I sat up late last night reading Noblesse Oblige: An enquiry into the identifiable characteristics of the English aristocracy edited by my absolute total hero Nancy Mitford. It centers around her article The English Aristocracy, a meditation on the differences between U (upper class) and Non-U (non-upper class) vocabulary. As expected, the collection ravages all the hands that have ever fed the sarcastic author, the "Queen of the Hons." Mitford gathered the seven vaguely satirical essays by different authors and all are unnecessary from any legitimate anthropological point of view, yet sometimes moving and very funny. Big thanks to my friends at Brattle Bookshop in Boston for finding it for me after quite a search. It has long been out of print.
Hidden in Mitford's half-tongue-in-cheek attempt to make linguistic account for the English upper class is a subtler set of instructions, predicated on the obvious failure of books about manners (members of the upper class have no need for etiquette instruction since they assume good manners at birth automatically, comfortably reassured in the knowledge that they are never wrong. Only middle class snobs actually make use of guidebooks). Mitford grew up an aristocrat and reached maturity without any desire to deny this fact. But Noblesse Oblige is an etiquette book nevertheless, a cunning attempt to engage in class warfare on behalf of the socialists from within the gilded walls of the privileged. Surface descriptions of how to behave graciously mask undercover instructions on how to live viciously.
Since all of Mitford's writing is autobiographical, examples of her life avail throughout the entire oeuvre. In respect to outwitting forebears or deriding her peers, she is as saucy as ever. Essentially on display are power grabs for the endemically bored, when the only distinct precept is to amuse oneself at the expense of those you know in your heart are ridiculous, petty, dimwitted and rich.
The following passage is from Evelyn Waugh's contribution to the tome, An Open Letter to the Hon Mrs. Peter Rodd (Nancy Mitford) on a Very Serious Subject. In it he scolds his friend for having too much fun and inciting a riot of angry response, violent letters to editors and generalized national confusion, which actually did happen in 1955 when her original article first appeared. Near the end, he offers this apology for her more "serious" works of comic fiction:
Alertly studied, your novels reveal themselves as revolutionary tracts and here, in your essay, you speak out boldly: "Hear me, comrades. I come from the heart of the enemy's camp. You think they have lost heart for the fight. I have sat with them round their camp fires and heard them laughing. They are laughing at you. They are not beaten yet, comrades. Up and at them again."
Is that what you are really saying, Nancy? I hope you are just teasing, as I am. I hope. I wonder.
Fondest love,Isn't it beautiful? Under the guise of reprimand, Waugh cares so much for his sarcastic friend that he writes to defend her own work to her, just in case she cannot see for herself. That she might agree, yes, she is an incurable tease but overall, one of the good guys. She is surreptitious revolutionary in action, albeit somewhat leisurely action, an heroic image in her own right, an enviable position indeed.
Mitford wrote my favorite conclusion to any book ever written, which also happens to have the best book title of any modern work of fiction, Love in a Cold Climate. Kudos if you've read it but if not, you absolutely must. I will not spoil the ending here, but to quote its best few sentences hopelessly out of context:
"I may as well tell you, my darling, that the second big thing in my life has begun." A most sinister ray of light suddenly fell upon the future. "Oh, Cedric," I said. "Do be careful."
A most sinister ray of light suddenly fell upon the future. The first time I read this made me deliriously happy to be disappointed and alive. The contradiction was suddenly hilariously apparent that I had to keep living in utter disagreeability, that life just never ends, there is no conclusion but perhaps I would be satisfied to know this for now: adult misbehavior pays its own way, it is its own queer reward.
Going to and from wherever and whatever it is I do these days, I am plagued with the fear that critical estimation of Nancy's work has depreciated, defeated by the conservative good sense of middle class values or else the hysterical nonsubtleties of academic neo-liberalism. Whatever it is, a victory for boredom without even a shriek of relief. I press on half-heartedly...