Paul sends off a gushing letter to the current Lady Bobbin, a mannish widow whose only passion in life is fox hunting, requesting permission to consult Lady Maria’s journals. Lady Bobbin refuses rather curtly, and sends Paul into paroxysms of despair. Thankfully, Paul’s good friend, the wise and beautiful demimondaine Amabelle Fortescue, has a solution. She is, despite being in her forties, close friends with Bobby Bobbin, Lady Bobbin’s dissolute teenage son, currently boarding at Eton. They concoct a plan to disguise Paul as Bobby’s holiday tutor, giving him access to Lady Maria’s diaries while Bobby gets off the hook of studying over Christmas. Handily, Amabelle is renting the hideously olde worlde farmhouse next door to the Bobbin family estate for Christmas, and so, along with Amabelle’s friends, young, penniless couple Sally and Walter Monteath, and Philadelphia, Lady Bobbin’s teenage daughter, a Christmas house party full of fun, misunderstandings, love and plenty of farce is formed.

The plot is whisper light, but the characters are marvellously drawn. Where else but in a Mitford novel could you find such an eclectic blend of people? From Bright Young Things Walter and Sally, who live the high life through leeching off their richer friends to old beyond his years Bobby, with his expense account at Cartier and fondness for older women, they effortlessly capture the idleness, frivolity and pleasure that characterised the aristocratic circles of pre war Britain. Everyone has ridiculous nicknames, everything is heavenly and divine, and darling, lovely and thrilling are peppered throughout every conversation. Pleasure is these characters’ main preoccupation, though love comes a close second; Paul is always thinking he’s in love, Philadelphia doesn’t know who she’s in love with, Amabelle is always being made love to and Walter and Sally are held up as a great example of love, which is the only thing they have to sustain their poverty stricken existence. Love and marriage are not necessarily found together, and Mitford can’t seem to quite make up her mind whether marriage should be entered into for practical or romantic reasons. Amabelle married wholly pragmatically, and is quick to recommend this course to others. She even argues that love best not come into things at all; loving your partner too much, as Walter and Sally do, often causes more misery than happiness. Philadelphia sways between the two before making her final decision, but, as one would expect, it is more comic than tragic that a diamond bracelet helps her to come to the right conclusion!

The sparkle in Christmas Pudding comes from the hilarious exchanges between the characters and wonderful caricatures of high society that Mitford creates through choosing just the right elements of expression and appearance to bring them to life. It lacks the heart of her greatest novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, but that doesn’t mean it should be written off as unworthy of attention. Far from it; it is a deliciously funny, frothy little novel that brings the world of the Bright Young Things to life, while also being a clever satire of Victorian values and the falsity of the previous generation who criticised these Bright Young Things. Lady Maria Bobbin’s brilliantly crafted pious diary entries, that talk much of her own goodness and religious fervour, reveal only her selfishness and love of luxury to the astute reader. Dig beneath the surface and you will find some meaty topics worth pondering; the purpose of marriage, the difficulties of keeping your head above water in a social circle consisting of people considerably wealthier than you, the terrible lack of education and occupation available for upper class girls – but ultimately, this is a light caper meant to be curled up with, laughed at and thoroughly enjoyed. I couldn’t have asked for a better literary companion for the Christmas holidays. Capuchin Classics have recently reissued it in a lovely hardback, so if you fancy giving yourself a little belated Christmas present…you’ve got an excellent excuse!

Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford

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?!

More musings on travelling, with a cameo from Nancy Mitford

I’m back in the swing of things now; it’s my first day back at work today, and in between answering the deluge of emails in my inbox, I am allowing my mind to wander back to those sun filled African skies that now seem so far away. It’s funny how quickly you reacclimatise to life; this time last week I was wandering around a traditional African market in the blazing heat, soaking up the culture and enjoying being able to meander at my leisure through the busy streets of a foreign city. I couldn’t imagine ever going back to my normal routine, and had my usual holiday daydreams of going back to London, chucking it all in and boarding a plane to Anywhere But Here, with nothing but a small suitcase and a spirit of adventure to accompany me.

But here I am, back at my desk, and already it feels like I never went on holiday as I whack on my ipod, elbow annoying slow people out of my way as I travel around on the London Transport system and let my head get resubmerged into work and London and the life I have here. It’s not a bad job, or a bad life, and I am far from dissatisfied, but it always surprises me how, whenever I go on holiday, I feel a unique sense of freedom and connection with a ‘me’ I never normally get to be. It makes me realise how stifled I am by my everyday life; how little of what I do on a daily basis actually reflects my dreams, my ambitions, my beliefs, my desires.  What if I didn’t have to sit at this desk from 9-5.30 every day? What if I didn’t have to pay extortionate London rent every month? What if I forgot about what I am supposed to be achieving and started living the life I want to live rather than the life I am expected to? What could I be capable of? If I never make any changes, I’ll never know. I decided at the beginning of this year that this was going to be the year of radical change, and my trip to South Africa has cemented my desire to dare to be different and take the plunge into new waters. I’ve already started putting quite a few wheels into motion, and, if things work out the way I hope they will, I’ll have exciting news to report before long about where my life is heading!

So, enough about me and more about books. On my behemoth of a solo plane journey from London to Istanbul, Istanbul to Joburg, and Joburg to Cape Town (it was a very cheap flight), I only managed to read one and a half books, as I watched a couple of films (Amelia, which was so-so, and The Proposal, which I LOVE), had a little sleep, and did a lot of wandering around foreign airports. If you ever do a stop over in Istanbul, check out the Bazaar with the baskets and baskets full of free turkish delight in all different flavours; it’s amazing! As I was feeling a bit nervous about the flight and all the changeovers I had to do, I took along some comfort reading in the shape of Nancy Mitford’s masterpieces, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. I read the former many years ago, and never got around to reading the sequel, so I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in the world of the Mitfords again.

The Pursuit of Love instantly became a favourite with me when I first read it, and I loved it all over again as I laughed out loud at the exploits of the Radlett family: “always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair, they loved or they loathed, they lived in a world of superlatives”. It centres around the beautiful Linda, taking in the lives of her lovers, siblings, and parents, all lovingly narrated by her eminently sensible cousin Fanny, whose mother, nicknamed ‘The Bolter’, a glamorous commitment-phobe, is the stuff of family legend. Having read the biography of the sisters by Mary S Lovell last year, I instantly recognised many of the characters. Vague Aunt Sadie and explosive Uncle Matthew are Lord and Lady Redesdale to a T; the ravishing and implusive Linda is, of course, Nancy’s younger sister Diana Mosley. Fanny weaves a tale of a loud, dysfunctional and irrepresibly funny family, who are bound together by a love strong enough to forgive their many indiscretions. Uncle Matthew rules the household with an iron fist, or so he likes to believe, but his soft heart is his undoing, as his inability to avoid allowing his children to find ‘the thin end of the wedge’ of every punishment inevitably results in them always getting their own way. Aunt Sadie has her head in the clouds, but comes down every now and again to give out half hearted reprimands and support her children in their various endeavours. Linda and Fanny are desperate to ‘come out’ and enter the real world; they dream of falling in love and getting married, and discuss this endlessly in the ‘Hon’s Cupboard’, along with the other Radlett children. They manage to marry fairly quickly, but it is Linda’s disastrous love life, weaving its way through 1920s London, the Spanish Civil War, pre war Paris and finally war torn England that provides the plot of this hilarious and at times very moving novel that so clearly captures the eccentric and lively world the Mitfords inhabited. It’s absolutely chock full of hilarious quotes I could copy down and delight you with for hours, and it really did entertain and charm me all over again. Nancy Mitford has such an eye for people, and for picking out their ridiculous qualities; she had some excellent inspiration, but still, she had a great gift.

Love in a Cold Climate, a loose sequel to The Pursuit of Love, wasn’t quite up to the same standard in my opinion, largely because there wasn’t enough of the Radletts for my liking! It is again narrated by Fanny, and Polly, the main character, is a distant relation of hers who she stays with often, and is a neighbour of the Radletts. I thought this was a bit tenuous as there was no mention of such a character in The Pursuit of Love, but I soon got over it. Polly is a beautiful heiress about to ‘come out’, but she shows no interest in men, much to her vain and difficult mother’s distress. Unfortunately it soon turns out that she is in love, but with the highly unsuitable ‘Boy’ Dougdale, her Uncle through marriage, who ‘fooled around’ with the Radlett girls as children and has been her mother’s longstanding extra marital lover. This causes terrible problems amongst her family, and also for the Radletts, who are intimately involved, and things only get more complicated when the outrageously gay Cedric Hampton, heir to Polly’s father’s entailed fortune, turns up on the scene. It’s very funny, and wise, and filled with the same brilliant larger than life characters as The Pursuit of Love, but it lacked the charm and cosiness of its predecessor for me. Still highly recommended, though.

I know a lot of people have posted about Nancy now that Penguin are republishing her, and I am glad she is having a mini renaissance. I am anxious to read the nice new edition of Don’t Tell Alfred, which completes the triology of novels Fanny narrates. The previously unavailable Wigs on the Green has also intrigued me, though I have heard from several reliable sources that it’s not quite up to the mark. All I know is that a novel by a Mitford is always going to interest me due to their shameless use of personal friends and relatives as material, so whether they’re well written or not, they’ll always be entertaining! I’ll be asking for these two for my birthday and I’ll let you know how I get on.

The Mitford Girls by Mary S Lovell

Seeing as I’ve just started this blog I feel the nee d to write another post, to bulk things out a little. And yes, this isn’t a novel, but a biography, and I know I say I never read anything other than turgid novels, but that was a teensy lie and I am, if anything, a woman of many contradictions. So, a biography this is. I love a good biography, but usually only if the person (or people) it’s about are dead and/or rich and/or dysfunctional and/or very naughty and the good old Mitfords are all of those things in spades apart from the dear Duchess of Devonshire who is still very much alive and still very wonderful.

The Mitfords were a band of six sisters (and a brother, but he barely gets a look in and then tragically got killed in action after the war had ended) who were all born in the early years of the 20th century to Lord and Lady Redesdale, minor, impoverished and, of course, rather eccentric aristos who had a pile Somewhere North of London, and a gold mine, with, as it turned out, no gold in it, in Canada. Lord and Lady Redesdale also happened to have a talent for breeding attractive, intelligent and strong willed daughters. Nancy, the eldest daughter, grows up and goes to Oxford and becomes friends with everyone worth being friends with – mostly witty camp clever men who go to Oxford and end up being Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman and everyone else who was famous for being witty and camp and clever in the 20th century, and after much sadness and heartbreak etc ends up being a famous writer herself and living in Paris and writing the most hilarious and lovely books ever, despite loving a handsome cad who never loves her back.

Unity, the fourth daughter, goes skipping off to Germany, just so happens to fall in love with Hitler, and then shoots herself when war is declared, though, being a Mitford, she makes a real hash of it and doesn’t actually kill herself, but simply damages her brain, leaving her dependant on others for the rest of her short life. Diana, the third daughter and most beautiful, also meets Hitler and likes him very much and then falls in love with Sir Oswald Mosley the Fascist, leaves her nice but dim husband for him and then ends up in Holloway prison. Jessica, the fifth daughter, turns Communist, moves to America and blames Diana for her husband’s death in the war because she supports Hitler and doesn’t speak to her for the next…oh..thirty odd years. Debo, the youngest, marries a nice young man whose older brother dies and so she unexpectedly ends up as the Duchess of Devonshire, and also the peacemaker amongst her warring sisters, and then of course there’s the lovely Pam, the second daughter, who stays under the radar and looks after everybody else’s children when they’re off gallivanting around Europe and making headlines.

These sisters are hilarious – they behave like squabbling children well into their old age, refuse to speak to one another FOR YEARS when minor offences have been made, write nasty depictions of each other in their books, talk frequently in the made up language of their childhood and write the most wonderful, witty, scathing letters to each other that I’ve ever read. They were (are, in the case of Debo) all brave, independent, intelligent, beautiful and warm hearted women who lived through extraordinary times, were related to and friends with some of the biggest movers and shakers of the day, and carved lives that were very distinct from each other’s, some with great success, others with great tragedy. They didn’t always get along, and some of the sisters were very close while others couldn’t stand the sight of each other, but when it mattered, they stood together against the world, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with each of them as I read about their turbulent and fascinating lives.

And it’s not just the girls that come out as heroes; their mother, Sydney, was a truly remarkable woman who encouraged all of her girls to be themselves and always remained loyal, unbiased and loving despite what each one put her through. Their father, the wonderfully eccentric David, comes across as a real grumpy bear who loved his daughters and was deeply sorry to lose contact with them as they grew up and left home. The marriage of the Mitfords and their affection for one another, even after they have moved into separate homes, was one of the most touching aspects of the book.

All in all, this is a wonderful read, that is written in a gossipy, mostly unbiased style (it’s clear Mary Lovell doesn’t think much of Jessica) and rips along at a rate of knots…I could barely put it down! The Mitfords all led such eventful lives, and as they were so involved in the great debates of the day, and knew all of the people worth knowing at the time, their story also becomes, in a way, the story of the 20th century itself. Remarkable, fascinating, at times infuriating (Unity, Jessica and Diana in particular are not the most reasonable of women) and unforgettable -I’m moving on to their letters next. Read it! Now! You can buy your own copy here.