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“I read Selina’s book all through again & cried all over again… it really is a very good book.”
—Diana, in a letter to Pamela
Here’s the cover for Vintage’s forthcoming edition of Selina Hasting’s biography NANCY MITFORD. The title design is adapted from a custom bookplate that Naunce used in her private collection.
SURPRISE: I recommend you put this hot number on your summer reading list. It’s just as entertaining and compelling as Naunce’s own novels—you can gobble it up in an afternoon, but it will stay with you forever.
This is a pretty fierce outfit. I am going to copy it tomorrow. Please credit The Mitford Society if you steal it. Danke!
Debo! Debo! Debo!
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‘He was the great love of her life, you know.’
‘Oh, dulling,’ said my mother, sadly. ‘One always thinks that. Every, every time.’
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Penguin UK is releasing a massive (1248 page) omnibus that brings together all of Nancy Mitford’s novels this November. This is very exciting news and I look forward to importing this juggernaut, but it’s just such an utter shame that it’s going to be marred by the ucker-cucker little cartoons that appeared on their stand-alone editions of the major novels. For those interested in stand-alone editions of Highland Fling, Christmas Pudding, and Pigeon Pie (which Penguin isn’t doing), underdog publisher Capuchin Classics is completing their output of that trifecta this fall as well.
Now, if only Vintage would get the remaining three out to complete their übersexy set.
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Lucian Freud, ” Woman in a White Shirt (Portrait of Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire)” (1954)
Most of her pictures have been removed for her exhibition, but Debo shows me a lovely little Lucian Freud picture of eggs in a basket. She sees him often. ‘Good old Lu. I take him eggs every time I go to London.’ What does she think of Woman in a White Shirt, his picture of her, painted when she was 34? When Andrew went to see the finished picture at Freud’s studio, there were two men there, one of whom, looking at the painting, asked him, ‘Who is this woman?’
‘My wife,’ Andrew replied. ‘Well, thank God it’s not mine,’ the man said.
Debo thinks that the older she gets, the more like the picture she becomes. ‘Lucian’s great and extraordinary talent when he was doing that style of painting is making a person aged 34 look like I do now, and I’m 90. You know, yellow skin, green moustache. So funny.’
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Cover art for the Vintage UK editions of Nancy Mitford’s four works of biography. I haven’t quite made up my mind about them, but they are worlds better than the recent packages that Penguin UK slapped on her novels.
Madame de Pompadour has been available in the US from NYRB for years now. Voltaire in Love, The Sun King, and Frederick the Great will join it on their list next year.
Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love
Nancy Mitford, Wigs on the Green
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Let’s pretend that we know no more of Nancy Mitford than we do of Shakespeare, that we have a tempting outline of her life with one or two intriguing details, but no family notoriety, no volumes of letters, no newspaper articles or gossip. In fact, let’s pretend that Nancy Mitford’s novels weren’t written by the famous Nancy Mitford 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?
There are eight of them, written over the course of thirty years. Vintage has reissued five, Wigs on the Green (1935), The Pursuit of Love (1945), Love in a Cold Climate (1949), The Blessing (1951), and Don’t Tell Alfred (1960), leaving only Highland Fling (1931), Christmas Pudding (1932), and Pigeon Pie (1940) out of print. The jokes are funny, and they are daring, tossed into the narrative in an offhand way. Sophia, the protagonist of Pigeon Pie doesn’t hear about the start of World War II because she has been visiting her father in Scotland, “a widowed peer, who could write his name, Maida Vale, but little else.” When Sophia’s wealthy husband gets involved with “the Boston Brotherhood, one of those new religions which are wafted to us every six months or so across the Atlantic,” she must put up with Florence Turnbull, who remarks, “Personally, the only people I care to be very intimate with are the ones you feel would make a good third if God asked you out to dinner.”
In Wigs on the Green, a bored married woman known as “the local beauty” is persuaded by a charming scoundrel that her potential lover is a dashing representative of eastern European royalty, when in fact he is a London office worker who has just received a small legacy. In the meantime, her husband goes to a cattle sale to buy a cow: “He bought the wrong one at an exorbitant price only to discover that his purchase was lacking in that desirable piece of anatomy—the udder.” All of Mitford’s characters accept infidelity as routine and unimportant, all of them are suspicious of Americans and their earnest professions of belief, and all are observant and irreverent—chaos is not only inevitable but desirable, or at least amusing.
But there is no real sense, in the pre-war works, of the grandeur and sophistication Mitford would achieve in the last four.
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The lovely Caryn James has written a piece for Word & Film about my beloved Nancy Mitford and the film adaptation of her A1 novel The Blessing. Not dissimilar to her new introduction to the novel, she notes what a fucking nightmare the movie is (I haven’t been able to track down a copy to see it for myself, which I guess is a mixed… uh… blessing), but recommends that, if done right, Love in a Cold Climate would make for excellent film fodder. (Note: It has been done poorly twice before as TV miniseries.) She even suggests a cast! Helen Mirren? Yessir! Carey Mulligan? Mmhmm! Emily Blunt? Please! Alan Cumming? Sur—uh, no
While Cumming, in theory and about fifteen years ago, would work as Cedric, he and the Mitford estate have a touch of bad blood between them. See, when Penguin UK reissued Nancy’s five major novels last year, he was commissioned to write the new introduction for Love in a Cold Climate. Fine and good. But, as he rants on his blog:
I am very pissed off with Penguin books today. Last year they asked me to write an introduction to Love In A Cold Climate, as part of a series of new editions of Nancy Mitford novels. I did, they liked it, la la la. Then on Friday, they told me that they had only just received the commments [sic] of the Mitford estate, and they had demanded quite a few cuts from my piece. And I was informed I had one hour to approve the cuts before the deadline for publication… . I remonstrated with Penguin and they told me the Mitford estate had had the introduction since early December but had only submitted their comments today. Then I looked at the piece to see what they had asked to be cut, and I was horrified to discover that it was essentially anything remotely negative about the story, any of the characters and the author. I felt so compromised!! … What my introduction touched on that they objected to so much was the way in which Nancy Mitford managed to write like an outside observer, whilst at the same time never actually straying from the very center of that exclusive little group that, above all else, looks after its own: the English aristocracy. I also mentioned how the Upper classes closed rank when anyone or thing threatened them. Sound familiar?
Okay, Alan. But, also, they probably didn’t think that you writing mostly about the “super-sized proletariat-flavoured chip supper” that you have on you shoulder when it comes to the English upper class was such a good fit for the front matter in a modern classic. That’s what blogs are for. Apparently, the unedited version even involved a line about the Mitfords making him want to “puke”. And of course Penguin UK was fine with it all, because they have no taste (cf. the cover they threw on the damned thing).
Luckily the US edition got an elegant cover by Megan Wilson and an elegant introduction by Flora Fraser. Cheers!
Anyway, I’m all for rushing Caryn James’s Love in a Cold Climate into production, but I’m with the Mitford estate: Alan Cumming is best left on the cutting room floor.
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Yammering at a captive (and paying!) audience about the nemesisterly ways of those Mitford sweeties at Meet the Lady: Frenemies and Nemesisters.
Source: Flickr / 92ytribeca
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The Mitfords! Pictured here are Diana (l.) and Nancy (r.), dressed in terrifically bizarre sweaters. The photo, I’m afraid, is anonymous. In addition to these two, there were four others (Pam, Unity, Decca, and Debo), and all six were able to get tongues wagging worldwide. I’m giving a presentation on this Coven of Controversial Country Girls at this month’s installment of Meet the Lady: Frenemies and Nemesisters! It’s a highbrow tale of Communism, Nazism, literary bitchery, and missing scrapbooks. You can’t go wrong.