Nancy Mitford portrait by Cecil Beaton
I will not stop reading the works of Nancy Mitford. This is an affliction rather than an affectation. Known for her light comedic novels about life in interwar Britain and biographies of French historical figures, I have concluded that Mitford has answers. It makes no sense to me that no one I've talked to is presently suffering this same obsession.
This is not an exaggeration because actually I cannot make sense of it, fitting as it does at present with the difficulty I find making sense of anything, of making a way in this world, featuring real problems which will not solve themselves. That is, the suspicion that something terribly wrong has been programmed into the hardwiring of my generation. My pathetic sensitivities remain slowly moving in the lurch, or staring languidly out a bay window, or from a long hot bath, or on the barstool, or in my studio cultivating anxieties into a mental garden of delusion, fear of the future, high self-regard and low self-esteem.
As an aside, I think "the studio" has been declared old-fashioned by some art taste-makers, anyway, simply because the studio is not a site-specific residency, a website describing a site-specific residency, a jet to or from a site-specific residency, or a grant application made in order to afford a site-specific residency. Now this I won't understand since a studio is a physical site, specific to "the place I go to get depressed", where I "reside" at length, and yet...
That making art doesn't save one from paperwork is an unkind realization, by the way, a tragedy which delivers its blow anew every time some form is handed over requiring my immediate, deliberate attention. Oh, the niggling annoyances one hoped to sidestep wholesale by joining up with art or some other noble pursuit, but there is after all no escaping.
I read The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate last winter, and have since read Mitford's biographies of Voltaire in Love, The Sun King, Madame Du Pompadour, and Frederick the Great, selections of her letters, Harold Acton's biography of her, her sister Jessica Mitford's memoir of their childhood Hons and Rebels, and now reading Wigs on the Green, an early comedy satirizing young fascists in Britain during the '30s. To publish Hitler jokes in 1935 seems delightfully bold and inappropriate, and that they are. Mostly its a teasing send up of the joiner type, of the kind that finds a political party compelling. Not the type for me, and not for Nancy either, needless to say.
Without getting into much detail or bore you poor blog reader with scholarship, I can tell a few things about why this resonates. In The Pursuit of Love and in Frederick the Great especially, Mitford the narrator betrays an essential dissatisfaction with life. I relate to this leitmotif. Mitford describes mild yet ineluctable misery, the inability to take serious things seriously, bafflement at what's required to support oneself, ambivalence toward politics and to those who enjoy them, forgone romantic relationships, casual acceptance of infidelity, moderate dislike of one's own family and the non-negotiable conditions of one's childhood, unshakeable and inexplicable class pretension and regard for good manners, a value system based exclusively on how to turn a phrase amusingly and a general preference for the company of gay men, leading occasionally to heartbreak. Does this pile-on seem extraordinarily bleak? Maybe it would be but for her constant sense of humor, her narrative style, her saving grace. Her books usually end happily resolved, for spite of the circumstances.
Well, today I read this passage from chapter 13 of Wigs on the Green and thought to share it. It reminds me of New York, Miami Art Basel, the wealthy, and calling bullshit:
"The artistic young men of Rackenbridge found themselves a good deal inconvenienced by Mrs. Lace's preoccupation in her new love-affair. Their hearts were perhaps less affected than their stomachs, the emotions of those young men had never been much shaken by any petticoat, but up to now they had always been able to count on Comberry Manor and its chateleine for such agreeable amenities as free meals and pocket-money during the summer. This year a gloomy change had come about. The colony had already been at Rackenbridge for over a month, but as yet not one single picture, photograph, piece of pottery or hand-woven linen had been commissioned by their patroness, nor had she introduced to the studios, as she usually did, any gullible visitors. Almost worse than this trade depression was the fact that practically no invitations to meals at Comberry were now being issued. The artistic young men were getting tired of scrambled eggs and sardines eaten off studio floors, they longed to sit up to a table and attack a joint.
This state of affairs was rightly laid at Noel's door. As well as providing a complete distraction from the ordinary routine of her life he had shaken Mrs Lace in the belief that her friends were geniuses. He assured her that in London they were perfectly unknown, and his attitude towards their work, too, was distressing. For instance, after glancing at Mr Forderen's series of photographs entitled 'Anne-Marie in some of her exquisite moods' which, when they were first taken a year before had caused the greatest enthusiasm in Rackenbridge, he had remarked quite carelessly that she ought to have her photograph taken by some proper photographer.
'Don't you see,' Anne-Marie had said, 'that these pictures represent, not me but my moods, this one, for instance, "pensive by firelight", don't you think it rather striking?'
'No I don't,' said Noel, whose own mood that day was not of the sunniest. 'It is nothing but an amateurish snapshot of you looking affected. Frankly, I see no merit in any of them whatever, and as I said before, all those young aesthetes at Rackenbridge strike me as being fearfully 1923, and bogus at that.'
As a result of this conversation the series was removed from the walls of Anne-Marie's drawing room, from whence it had long revolted Major Lace, and consigned to those of a downstairs lavatory. Here it was duly observed by poor Mr Forderen on the occasion of the cocktail party."