I was recently thrilled to discover a long-lost Stella Gibbons novel, Nightingale Wood, which has just been republished by Penguin. Perhaps encouraged by that delight, I leapt on the handsome new Vintage paperback of Nancy Mitford’s long-out-of-print Wigs on the Green. But I was reminded that many neglected books deserve to remain that way. Of course, given the energy of the Mitford industry it seems unlikely that any scribblings by any of those sisters will remain overlooked for long.
There are two reasons for the long disappearance of Wigs on the Green, the first of which is that it’s a satire of the British Fascists, so ardently espoused by Nancy’s sister Diana. The book may have been intended as a light-hearted romp but it was apparently completely transparent — the introduction by Diana’s daughter-in-law Charlotte Mosley notes that the character of young political enthusiast Eugenia Malmains is a clear portrait of Unity Mitford. The sisters did not speak for years afterward.
Unfortunately, the other reason the book has been forgotten is that it just isn’t any good. Nancy produced two charming novels, Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, but before she achieved those she penned a couple of damp squibs called Highland Fling and Christmas Pudding. (Afterward she went on to write truly wonderful biographies of mostly eighteenth-century figures: Madame de Pompadour, Frederick the Great, Voltaire.) Wigs on the Green is one of those starter novels. It reads less like an actual piece of fiction than like a set of stage directions, strangely declarative, almost hortatory, and the characters are mostly cardboard figures. Roughly, the plot involves two young-men-about-town who travel to a Cotswold village to pay court to a local heiress. This is the beautiful but peculiar Eugenia Malmains/Diana Mitford, granddaughter of Lord and Lady Chalford. She has been brought up in virtual seclusion and cares only about the Union Jack Movement. Madcap doings ensue, culminating in an historical pageant at the magnificent estate of Chalford House. Village life is sketched in: there are arty young men at nearby Rackenbridge, a couple of hearty yokels, an insane asylum populated entirely by peers, and my favorite character, the deliciously pretentious Ann-Marie Lace who sees life as one dramatic opportunity after another. She is inclined to adopt a foreign accent owing to six months’ worth of singing lessons in Paris, and dresses more for the stage than for village life.
Mrs. Lace is funny. Certain throwaway lines are funny. My favorite section comes when Eugenia has to explain to her new friends what an Aryan is:
“‘Well, it’s quite easy. A non-Aryan is the missing link between man and beast. That can be proved by the fact that no animals, except the Baltic goose, have blue eyes.’
“‘How about Siamese cats?’ said Jasper.
“‘That’s true. But Siamese cats possess, to a notable degree, the Nordic virtue of faithfulness.’
“‘Indeed they don’t,’ said Poppy. ‘We had one last summer and he brought back a different wife every night…’
“Eugenia was in no way put out. ‘I know, they may not be faithful to non-Aryan cats… But they love their Nordic owners and even go for long walks with them.’
“‘So your definition of an Aryan is somebody who will go for long walks with other Aryans?'”
This is loopy enough to sound like a transcription of an actual conversation among those daffy Mitford gals, and confirms my opinion that Nancy’s writing is at its best when it most closely resembles the truth. Or a slightly more sparkling version thereof.
It must be said, you’re really being too hard on this book. It may be one of her earlier, slighter novels, but I expect that your haughty dismissal of it owes more to your lack of imagination than its shortcomings.
I have just this morning finished Pursuit of Love, and did not know whether to read another by her or just go back to the beginning and read it again. (I suspect that it would be a thin read second time through, but I did so love discovering Mitford.) Glad to hear about your reservations about this one. I will know to proceed with caution.
I think there’s a lot of glitter with those Mitford women — the surfaces are brilliant. But I think you’re right, the second read would be thin. However Nancy’s biographies are delightful in an old-fashioned way — even illustrated!
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Eugenia is based on Unity, rather than Diana.
Thank you, Georgina. Correcting this Right Now.