Why We Can’t Talk Like a Nancy Mitford Novel

Megan Dodds and Rosamund Pike in the 2001 BBC adaptation of Love In A Cold Climate

Megan Dodds and Rosamund Pike in the 2001 BBC adaptation of Love In A Cold Climate

Be a love and take them to see a Roman ruin or something…”–Linda Radlett in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate

Do  Amecian Angophiles wonder why they cannot converse in the flippant style of the charming characters of Nancy Mitford, Angela Thirkell, Stella Gibbons, and Evelyn Waugh?

We Americans of the 21st century simply could not keep up the level of discourse.

Perhaps the British couldn’t keep up these days, either.

I have been reading a lot of what my cousin calls Brideshead Revisited.  And she doesn’t necessarily mean Waugh.

gibbons Westwood2-279x430Take  Stella Gibbons’s charming novels.  Her books are  very readable and witty, if not quite classics, and  I have been admiring the dialogue.

In Westwood,  Serena, the vague and charming wife of a pompous playwright, rebukes her husband for calling their beloved nanny, Grantey, a slave.  She says he should be nicer, and that before their marriage, he was “such a pet, always wanting to improve my mind.”

“Well, you must remember all those alarming books you unloaded on me…I did try… only somehow there was never any time for anything, there never has been, has there?–ever since we got married.  It’s years since we really let our back hair down and had a good long talk like this, isn’t it?  Look here…I’m supposed to be dining with the Massinghams tonight, and it’s after six now…”

I love the way she goes on her merry way to dinner, after trying gently to mitigate his callousness.

Nancy Mitford love.cold.climateIn Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, the heroine, Linda Radlett, is hilarious when she marries a Communist. She works in the Red bookshop on weekends so Comrade Boris, the manager, can get drunk, and she substitutes favorite books like The Making of a Marchioness for Karl Marx:  The Formative Years.  But it is not the most comfortable life, she admits

You know, being a Conservative is much more restful,” Linda said to me  once in a moment  of confidence, when she was being unusually frank about her life, “though one must remember that it is bad, not good.  But it does take place within certain hours, and then finish, whereas Communism seems to take up all one’s life.”

If only  Linda had been with us in our left-wing days in the ’70s, she would  have voiced witty insights on the discomfort of consciousness-raising groups and  bulgur-and-spinach takeout from the food co-op.

cheerfulness breaks in angela thirkell H10620_f0a45a96979920fc54bb6af21cb18a1dAngela Thirkell, whose charming novels are back in print, is ceaselessly funny.  Her long passages of absurd indirect statement are more comical than her dialogue, but she does banter very well.

In Cheerfulness Breaks In, Lydia is exasperated at her ditzy sister Rose’s wedding and hands her  her bag at the reception.

You can stick on some more powder and lipstick if you like, but I think you’ve quite enough, don’t you, John?”

“Don’t be so dispiriting,” said Rose, “and this lipstick doesn’t come off anyway.”

“I should think not,” said her husband.  “I wouldn’t let you put it on if it did.  That’s enough, Lydia.  Take it away.”

Brideshead revisited waugh 9780241951613Evelyn Waugh’s satires are hilarious, but we know him best for Brideshead Revisited.  It started, of course, with the BBC series starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, and Diana Quick in 1981.   I have read the book several times.

In Waugh’s great Catholic novel, the narrator, Charles Ryder, becomes friends with the Catholic aristocrat Sebastian Flyte at Oxford; later he falls in love with Sebastian’s sister, Julia. At Oxford, the charming Sebastian carries his teddy bear, Aloysius, everywhere.  Aristocrats are always so eccentric, aren’t they?

At first Charles thinks Catholicism is very silly.  He asks if Sebastian believes in prayer, and Sebastian assures him that he does.

Don’t you remember last term when took Aloysius and left him behind I didn’t know where?  I prayed like mad to St. Anthony of Padua that morning, and immediately after lunch there was Mr. Nichols at Canterbury Gate with Aloysius in his arms, saying I’d left him in his cab.”

It’s no wonder that we Americans can’t talk like a character in an English novel.  Nancy Mitford was one of the Bright Young People, Angela Thirkell was the granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, Evelyn Waugh was a Bright Young Person and a very good friend of Nancy Mitford’s, Aldous Huxley was the grandson of the zoologist Thomas Huxley, and only Stella Gibbons, the daughter of a London doctor, seems to have had an ordinary family.

I regret to say that i never knew anyone with a teddy bear at my lovely Big Ten Schools.

What are your favorite witty English novels?

8 thoughts on “Why We Can’t Talk Like a Nancy Mitford Novel

  1. It’s a faux child-like tone, a way of placing the world around you at a child’s distance from you as if there was no threat out there; you are oblivious to it and thus by your very intellectual ability to ignore it, you are safe with your teddy bear.


  2. Oh, I don’t agree! Sebastian is very campy, and his humor fits in very well with gay culture.

    And the women manage to express very clearly their opinions through delicate, comic circumlocutions that do not offend!


  3. I blundered on to your blog searching for the Kenilworth Hotel–and found your Helene Hanff post–hotel is no longer btw. We seem to have the same taste in books. I am taking a big literary pilgrimage this summer and the Brontës, Mitfords and James Herriot are on my list. Wish I had time for an Agatha Christie detour but I don’t.


    • Oh my God! The Mitfords! I had no idea we could see Mitford stuff. One of these days I’ll have to go back to the UK. So glad we like the same books!


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