A Chat With Jane Smiley About Nancy Mitford: “May She Rise” -The Toast

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Previously: Force-Ranking the Mitford Sisters.

Nancy Mitford (the “direct link between…Wodehouse and Waugh”) is having a bit of a moment right now. With the re-release of Christmas Pudding, Pigeon Pie, and Highland Fling, it’s the first time in forty years that all eight of her novels have been available in print. The Toast caught a few minutes to chat with Jane Smiley, who wrote a definitive essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books reexamining Mitford’s literary and cultural legacy in 2011. (Full disclosure: I like Jessica the best of all the Mitfords, but if I were ever invited to a Mitford sister fancy-dress party, I would dress and act like Nancy all night until I had driven away every one of my friends.)

Smiley is more than pleased to see a renewed sense of interest in the “more revealing than perceptive Ms. Mitford.” Having written fewer than ten novels in her lifetime, Mitford was never “quite prolific enough to establish a huge [literary] presence,” Smiley points out. “It’s complex, what happens to female and male writers.” Like Dodie Smith or Stella Gibbons or Winifred Watson, Nancy’s work has typically been dismissed as light domestic satire or women’s fiction. Her literary reputation in particular has suffered in comparison to the nearly-insatiable public interest in Mitfordiana. “Let’s pretend that Nancy Mitford’s novels weren’t written by the famous Nancy Mitford,” Smiley wrote in her LARB essay, “but by some entirely obscure Mary Smith, who happened to be a middle-class daughter of a greengrocer, possessed of ambition, eloquence, and extraordinary powers of observation.  If we did so, how would the novels hold up?”

Reader, they hold up marvelously well. The early ones — Christmas Pudding and Wigs on the Green in particular — don’t have the same timelessness as Love in a Cold Climate or her other postwar novels — but there’s a lovely sense of perspective and humor that runs through all of her work. “Humor is harder [to pull off] than tragedy,” says Smiley. “It’s so narrow; where tragedy is easy to telegraph.”

“Nancy thought a lot about love,” and she’s the kind of author you find yourself rooting for personally the more deeply you get to know her work. “Those who like her wish she had found it; you’d never know from her books that she didn’t.” Nancy’s books, in addition to being funny and skeptical and profoundly insightful, feature huge casts of characters, whom Nancy always treats extremely generously.

She “knew the world to come before it came,” Smiley says. “The world of divorce and split custody….The ’60s are right there” in Don’t Tell Alfred. Oddly enough, however, Nancy’s satirical, idiosyncratic style of writing was terribly out of fashion in the 1950s and 60s. Everything popular at the time was subjective and experimental, while Nancy remained “clear and objective” and maddeningly straightforward. Her clarity of narration and lively voice was a bit out of step at the time, but plenty of the styles that were deeply chic and avante-garde at the time are now archaic. It’s “the clear, objective writers like Austen who rise to the top over time.”

As for Nancy? “May she rise.”

Works Referenced

Nancy MitfordChristmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie (Indiebound | Amazon)
Nancy MitfordThe Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (Indiebound | Amazon)
Nancy MitfordWigs on the Green (Indiebound | Amazon)
Nancy MitfordHighland Fling (Indiebound | Amazon)
Nancy Mitford, Don’t Tell Alfred (Indiebound | Amazon)

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