Posts Tagged ‘Nancy Mitford’

Christmas Pudding

December 9, 2013

Christmas Pudding by Nancy MitfordWe discussed Christmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford’s wonderfully silly, laugh-out-loud second novel, at Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday.

Hampstead Heath was beautiful, the sun sweeping across it and warming us as we gathered around a bench at the Druid’s circle, scoffing mince pies and fruit loaf, wondering if Mitford would have considered our location to be London or country – a dichotomy she explores in her novel. Yesterday, wandering through such expansive space, while looking out across the crowded city, Hampstead was the best of everything. We did, however, recall Elizabeth von Arnim’s contemporary novel The Enchanted April, and thought that Nancy Mitford might have agreed with Lady Caroline:

Perhaps people who lived in Hampstead might be poor; indeed, must be poor, or why live in Hampstead?

Touché.

Christmas Pudding is the perfect antidote to the stresses of Christmas itself, when overfed families are liable to be at each other’s throats. I read it very quickly and laughed out loud on several occasions. I say, at the first sign of any trouble this Christmas, retreat to a sofa and pick it up and it will considerably brighten your outlook! In any case, it was exactly what I needed after such an upsetting read as The Bell Jar, a very affecting novel, the horror of which has haunted me all the week.

(Yes, the sharp-eyed amongst you will notice that The Golden Notebook – the final, most daunting novel in the Margaret Drabble recommends trilogy – has been put on hold. And, I’m afraid, it continues to be on hold, most likely until the New Year, when I hope I might have a spurt of energy that might inspire tackling such an intellectual, meaty, thick book.)

Christmas Pudding has a terribly silly plot: The improbably named Paul Fotheringay is distressed because his first novel Crazy Capers, which he wrote as a poignant tragedy, has received rave reviews as a hysterically funny farce. His friend, the inimitable ex-courtesan Amabelle Fortescue, advises him to write a serious biography for his next book, and he decides on Victorian poetess Lady Maria Bobbin for his subject. He writes to the present Lady Bobbin asking if he might visit and read her ancestor’s diaries. On receiving his letter:

She read it over twice, found herself unfamiliar with such words as hostelry, redolent and collaboration, and handed it to her secretary, saying, ‘The poor chap’s batty, I suppose?’

Thus rejected, Paul turns to Amabelle again, who devises an ingenious plan. She is friendly with Lady Bobbin’s teenage son Bobby Bobbin, who is at Eton (of course), and is a fun-loving, self-confessed snob. She engineers it so that Paul will go to stay with the Bobbins over the Christmas holidays in the guise of Bobby’s tutor. Amabelle has conveniently rented a nearby cottage, and Paul and Bobby spend all their time supposedly riding and golfing etc, while actually sneaking off there to play bridge. Add to this Paul’s falling in love with Bobby’s bored sister Philadelphia, and a certain Lord Lewes who becomes a rival for her affection, and a host of other minor characters all brilliantly daft, and you get a pudding of delight!

Carry on JeevesIt reminded me very much of PG Wodehouse. I kept expecting to bump into Gussy Finknottle and his newts. Here, the equivalent to Bertie Wooster’s twitty friends, are Squibby Almanack and his friends Biggy and Bunch, who are more passionate about Wagner than debutantes. Missing, however, from Christmas Pudding, so essential to Jeeves & Wooster, is Jeeves! For while Mitford has her posh twits aplenty, she pays no attention to manservants or any staff at all. There is a brief mention of Amabelle’s groom, who exercises the horses to fool Lady Bobbin, while Paul and Bobby play bridge, but that’s pretty much it. One can only conclude that Mitford was interested only in the antics of the upper classes, not the lower. Perhaps she felt capable only of dissecting the problems faced by people of her own class. Perhaps she was simply a snob, but if so, I hope we can forgive her, seeing as she is so good at poking fun at and pointing out the many shortcomings of all her toffs.

Mitford pays a great deal of attention to the question of marriage, which is shown to be more-or-less the only option for upper-class woman. The great question is whether to marry for love or for money. Advice on this tends to be rather unromantic. Amabelle says:

If I had a girl I should say to her, “Marry for love if you can, but it won’t last, but it is a very interesting experience and makes a good beginning in life. Later on, when you marry for money, for heaven’s sake let it be big money. There are no other possible reasons for marrying at all.”

Later on she says:

The older I get the more I think it is fatal to marry for love. The mere fact of being in love with somebody is a very good reason for not marrying them, in my opinion. It brings much more unhappiness than anything else.

While lesser novelists might be tempted to write a run-away love affair, the sort of Sybil and Tom narrative of Downton Abbey, Mitford takes care to stress the sensible unromantic realities beneath all her silly farce.

At Emily’s Walking Book Club, we were all rather enamoured with the winsome character of Amabelle. She has the most autonomy of all the characters and is able to choose her fate as well as manoeuvre the others into helpful positions. I wonder if there is something of Mitford herself in her, with her spirit of fun, and writerly controlling of the plot.

Another point that walkers raised was that while Christmas Pudding should read as a period piece, capturing a 1930s situation that ought to be inconceivable now, in actual fact, little has changed. There remains a feeling of entitlement amongst the upper classes, especially in politics, with the Lords who decide they might take up their seat in the House. Just look at our Etonian cabinet, raged the walkers. I felt rather proud that we’d managed to get so political. Who dares to claim that reading novels is less serious than reading non-fiction?!

So while on first glance Christmas Pudding is the perfect book to raise one’s spirits, providing some light relief to what can be a rather dark time of year, on further scrutiny there is a great deal of serious stuff to discuss. Marriage, politics, class, matriarchy and more. What a clever, skilful novelist Nancy Mitford was!

I set Daphne the acid test of choosing between Christmas Pudding or some rocket leaves:

Christmas Pudding 1

The rocket caught her eye immediately.

Christmas pudding 2

She made a beeline for it.

Christmas pudding 3

And consumed it with relish.

Christmas pudding 4

Then, faced with the prospect of Christmas Pudding, she seemed rather weary.

Christmas pudding 5

I can see that Christmas Pudding is rather too fast-paced for her. Or perhaps she simply finds the snobbery rather tedious. Or perhaps she simply prefers the writing of Mitford’s great friend, Evelyn Waugh.

The Reading-Gassing Challenge

November 21, 2011

I spent rather an uncharacteristic weekend up in Scotland, shooting.

Well, admittedly, I didn’t actually do any actual shooting. That was left to the men, while we women either hovered nearby, covering our ears and watching them miss the startled pheasants, or did things like cook and sit around chatting. My friend and I were set our own little challenge of being sent home to fetch thermoses of sausages and Bullshot for elevenses. We managed to fail abysmally and abandoned the hire care in a field, only to be laughed at for being too London to understand how to open a gate and then discovering that we’d manage to cause a traffic jam for a rather unimpressed shepherd.

The other main challenge of the weekend was achieving the perfect reading-gassing balance. One of my favourite things about weekends away in lovely houses with drawing rooms and fireplaces is the inevitably large proportion of time spent semi-supine on a sofa, drinking tea or booze and gassing away. It is such fun. I can’t think of a better way of getting to know people, or a better way of whiling away an afternoon.

Yet, in such circumstances, I often get a little nagging pulse in my head telling me that I should be doing something useful. Sometimes this can be mollified by making another pot of tea, or fetching a packet of biscuits. But sometimes I feel a bit like time is slipping through my fingers and I should be spending it writing, or, failing that, at least reading something.

So, for me, the only thing better than sitting around and gassing, is sitting around and gassing while reading. This, as you might imagine, can pose various problems. Some books are too engrossing, so it really is impossible to read them, whilst even occasionally engaging in conversation. It’s just too rude to sit there in the midst of a lively conversation with ears closed off, thoroughly ensconced in one’s own private book world. Besides, it makes one feel as though one’s missing out. There’s nothing worse than being startled out of a paragraph by hearing gales of laughter and not being able to discover what’s so funny.

Conversely, if a book doesn’t hold one’s attention quite firmly enough, then it’s hard to read any of it while conversation is going on, as one’s mind is too liable to graft onto the latter. Rereading a book can be a good option. Or else, a book with short chapters or several section breaks, so that you can slip back into the conversation every page or two.

I had a brief flick though Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling, which in many ways would have been the ideal thing to read. All about shooting in Scotland, I could move between the book and the conversation almost seamlessly. I more than empathised with the bit when the girl gets told off for wearing black. ‘Whoever heard of black on a hill?’ she’s asked, more or less. Well certainly one isn’t supposed to wear yellow on a hill. For the first time ever, I was rather ashamed of my bright yellow wellies, which I rather feebly tried to pass off as camouflaging with a patch of gorse. (Luckily everyone was too polite to be all that mean about them.)

Yet I wasn’t really in the mood for Nancy Mitford. Perhaps I’d had old-school overload with the blissful Mariana – see my last post, here. In any case, I ended up reading a very new book, made up of conversation-dipping-friendly short sections, by a bright young thing of today.

Landfall by Helen Gordon follows Alice, a thirty-four-year-old art critic, who abandons her painfully trendy life in Shoreditch and moves back to her childhood home in the suburbs. It’s a very good book, but I have to say, the opening section in painfully trendy Shoreditch was nothing much other than quite painful. There were a lot of clichéd lines about silly haircuts and living in cold warehouse units and ending up accidentally in bed with artistic wastrels after drinking too much. Nothing new there. I’d rather watch an episode of the – genius – Nathan Barley.

But once Alice gets back to the suburbs, the book becomes quite brilliant. And luckily I’d already got through the Shoreditch bit on the way up to Scotland, so by the time I undertook the reading-gassing challenge, my attention was sufficiently grasped.

At the heart of the novel is a feeling of entropy. Here is a successful young woman, with opportunities offered to her on a plate, who chooses to walk away from everything. She feels like she has nothing left to say, ‘as if her imagination had emptied itself out’. Alice lets her life unravel. She withdraws, cuts her ties, watches herself become increasingly introverted, a recluse. She abandons her friends, her career, her appearance, and watches everything spiral undone.

It’s not long before the trauma at the heart of Alice’s desire to withdraw becomes clear. Seventeen years ago, her sister Janey disappeared. Disappearance is central to the book. As Janey’s haunting voice in Alice’s head says, ‘Everyone has a right to be lost.’ Janey’s disappearance is refracted in other examples scattered throughout the book. Danny, the strange boy next door, nearly drowned as a child. He has no friends, no school, and no job, drifting around silently, almost invisible, almost disappeared from society. A Scandinavian artist, who Alice eventually agrees to write a book about, has become a ‘seaside recluse’, having stopped making art and disappearing from the art world’s consciousness so successfully that Alice’s friend thinks she is dead.

Key to all this disappearance is the idea of the edge. Alice retreats from the false edginess of Shoreditch to the real, geographical edge of the suburbs – ‘the edges of the A–Z’. I expect you’ve noticed the edge on the cover image above. Alice is told, when she leans over the parapet of a multi-storey carpark:

‘You’re making me nervous … Come back from the edge now.’

What happens over the edge? Can someone really step off the edge and disappear? How can someone disappear in today’s densely-populated England of CCTV and mobile phones? This is a book about vertigo. About peering over the edge, feeling dizzy, and letting go.

I suppose there shouldn’t really have been any similarity between this cool young novel about moving from Shoreditch to the suburbs and a rather old-fashioned weekend of shooting in Scotland. But in some ways going up to Scotland, to a remote place with no internet or mobile network was a way of disappearing. Certainly, climbing up big hills, looking down on vast beautiful glens and seeing nothing but reddy-brown space stretching for miles, felt like being on the very edge of the world. So the two ended up striking rather an eerie chime. Landfall is a great book, thoughtfully written and thought-provoking. Best of all, it let me complete the reading-gassing challenge with great success.

The brains behind Jackboots

April 30, 2010

Last week I went to an advance screening of Jackboots on Whitehall, an epic stop-motion film about what might have happened if the Nazis had invaded.

It’s a completely utterly wonderfully mindblowingly brilliant film. And it’s beautiful – epic sweeps across pastoral English countryside, great shots of London, old intricate maps, and fantastic models. The one of Goebbels is particularly impressive, with skin a pale shade of sickly green and jaw always awkwardly gawping open. In fact, with such an impressive sidekick, I thought the model of Hitler would have to be a disappointment, but that problem was overcome by Hitler’s dramatic entrance in frilly overblown drag.

I laughed almost all the way through Jackboots, except for one bit when a tear almost leaked out, just before the final battle at Hadrian’s Wall when everyone sings Jerusalem.

But what was so particularly endearing, and so eye-opening, and so flabberghastingly impressive, is that Jackboots was made by a good friend of mine and his younger brother. In fact they have already made cameo appearances elsewhere in this blog …

For the past few years, they’ve put their all into writing and directing this film. I’ve heard about it on many an occasion, from the thrill of doing the voice recordings with such a star-studded cast (including Rosamund Pike, Ewan McGregor, Richard E. Grant and Alan Cumming), to the excited exhaustion of non-stop filming for six weeks, even to the difficulty of finding the right corduroy for the main character’s trousers.

It was quite odd to watch Jackboots knowing who had written it. It was such a fascinating glimpse into my friends’ rather peculiar minds.

At the beginning, Goebbels and Goering and some other lead Nazis are in a Zeppelin flying over a pastoral scene. They decide to drop a bomb, and look through their viewfinder for the perfect target. Various characters fill the frame – a vicar, some pretty milkmaids, an arrogant soldier, but the final target is a baby’s pram. I was surprised (and, dare I say, rather unnerved) by such dark humour. And how on earth did the two of them come up with the idea of the main character’s vital trait – his big hands? And the American guy who’s convinced the Nazis are all actually Communists? Or the great little gag when the Nazis rechristen The Ritz, ‘The Fritz’?

‘So this is how their brains work,’ I kept thinking, ‘that is so exactly what they would make happen next …’ Watching the film was like watching the two of them in some kind of ultimate conversation – in which every gag is spot on, every sound effect on cue, and with a host of actors to do all the different voices. Although I kept listening out for friends in the cameo roles.

It’s a dangerous game to try and find out how writers’ brains work from what they’ve written. Most of A-Level English was spent being told, ‘the narrator is NOT the author’ and it’s generally seen as pretty reductive to spot their friends/lovers/enemies among the main characters. Of course it can be informative to bring biographical information to a reading of a text, but the text supposedly lives free of the author and, according to Barthes, the reader is the author too – bringing their own wealth of experience and associations to the text. Now I’m actually trying to write a novel, I have to say I think the reader definitely gets the easier ride of authorship.

As it so happens, I’m reading Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green at the moment. It’s a delicious slice of the thirties a la P.G. Wodehouse – lots of posh young people larking around a village and falling in love with each other, although, of course, in the wrong combinations.

But this is a book in which biographical information is absolutely vital. It is really a very thinly veiled satire of Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts (or ‘Union Jacksuits’ in the book). Indeed Wigs caused such a rift between Nancy and her sister Diana – who became Oswald’s second wife – that she never allowed it to be reprinted during her lifetime. Originally published in 1935, it’s only just come back into print.

This charming novel about silly posh people gains a whole new dimension when one knows about the Mitford sisters and Mosley and the falling out. Eugenia Malmains, for instance, described as Britain’s largest heiress, is a thinly veiled Unity Mitford – famed for being six foot one, very large indeed.

Of course most writers don’t make such direct satires – probably from fear of libel as much as anything else – but it can be fun to try and think of how particular friends, enemies or neuroses come out in their text. For instance, having discovered that Hook went to Eton, on rereading Peter Pan after seeing Enron, I felt more than a pang of disappointment when I found out that J.M. Barrie didn’t go to Harrow. I wonder why his quintessential villain was an Etonian then? Perhaps he couldn’t stand all the posh public schoolboys he met at Edinburgh University.

But going back to Jackboots on Whitehall, and this funny squint into my friends’ brains, I realised quite how bonkers they both were, quite how much they loved mad Scots, and that when faced with danger they will always be able to twist it into a joke and laugh their way out of it. So next time we all play Germans in the Dark I needn’t be quite so scared.