Friday, November 28, 2014

The 110th Anniversary of Nancy Mitford's Birth

There was perhaps no more famous (or notorious) set of sisters in the 20th Century than the Mitford sisters. The daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and Sydney Bowles, the Mitford sisters ranged from a celebrated beauty who married a British Fascist leader to a Communist who became a celebrated journalist and activist in the United States to a beloved duchess who was largely responsible for saving her husband's estate. While all of the Mitford sisters would attain some degree of fame (and, in some instances, infamy), perhaps the most famous of the sisters was also the eldest. Nancy Mitford would attain lasting fame as a novelist, biographer, and journalist. It was 110 years ago today that Nancy Mitford was born in London.

In many respects there was little wonder that Nancy Mitford should have a literary career. On her father's side she was descended from historian and author William Mitford as well as diplomat and author Algernon Freeman-Mitford, 1st Baron Redesdale (her grandfather). On her mother's side her grandfather was Thomas Gibson Bowles, journalist and founder of both the British Vanity Fair and The Lady. To say "writing is in one's blood" may be a bit of a cliché, but in the case of Nancy Mitford it might well have been true.

Nancy Mitford began her writing career in the late Twenties, writing short, anonymous pieces of gossip for the various society magazines. She soon moved onto writing articles for which she received a byline in magazines such as Vogue. It was in 1930 that she started writing weekly columns for the magazine that her maternal grandfather had founded, The Lady. While Miss Mitford made a nice amount of money writing articles, she had greater aspirations when it came to writing. Her first novel, Highland Fling, was published in 1931.

Nancy Mitford followed Highland Fling with Christmas Pudding in 1932, Wigs on the Green in 1935, and Pigeon Pie in 1940 before finding enormous success with The Pursuit of Love in 1945. The Pursuit of Love proved to be an international best seller. Nancy Mitford followed it with a companion novel, Love in a Cold Climate, in 1949. It proved equally successful. She followed the success of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate with The Blessing in 1951 and her final novel, Don't Tell Alfred, in 1960.

It was after Nancy Mitford had established herself as a best selling novelist that she also established herself as a biographer. Her first biography, Madame de Pompadour (about Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour), was published in 1954. It was followed by Voltaire in Love (dealing with the love affair between  Voltaire and the Marquise du Châtele) in 1957, The Sun King (dealing with Louis XIV) in 1966, and Frederick the Great in 1970. Miss Mitford wrote her biographies with much the same tone as her fiction, writing them as much to entertain as to educate. Like her later novels, her biographies also proved successful.

While Nancy Mitford's novels may have been her greatest claim to fame and her biographies remain popular, for many she may be best known for an essay "The English Aristocracy", first published in the magazine  Encounter in 1954 and later published in the collection Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry Into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy. "The English Aristocracy" was largely a Mitford tease, complete with a discussion of "U" (upper class) and "Non-U" (non-upper class or the lower classes) speech. Nancy Mitford did not invent the terms "U" and "Non-U" to denote the social dialects of Great Britain. It was British linguist Alan S. C. Ross, Professor of Linguistics in the University of Birmingham, who coined the terms in 1954 in his article "Linguistic Class-Indicators in Present Day English". Despite this Nancy Mitford would become the person most associated with the terms "U and Non-U". In fact, there were many who did not apparently get Miss Mitford's joke and the article stirred a bit of controversy with regards to the classes in Great Britain. There were even those who regarded Miss Mitford as an authority on the aristocracy, an insufferable snob, or both. While many today know that Nancy Mitford meant "The English Aristocracy" as a tease, she remains the person most closely associated with "U" and "Non-U" speech in most people's minds.

One hundred ten years after her birth Nancy Mitford remains one of the most popular authors to emerge from mid-20th Century Britain. Her works have even been adapted to film and television. Her novel The Blessing provided the basis for the 1959 comedy film Count Your Blessings. Her novels Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate were adapted as the 1980 Thames Television mini-series Love in a Cold Climate. In 2003 The Pursuit of Love was included in a list of "The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time" published in The Guardian.  Uncle Matthew from The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate was included in a list of the "Best Fictional Characters" published in The Independent in 2014.

If Nancy Mitford is still popular, it is perhaps because she was an immensely talented writer. She possessed a razor sharp wit which she put to good use in both her non-fiction articles and her novels. Although she has been accused of being an aristocratic snob, her novels are satires of the upper class. Particularly in The Pursuit of Love  and Love in a Cold Climate, Miss Mitford was always one to point out the absurdities of the aristocracy. The aristocracy were not the only targets of Nancy Mitford's satire. In Highland Fling and Christmas Pudding she sent up the Bright Young Things of her own generation. In Wigs on the Green she satirised the British Fascists so savagely that it created a rift between Nancy and her sister Diana (who was involved with and would later marry Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascist Union). Short of her friend Evelyn Waugh, no British writer was as good at satire as Nancy Mitford was.

Of course, much of  Nancy Mitford's success as a writer is also due to both her fiction and non-fiction being very readable. Even in her biographies Miss Mitford used a conversational style with a good deal of wit. None of her writing, from her articles to her novels to her biographies could ever be described as "dry" or "boring". She was also capable of creating very memorable characters. I suspect very few people who have read The Pursuit of Love  and Love in a Cold Climate will ever forget Uncle Matthew. As a writer Nancy Mitford was a unique combination of biting satire and readable prose that was easily adaptable to either fiction or non-fiction. It is little wonder that 110 years after her birth she continues to be popular.

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