Quote… Unquote

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post I’ve become engrossed in the novels of Nancy Mitford (left), though after having completed her three earliest I am now taking a break – too much of a good thing can becoming cloying after a while.   And for my taste Mitford is a “good thing”.   Though I greatly enjoyed the book that started this read fest, Christmas Pudding, and her third novel Wigs on the Green (I understand why she was unwelcome in the house of her sister Diana and her Fascist crowd) there is something about the first book, Highland Fling, that I found gave me the greatest pleasure.  Perhaps it is a young writer finding her way, not always sure of her characters or plot but writing with an intimate knowledge and affection for the people she has used as her models.  In all three novels her older titled folk are caricatures but not as broad, or as bitter, as those created by many of her contemporaries. In Wigs her portrait of Lady Chalford with her ridiculously rigid moral code is at first laughable, then touching but ultimately disturbing as you see it reflected in her grand-daughter’s Union Jackshirt credo – this woman knew her class.    And her “bright young things” – no doubt drawing on her own experiences with that set – are etched with only a light touch of acid –  their follies and foibles suggesting that the “me” generation we talk about today is not a new thing.

I am a great fan of, the oft mentioned here, E. F. Benson and P. G. Wodehouse both of whose creatures inhabit, as do Mitford’s, an England caught between the two Great Wars. A period of flux and change, of discovery and of loss for a generation and a world that never quite recovered from the  effects of those 5 years.  That period of the “lost generation” does not appear to ruffle Benson’s upper middle-class citizens of Tilling – what other than the intrigues of their own little world does? –  nor disturb the antics of members of Bertie’s Drones Club.  But in Highland Fling Mitford recognizes the incredible gap between a generation who had fought for a set of values which they were then told were out-dated and valueless by a generation that had no regard for them or their values.  If I weren’t reading an novel written in the 1930s I would swear Mitford was talking about today.

“Bright Young Things” – Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant, Zita Jungman, Edith Olivier and Rex Whistler – all looking very stylish and set for a weekend of pleasure and leisure. It was a world well known to Nancy Mitford and her sisters.

 

As Highland Fling begins a quartet of bright young things heads up to Scotland to see to the care, feeding and recreation – or rather wholesale slaughter of game – of a hunting party at a familial castle in Scotland.  Amongst the group is Albert Gates, an avant-garde artist and I suppose the “hero” of the novel as much as there can be heroes in any of Mitford’s tales.  One evening at dinner, surrounded by local gentry, old nobility and pensioned military men,  Gates holds forth at table on the futility of the 1914-1919 war and smugly suggested that these people  enjoyed its slaughter as much as they enjoyed bagging helpless game.  Mr. Buggins, a gentle quiet man who until this moment has been very much in the background dully reciting historical facts, gently and quietly as is his nature and without the bluster and indignation of the others around the table answers the younger man.

But at the same time, Gates, there is something I should like to say to you, which is, that I think you have no right to speak as you did of the men who fought in the War.  Sneering at them and hoping they enjoyed it, and so on.  I know you did not really mean to say much, but remember that sort of thing does no good and only creates more bitterness between our two generations, as though enough does not exist already.  I know that many of us seem to you narrow-minded, stupid and unproductive.  But if you would look a bit below the surface you might realize that there is a reason for this.  Some of us spent four of what should have been our four best years in the trenches.

‘At the risk of boring you I will put my own case before you.

‘When the war broke out I was twenty-eight.  I had adopted literature as my profession and at the time was an art critic on several newspapers.  I had also written and published two books involving a great deal of hard work and serious research – the first, a life of Don John of Austria, the second, an exhaustive treatise on the life and work of Cervantes.  Both were well received and encouraged by this, I was, in 1914, engaged upon an extensive history of Spain at the time of Philip II, dealing in some detail, with, for instance the art of Velásquez and El Greco, the events which led to the Battle of Lepanto, the religious struggle in the Netherlands and so on.  I had been working hard for three years and had collected most of my material.

‘On the fifth of August, 1914, whether rightly or wrongly, but true to the tradition in which I had been brought up, I enlisted in the army.  Later in that year I received a commission.  I will not enlarge upon the ensuing years, but I can’t say I found them very enjoyable.

‘When in 1919, I was demobilized, I found that, as far as my work was concerned, my life was over – at the age of thirty-three.  I was well off financially.  I had leisure at my disposal.  I had my copious notes.  Perhaps – no doubt, in fact – it was a question of nerves.  Whatever the reason, I can assure you that I was totally incapable of such concentrated hard work as that book would have required.  I had lost interest in my subject and faith in myself.  The result is that I am now an oldish man, of certain culture, I hope, but unproductive, an amateur and a dilettante.  I know it. I despise myself for it, but I cannot help it.

‘And that, I am convinced, is more or less the story of hundreds of my contemporaries.

‘Everyone knows – you are at no pains to conceal it – that the young people of today despise and dislike the men and women of my age.  I suppose that never since the world began have two generations been so much a variance.  You think us to be superficial, narrow-minded, tasteless and sterile, and you are right.  But who knows what we might have become if things had been different?

‘That is why I do earnestly beg of you not to speak sarcastically, as you did just now, of the men who fought in the War.  Leave us, at any rate, the illusion that we were right so to do.

Highland Fling
Nancy Mitford – 1931
Penguin – Fig Tree – 2011
Available at Amazon

Mitford knew her people and her time well. And for a young writer she captured the feeling of that “lost generation” without great drama – simply almost tenderly.

12 February – 1429:  English forces under Sir John Fastolf defend a supply convoy carrying rations to the army besieging Orleans.

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Christmas Pudding, Luv?

As often happens when I either read, exchange e-mails with, or actually talk to my friend David I end up buying a book. David and I met three years ago through our blogs and I had the good luck to meet him and his Diplomate face to face for a concert and dinner when I was in London two years ago.  Brief though my recent trip to London was it still gave me the opportunity to meet up with David and the Diplomate on the Friday evening.

A lithograph from the London Illustrated News showing the new quarters of the Garrick Club in 1864.  The club had become so popular that its original building proved inadequate and a new building was constructed on King St – which was soon to become Garrick St in honour of both the club and the great actor it was named after.

The afternoon began with drinks at the Garrick Club with Diplomate and several of his friends who made this wide-eyed colonial bumpkin feel very comfortable amongst the theatrical splendor of one of the most prestigious private men’s clubs in England.  I would have liked to post a few pictures from the Internet of the interior with its incredible collection of theatrical art work but as a privileged guest I would be breaching etiquette by doing so; so you might want to click on the link above to see some of the splendors I saw at 15 Garrick Street.  Conversation – and several rather delicious Manhattan Cocktails topped up with champagne – flowed easily with one of England’s finest young countertenors and a member of the clergy from St Paul’s Cathedral.  Topics ranged from upcoming performances in Chicago to arts gossip to the Occupy London situation at the Cathedral to a charity project in India.   We then headed over to Chinatown to meet David and a lady friend for dinner at the New World – one of the top rated restaurants in the area.

 The lady friend is an editor with a small publishing house – yes they still exist – and her house had just had a title that had astonished everyone by making the best seller list over the Christmas holidays.  More astonishingly it wasn’t a new novel but a reissue of a book originally published in 1932.   Christmas Pudding was the second of Nancy Mitford‘s nine novels. Perhaps most astonishingly in recent years Mitford has been more thought of as one of those sad, bad, mad Mitford girls than the fine novelist she was and here she was once again a best selling author.  The reissue of Christmas Pudding climbed to #4 on the British best seller list and may well have started a mini-Renaissance for, as I’ve discovered, an unjustly neglected writer.  The general consensus at table was that it was a good read so I immediately added it to my mental list of books to read in 2012.

Those sad, bad, mad Mitford girls:  Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pamela Mitford in 1935.  Ben MacIntyre a journalist with The Times characterized them as:  “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur”.

And is there any better place to read a book than at 32,000 feet as you head across the Atlantic – particularly if none of the 72 video options are either interesting or current.  And surely if it was on the best seller list it would be available at the W. H. Smith bookstore at Heathrow.  I mean you can get Stilton cheese, Hermes scarves, Pink’s shirts (I bought two) , Clinque, 12 year old Scotch (Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or) and Molton Mowbray Pork Pies at the shops in the concourse  – so a best seller from this past Christmas should be there right?  Wrong!  When asked if she had Mitford’s Christmas Pudding, the pleasant lady at the till – in a voice that would have done Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins proud – suggested I look in cookbooks or if I wanted the real thing that it was a bit past the season but I might try Harrod’s.  Sadly I had to make do with the latest bit of Stephan Fryery as reading material and graciously passed on the idea of a Christmas pud from the Disneyland of Department Stores.

But I knew it would be available here – if not from Amazon then one of the small bookstores that still manage to do business in Ottawa.  Well I discovered that from the former I could order it and it would appear in my mail box sometime in the next three months and from the later possibly – if it could be ordered – it would be in my hands a month or two later.   Even a search of the Ottawa Public Library came up empty!  Now there is nothing quite like the inability to get something to whet the appetite for said unattainable item. 

Finally there it was, good old dependable Penguin had published all nine of Mitford’s novels in one of their marvelous “complete works of” series.  I was going to get to my fill of Mitford – 997 pages, excluding “new introduction by….”  – of a writer that I had neglected in the past.  So the reading project for this winter:  The Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford.  All nine! All 997 pages!  Ah well one shouldn’t do anything by halves should one?  Dear god I’m starting to talk like a Mitford Bright Young Thing!!!!!

 04 February – 960:  The coronation of Zhao Kuangyin as Emperor Taizu of Song, initiating the Song Dynasty that would last more than three centuries.

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