How Wonderfully Realistic

Joanna Biggs

‘The book about you is going to be wonderful,’ Nancy Mitford wrote in May 1934 to her sister Unity, who had gone to Nazi Germany to have lunch with Hitler, ‘you are called Eugenia let me know if you would rather not be.’ Wigs on the Green, the only one of Nancy’s novels not to be republished after the war because, as she wrote to Evelyn Waugh, ‘too much has happened for jokes about Nazis to be regarded as anything but the worst of taste,’ is finally reprinted today after 65 years. Until now it was the book that seemed so alluring in footnotes and endnotes: satirical, excoriating, the one that caused Diana to break with Nancy for years.

Wigs on the Green doesn’t begin with Eugenia, but with Noel Foster, who has come into enough money from a dead aunt to allow him to catch an heiress. But Noel, who works in an office, doesn’t know where to find one. Luckily his friend Jasper Aspect remembers that ‘England’s largest heiress’, hidden by her batty grandparents in the village of Chalford, must be just about marriageable age. And there on Chalford Green they find Eugenia, on an upturned bathtub, recruiting for the Union Jackshirts with ‘the aspect of a modern Joan of Arc’. Beside her is her dog, the Reichshund. She wants to install a new leader, save ‘our unhappy island’ and bring down its ‘putrescent democracy’. ‘The girl’s a lunatic, but she’s not stupid,’ Jasper says. If she ‘had been born twenty years sooner she would have been a suffragette’.

As it’s a farce, more young heiresses turn up in the village and the Union Jackshirts decide to put on a pageant re-enacting George III and Queen Charlotte’s visit to Chalford House. Mad King George is welcomed by a guard of honour: Union Jackshirts on one side and Pacifists on the other. Soon the Pacifists are attacking ‘the defenceless Comrades with life preservers, knuckledusters, potatoes stuffed with razor blades, bicycle bells filled with shot, and other primitive, but effective, weapons.’ The Union Jackshirts are ‘not only unarmed, but also sadly hampered by their full-bottomed coats, ill-fitting breeches and wigs’: wigs on the green in all senses. Eugenia rouses her troops, saves the day and delights her grandmother: ‘How wonderfully realistic that was.’ Her happy ending is a visit to Union Jack House in London to meet Captain Jack himself; the others only get weddings.

Because it was Unity who cooed ‘poor sweet Führer’ and Diana who married Oswald Mosley, it’s sometimes assumed that the other Mitfords were goodies, or at least had no Fascist sympathies. In fact Nancy and her husband joined the British Union of Facists in December 1933 – he ‘looked very pretty in a black shirt’ she remembered later – and they were members long enough to attend the Olympia rally in June 1934. All this inoculated Nancy, the story goes, to the extent that she could write a novel mocking Mosley, Unity and the BUF later that year.

When Unity found out that the book wasn’t just about someone falling in love with her, she wrote to Nancy from Munich: ‘You can’t possiblypublish it, so you’d better not waste any more time on it… you might have a little thought for poor me, all the boys know that you’re my sister you know.’ But Nancy needed money, and besides, she wrote back, their lefty sister Jessica had ‘read Wigs on the G. & said that it quite inclined her to join the movement. I swear that’s true.’ Diana was harder to please. To placate her and stop Mosley from suing for libel, Nancy took out three chapters about Captain Jack, and wrote to Diana:

And yet, consider. A book of this kind can’t do your movement any harm. Honestly, if I thought it could set the Leader back by so much as half an hour I would have scrapped it, or indeed never written it in the first place.

The 2 or 3 thousand people who read my books, are, to begin with, just the kind of people the Leader admittedly doesn’t want in his movement. Furthermore it would be absurd to suppose that anyone who has intellectually or emotionally convinced of the truths of Fascism could be influenced against the movement by such a book.

I still maintain that it is far more in favour of Fascism than otherwise. Far the nicest character in the book is a Fascist, the others all become much nicer as soon as they have joined up.

So Nancy says that her silly book won’t hurt the movement, it won’t be read, it won’t dissuade anyone who is already committed and it sticks up for Fascism anyway. And despite all this being said to try and get her sister not to sue her, the funny thing is that she was right.


  • 5 March 2010 at 7:24pm
    jcclakeru says:
    It's always a shocking and repulsive experience to be reminded that there were "upper-class" Nazi supporters in England and the US (William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh to name a few). The working-class Neos in the U.S. are typically uneducated outcasts and/or ridiculously stupid, unsophisticated losers (less backwoods - not by much - in the 40's, I think, but far closer to their Anglo-German roots with less sense of America - but that's no excuse, I think). But why is it so much more shocking to read about these privileged English women so virulently fascist? I guess it's the perceived relation of class to power and my flawed sense that they should have known better than the working classes. But that makes it no less difficult to get any sort of perspective on how possibly they could have been sympathizers. Ok, it's plain old white supremacy those Brits and mogul Americans (all whites?) for so long did so well by but...WOW. Moby Dick shouldn't be pursued, just relegated to psychotic fantasy. Melville knew (and Morrison pointed out why) that ship must go down. I guess the more extremely privileged or unprivileged you are, the more susceptible you are to acting out psychotic fantasies?

  • 11 March 2010 at 1:15pm
    Attrition says:
    Fasicm in't a working-class ideology,it's mainly lower middle-class with a few posh opportunists.

  • 9 April 2010 at 10:01am
    Caroline Schmitz says:
    A dense fog of speculation has slowly been lifting since I started reading ‘Wigs on the Green’, Nancy Mitford’s third novel, whose return to print we are now - with at least two Mitford blessings - able to savour. ‘Today has been wonderful. I was able to keep a non-Aryan family from getting into my carriage at Oxford simply by showing them my little emblem and drawing my dagger at them’ , is one of the disturbing proclamations made by Eugenia Malmains, a character who appears to be based on Unity Mitford. One is left wondering why The Estate (i.e. The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and Charlotte Mosley) thought it wise to re-issue this book after 70 years and can only assume that the reason was for the family to hold on to its copyright before it slipped into the public domain. Having originally hoped for a sign of Britain’s First Family of Fascism finally coming to terms with its past, one is left with the annoying impression that the earning potential of ‘The Mitford Industry’ simply overrides any ethical considerations anybody might have.

    Of course it could be argued that the only reason we find some of Eugenia’s lines troubling is because we are sadly certain of what happened to non-Aryans in the Holocaust and how the wishes of people like the heiress with the manifesto-like Christian name turned into hellish reality. But surely this makes the situation even more puzzling: if Nancy refused the re-issue on the grounds that she recognised how inappropriate her jokes about Nazism turned out to be, what has changed? Is it any more appropriate to make jokes about Nazism in 2010 than it was in 1951? Of course not. What is disconcerting is that the problems with this book are not the jokes it contains but rather that Nancy Mitford and her readers thought that the truly worrying passages like the train scene were appropriate for inclusion in such a farcical book. And the sense of alarm is raised even more because it is quite obvious from the reviews I have read so far that many people still think they are!

    I also cannot help wondering why, if such revolutionary steps as this re-issue are deemed possible, Debo et al have refrained from reintroducing the three chapters on ‘Captain Jack’ which the author originally self-censored for fear of being bankrupted in the libel courts by her sister Diana’s lover, the parodied Oswald Mosley. An indication as to the reason for this omission might be gleaned from the introduction, where Oswald’s daughter-in-law Charlotte speaks of him being ‘persuaded’ that paramilitary forces had to take control of the economy in the wake of the Great Depression. For somebody who is familiar with the sophisticated processes of rewriting history so favoured by families tainted by fascism in particular, this expression immediately caught my attention. It reminds one of the habit of convicted Nazis who alleged they were only following orders when they committed the most despicable of crimes. To read this here is very worrying indeed and inexcusable, not least in view of another Mitford relative having more recently and very ostentatiously flexed his legal muscle in the name of what could be seen as censorship.

    Different elements reinforce the impression that a very conscious white-wash is at work. The cover, for instance, says more than a thousand words. 1935 readers took in a striking, mature, chunky Valkyrie with horizontal storm hair and a piercing stare, her sword drawn, her bosom heaving. Now, in our peace-full, affluent, dazed and confused times we get this: a sulky, freckly anorexager, her surprisingly sultry eyes firmly closed, her Kinderschokolade dagger tucked away in ‘Accessorize’ mode. It is amazing what 70 years and a genocidal catastrophe followed by the unfortunate reintegration of the perpetrating nation at the ‘international community’s’ top-table can do to a character! This visual repackaging of the book sends out the clear message to go easy on the fascism and heavy on pubescence along the lines of the book’s Mrs Lace, who proclaims upon reaching the end of her tether with the annoying little Social Unionist fanatic ‘that when you find schoolgirls like Eugenia going mad about something you can be pretty sure that it is nonsense’. It is this convenient yet - upon closer inspection - paradoxical idea of the easily-led juvenile who ‘knew not what she did’, while seemingly living in a universe strangely devoid of equally committed adult fascists, that The Estate is pushing.

    What is ironic about WOTG is that it might not have been banished from our bookshelves for all this time had Nancy heeded her sister Diana’s advice not to write her portrayal of Nazism as a ‘funny book’. This argument takes us some way towards the heart of England’s ambiguous relationship with all things Reich. Diana Mosley, who remained eternally loyal to the outspoken beliefs which landed her in jail, turns out to have been more astute in her analysis of fascism than Nancy, the writer of romantic fiction indulged by many, who covers Eugenia’s hateful proclamations in pastel shades of ‘battyness’ and ‘eccentricity’. While the former’s honesty warrants a modicum of respect, the latter deserves disdain for mixing very dark truths with fluffy, sugary-pink entertainment which at times balances precariously on the dividing line between farce and Mills & Boon.

    No wonder the readers get confused. A certain disingeniousness greets them at the very onset of this book, when Nancy claims that all characters are drawn from her imagination. One has to assume it is the same kind of imagination that is at work when Charlotte Mosley alleges Unity Valkyrie Mitford ‘came under the spell of Nazism when visiting the Nuremberg party rally in 1933’, although avid readers of Mitford books know full well that Unity hoarded (mysteriously sourced) Hitler memorabilia in her Swinbrook bedroom long before she set foot outside England. The same imagination that produces the claim ‘During the five years she spent in Germany, Unity came to know Hitler personally and embraced the Nazi creed whole-heartedly, including its most virulent anti-Semitism’, when WOTG is full of anti-Semitic rants while Eugenia, the little Cotswold cabbage, has not even made it to London yet, let alone abroad.

    And so, out of seven reviews which I have come across, only one (‘Desperate Reader’ blog) admits to a sense of unease: ‘In place it really does make for uncomfortable reading yet she does make me begin to understand why fascism might have been attractive’. This is a welcome breakthrough, but it is overshadowed by the lacklustre analysis contained in the other reviews (by ‘Mrs Trefusis’, London Review, Nicholas Lezard/Guardian, ‘At night, my little lamp, and book’ blog, Katie Law/Scotsman and ‘Vintage Reads’ blog). They are overwhelmingly uncritical, apologetic and even purposely avoiding any embarrassing issues, claiming: ‘The book seems to me to be a fond tribute and a gentle dig rather than a cruel satire’. ‘In this world one joins a fascist movement to alleviate boredom, for a lark, or to ingratiate oneself with a potential lover’, ‘The threat of fascism was not what it was so can be mocked’, ‘The character based on Unity is in no way offensive to her inspiration’, ‘Froth it may be, but life is all the sweeter for a bit of meringue’, ‘Its value is principally as a reminder that something which turned out so evil could once have appeared worth poking innocent fun at’.

    But was it ‘innocent’ for Nancy Mitford in 1934 England to poke fun at fascism? And today, what is the difference between a woman who grew up in Hitler’s Germany, was indoctrinated by Nazi hysteria and still lives in Germany in the belief that Jews and others are second-class members of the human race on the one hand, and somebody who was inspired by the same beliefs growing up in England and still lives with them unchanged in England? None whatsoever, I would have thought. They can both be seen as ‘innocent’ bystanders. But one lives on the backdrop of her nation having carried out the Holocaust while the other lives on the backdrop of her nation having won the war. So, in the spirit of Dominic Lawson (Sunday Times, 28 March 2010, ‘No, Fritz, we won’t stop mentioning the war’), the German Pope is referred to as ‘God’s Rottweiler’ for having been in the Hitler Youth (at a recent dinner party, I was told in all seriousness by an Englishman that the Pope had been a member of the SS and had run a concentration camp), while Nancy’s expressions of fascism are excused by the line ‘Autre temps autres moeurs’.

    Of course Lawson is absolutely right in exposing the Nazi-tainted Alfred Toepfer and his charitable foundation, which has funded (and tainted) a scholarship at Oxford University since 1936. But writing in an English paper in the way he does is preaching to the converted in an all too familiar vein. What I would really like to see is a serious analysis of ‘Wigs on the Green’, written by an English person of Lawson’s calibre, and which would contain a critical appraisal of the proto-fascist mentality that so clearly inspired this book. This is a huge topic which calls for a fundamental admission that, contrary to popular belief, not all victors over Nazism were good, liberal, anti-racist democrats, a half-truth that relies on myths such as those created by the Mitford Industry. Over the years, it has given rise to the overt ‘Hun’-bashing that can, unfortunately, be very counter-productive. The time has come for the English to acknowledge that Nazism was not some alien idea dropped on Germany from outer space and which had nothing to do with anything anybody else was thinking at the time. Or am I the only one who thinks that this portrayal from Mitford’s book is as chilling as the train scene in its patronising attitude (this time of class rather than race): ‘The yokels stood first on one foot and then on the other. Finally one of them removed a straw from his mouth and remarked that they had all enjoyed Miss Eugenia’s speech very much, he was sure, and how was His Lordship’s hay-fever?’ ?