Wednesday, 24 February 2010

WIGS ON THE GREEN


First published in 1935, Nancy Mitford’s third novel, Wigs on the Green, was never reprinted in her lifetime. Although its plot - like all of Mitford’s novels – is essentially an exploration of love and marriage, and has all the trademark Mitford wit, brio, and strong autobiographical detail, it’s also a satire on British fascism.

Mitford wasn’t the only novelist to poke fun at the British Union of Fascists – I’ve always loved Wodehouse’s parody of Mosley, as Roderick Spode in The Code of the Woosters (1938), which makes him as ridiculous as one could possibly wish.


“The trouble with you, Spode, [says Wooster] is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone. You hear them shouting "Heil, Spode!" and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: "Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?"


Whilst the satire is rather gentler in Wigs on the Green, Wodehouse didn’t have sisters who were infamously and intimately involved with the Fascist cause, and its publication went particularly hard with Diana, who was married in all but name to Oswald Mosley, for whom she’d left her husband in 1932. Although Mitford removed the three chapters that most obviously lampooned Mosley as Captain Jack, the leader of the Union Jackshirts, Wigs on the Green caused a rift between her and Diana that lasted almost until the end of the war. “But I also know your point of view,” wrote Nancy to Diana shortly before its publication, in an attempt to mollify her, “That Fascism is something too serious to be dealt with in a funny book at all.” In fact, Nancy later took her sister’s commitment to fascism extremely seriously, warning MI5 that she was "far cleverer and more dangerous than her husband" (Diana had married Mosley in a secret ceremony in Berlin in 1936).

Yet it’s not Diana who is caricatured in Wigs on the Green, it’s Unity, who at twenty-one was already under the spell of National Socialism, albeit some years from becoming the Hitler obsessive who shot herself in the head the day war broke out between England and Germany, with a pistol given to her by the Führer himself . In Wigs on the Green, Unity is Eugenia Malmain, ardent supporter of Captain Jack and his Union Jackshirts, and one of the richest girls in Britain, a perfect target for the attentions of the fortune-hunting Noel Foster and his disreputable pal, Jasper Aspect. It’s the adolescent aspects of the Jackshirt movement that seem to appeal to Eugenia most– the dressing up, belonging to a gang and rampaging around on her spirited horse, Vivien Jackson, with the faithful Reichshund at her side. The politics are full of fabulous rhetoric, bombast and nonsense – I’m particularly taken with Eugenia's definition of Aryan:


"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.


Every joke – even a clever if light-hearted satire – has its moment: by the time Mitford’s publisher asked for permission to reissue the novel, in 1951, the world had changed. As she wrote to Evelyn Waugh, “Too much has happened for jokes about Nazis to be regarded as…anything but the worst of taste”.

And so it remained out of print for nearly seventy five years. Next week, Penguin publishes Wigs on the Green alongside a new edition of Mitford’s finest novels – The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing and Don’t Tell Alfred. It doesn’t have quite the same marvellousness of the post-war novels, which are so captivating one can’t help but read them again and again and again until the spines fall apart with love and delight– my first ever copy of The Pursuit of Love is now more sellotape than novel, really – but it is still a tremendous read. Wigs on the Green has sufficient Mitford hallmarks to have you roaring with laughter, but with the added fascination of having elements of a roman à clef.

Wigs on the Green, by Nancy Mitford, is published by Fig Tree (Penguin) on 4th March.

NB: If you are new to Mitford, you should definitely start with The Pursuit of Love - as A Whirl in London says below, it is to Mitford what Pride and Prejudice is to Austen.

30 comments:

Miss Welcome said...

Thank you! (I say reverently) for giving me another good read to look forward to. This sounds right up my alley, although I'll almost need a translator to navigate through a period of Britain's history I wasn't aware of - that, on top of the British slang.

lady jane grey said...

Hm, I knew only that the Mitfords were involved with Fascism in England, but didn't know which one and how, in particular (I'm a non-Brit). I heard so much about Nancy recently - and so many positive things, it's definitely high time to read a book by her. Which one I should start with ? (what about the one with the correspodence of the sisters ?)

awhirlinlondon said...

I have to leap in! Please forgive and correct as necessary, Mrs. Trefusis! My vote: _The Pursuit of Love_. It is the quintessential Nancy Mitford novel, I think, plus it will lead you right into _Love in a Cold Climate_. I've read all of them at least 100 times and for me, _Don't Tell Alfred_ holds up most sturdily among an incredibly sturdy bunch, but _The P of L_ is to Nancy Mitford what _Pride and Prejudice_ is to Jane Austen.

The letters are marvellous, but better to go them once you've become as obsessed with the Mitfords as you will upon finishing one of Nancy's novels.

Jessica Mitford's _Hons and Rebels_ is another delight, though autobiography rather than fiction. Still, Nancy's fiction is so autobiographical and Jessica's autobiography will read to most of us as fiction, so not as much difference as you might think.

Lucky you to be able to read all of these for the first time!

Anonymous said...

It's a long time since I read "Wigs on the green" , but I still have a copy of "Highland Fling" from that era.

I read "The Mitfords Letters between six sisters" over the Christmas break last year and loved it. The shrieking, the teasing, the nicknames, the cries of" Do admit" the sheer sparkle of their conversations- such fun- it is easy to overlook their major contribution to history and literature.

I'm delighted to read your post and do hope that it will encourage people to read books by the Mitfords or books about the Mitfords. Letters between six sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley is a great starting point.

Rose said...

I truly cannot wait to read this- I have never managed to track a copy down wigs. I love her 'hit's dearly, they have been treasured friends to me over the years and even pulled me out of quite sad times. I admire her for writing Wigs, it can't have been easy with her family situation.

I am very much looking forward to reading my pre- ordered copy next week!

Thanks for the lovely review x

Cassandra said...

Cannot WAIT to read Wigs on the Green - sooooooooooo exciting

Lulu said...

I've already ordered my copy from Amazon. Also worth noting that Capuchin Classics are re-issuing Highland Fling in a couple of months. It's just too, too exciting!

www.lampandbook.blogspot.com

nappy valley girl said...

Sounds like a fascinating read - thank you for drawing attention to it. I love Love in a Cold Climate, and had never heard of this one. There was an excellent documentary on C4(?) sometime last year about Unity, addressing the rumour that she became pregnant with Hitler's child.

More than Just a Mother said...

What a great review. I now feel I absolutely must read it.

I love your blog; it's so varied and so beautifully written.

Lewis William said...

If I could channel but the merest hint of Wodehouse's genius..
Never managed to find a copy of WotG but will ensure I do so ASAP. x

Welsh Girl said...

I have always infinitely preferred Nancy Mitford to Jane Austen. They are so English, beautifully executed, hugely funny and acidic. The idea that there is another one out there that I haven't read is the best news I've had all year!

magpie said...

I am so looking forward to reading this, although Nancy Mitford always, always does something strange to my vocabulary. For a few days afterwards I sound awfully Jolly Hockeysticks.
How can you compare Mitford to Austen though? One should be essential reading for teenage girls everywhere and the other is glorified mills and boon.

magpie said...

Ooops, that sounds horrid and controversial - I don't hate Jane Austen, she's just a bit insipid next to Nancy Mitford.

mothership said...

Oddly enough I came to Nancy Mitford as a teenager after discovering and falling in love with Jessica, reading Nancy after seemed very frivolous and 'drawing room pink' so it took me a couple of decades before I was ready to revisit and appreciate. I missed this one, though

Pudfish said...

Hi there, just recently discovered your blog, which I love! I also love Nancy Mitford novels but have never read this one, did not know it existed, so thanks for this!

Dawn/LittleGreenFingers said...

Nancy Mitford was the novelist of the week on Radio 4's the Write Stuff a couple of weeks ago (which is utterly brilliant and I would highly recommend) - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006zbzb

At the end the contestants do a pastiche on the author in the style of another. That week it was Nancy Mitford taking on Irvine Welch's territory of drugs, poverty and the gritty underbelly of Scottish urban life. It is one of life's little tragedoes that this is no longer available on iPlayer

Anonymous said...

Dear Mrs Trefusis,

How lovely to have caught a ride with you.

You are utterly divine!

xxx elle

ra said...

I was mooching in a bookshop and there was 'Wigs on the Green'. So, I speedily purchased it and am now looking forward to starting it tonight. Thank you for writing about this - and all your other great posts.

Rose said...

got my copy today! I broke and went to Hatchard's even though I wanted to wait and go the lovely shop she worked in- but I couldn't wait- I actually cancelled my internet order as it wasn't here yet! Have just started wigs, enjoyed the foreword, like CM's style. Just getting reading and feels like a cashmere blanket, not quite as sharp as the later stuff yet but still brill.

Lewis William said...

Tagged you in an award, hope you find time to do it, not to worry if no. x

Faux Fuchsia said...

Can I just say I love Nancy? When I was in Paris in 2008 my sister and I found her flat on Rue Monsiuer. It was quite exciting. I do wish the Col had loved her more and married her. All that Dior was nice but it didn't make up for his rampant Commitmentphobia. Lovely article on out Debo in this month's Tatler.

alioh said...

i love reading your literary comments and wry words. . . they make my day. . . hope your day goes well. . thank you.

awhirlinlondon said...

"Glorified Mills and Boon", she shrieks in horror.

Forget about Richardson, Fielding and Defoe; Austen invented the novel as we know it. Forgive me Ian Watt & followers, but all else is dead white male conspiracy. (I exaggerate, but not by much.)

Mitford is glorious, upper-class, witty, quintessential Bright Young Thing from a fascinating family (her mother is said to have moaned that every time she saw "Peer's daughter" in the papers, she knew it was one of hers) but Austen is staggeringly perfect.

Or did you mean that Austen was the one who should be read by teenaged girls everywhere ;-) ?

Anonymous said...

Love WOTG. Looking forward to the party too

Anonymous said...

When is the Beauty Part Two coming?
I have been looking forward to it!

screamish said...

i've been reading "the bolter" and i soon after bought "love in a cold climate"...amazing stuff...

sanjeet said...

The letters are marvellous, but better to go them once you've become as obsessed with the Mitfords as you will upon finishing one of Nancy's novels.

data entry work from home

shayma said...

I started with the Pursuit of Love years ago- thanks to a gift from you- and I loved it-and now love Mitford. x shayma

Dividing My Time said...

I love this blog and I love Nancy Mitford! Just sent a copy of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate to my two nieces. I also just bought a SECOND copy of The Mitfords: Letters Between Two Sisters, which is A must-read for obsessed Mitfordians. Thanks so much for this post!

Earl said...

It's a brilliantly written book. You could name it forever young wigs or front lace wigs and it still would contain the same natural essence of being done with sheer genius.