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.