Reprinted but once in the seventy-five years since its appearance—and then in a terrible 1970s American mass market paperback—Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green (1935) was for a long time one of the grails of the book collector, a lost gem from the golden age of British comic writing: the age of Wodehouse and Waugh.
Wigs is a satire of something most unfunny: the predilection of parts of the English upper-crust for fascism in the 1930s. The Union of British Fascists isn’t much remembered today, and—as Brooke Allen brilliantly argued in these pages ten years ago—it’s quite possible that its leader, Oswald Mosley, will be best known to future generations as the model for Wodehouse’s Roderick Spode. But three years before there was Spode, there was Wigs and Captain Jack.
He is the leader of the Union Jackshirts, one of whose most fervent followers is the heiress Eugenia Malmains. She is first seen declaiming the glories of fascism to stray citizens of Chalford from an overturned washtub on the village green. Eugenia is beautiful, insouciant, and beset by two young men, Jasper Aspect and Noel Foster, both in search of a wealthy bride. Each, however, is distracted from the business of catching this heiress by a married woman: Jasper by Poppy St. Julien, who has accompanied her friend Lady Marjorie Merrith in her flight from marriage to the Duke of Dartford; Noel by Mrs. Lace, the local beauty who fancies herself a bohemian and builds Ruritanian castles in the air after Jasper tells her that Noel is royalty in disguise. Hijinks ensue, all leading to a large garden party at the seat of the Malmains, Chalford House, which no one has seen in sixteen years as Eugenia’s grandparents have hidden away from the world in shame since her parents’ divorce. Lady Chalford is a mite confused about society’s postwar mores. The party culminates with the Battle of Chalford Park, when a group of pacifist artists—enraged by the loss of Mrs. Lace’s patronage and the attendant free meals—try to upset the Jackshirt-praising historical pageant and are driven off by a combination of Eugenia’s Joan of Arc routine and her comrades’ fists. A couple of weddings ensue, but all ends essentially as it began.
If it sounds very Wodehousian, it’s because it is—though less innocent, both sexually and politically, and lacking in the brilliant pacing of the master’s work. Mitford cuts back and forth between her plots without achieving much that compels. She invents a wondrous insane asylum for hereditary peers—Peersmont, built to look like the House of Lords—but makes little use of it. There is, though, much first-rate dialogue:
“I should very much like to find a nice girl and marry her, if that’s what you mean.”
“It’s such a fearful gamble. Much better to put the money on a horse and be out of your misery at once.”
Mitford’s Chalford also lacks the inherent kindness that characterizes Wodehouse’s world. The Union Jackshirts never get their comeuppance as Spode and his Black Shorts do. Eugenia remains, at the end, a happy devotee of Captain Jack’s brand of Hitler-worship. And while Mitford’s characters mock the stupidity of the movement, they agree with its core conceit of a rotting England in need of its own Führer. As Jasper Aspect notes while he and Noel watch Eugenia haranguing the Chalford folk from her overturned tub: “The girl’s a lunatic, but she’s not stupid.” Nowhere in Wigs on the Green is there anything akin to Bertie Wooster’s famous denunciation of fascism as utterly unsuited to England:
The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”
Instead, we get Jasper fitting Union Jackshirtism easily into his views: “Germany and Italy have been saved by National Socialism; England might be saved by Social Unionism, who can tell? Therefore I say, ‘Heil Hitler!’ ‘Viva il Duce!,’ and ‘Miss’—Miss, I’ll have another beer, please.”
What has always made Wigs such a tantalizing prospect is its parallel to real events. Eugenia is modeled on Unity Mitford—the fourth of the six sisters, after Nancy and Diana—who really did fall hook, line, and sinker for Nazism. She moved to Munich in 1934 and ate at Hitler’s favorite restaurant every day until she caught his eye. She met him dozens of times, and they became so friendly that he took the trouble to find her a permanent place to live—belonging, she wrote in jaw-dropping obliviousness to Diana, “to a young Jewish couple who are going abroad.”
It was Diana who had introduced Unity to this world. The most beautiful and intelligent of the Mitford sisters, Diana married, at eighteen, the twenty-two-year-old brewery heir Bryan Guinness in 1929. He was besotted with her and gave her everything, but she grew bored and, after meeting Oswald Mosley in early 1932, proved easy prey for the epic womanizer. Diana was struck like Saul on the way to Damascus. She left her husband and children and set herself up as maîtresse-en-titre, sharing the raffish Mosley with both wife and girlfriends. When Mosley’s wife Cynthia died unexpectedly in 1933, Diana played her cards carefully to ascend from mistress to wife—he was also having an affair with his wife’s sister, who sought to have the upstart evicted. Diana went to Germany to see National Socialism in action. Connecting Mosley with the Nazi leadership (his main influence in moving from leftwing radicalism to fascism in the early 1930s had been Mussolini’s Blackshirt movement) cemented her place in his life, and they were married in 1936—in Goebbels’s drawing room with Hitler as a witness. Unity was there and had long since become obsessed with going her sister one better by enslaving herself to the chief fascist of all.
For there was always a great deal of sisterly rivalry. Nancy, whose romantic career was anything but pleasant—unrequited love for a homosexual, marriage to a cad, two miscarriages, a hysterectomy, then another cad—tended to snipe at the others, unless they were unhappy, in which case she took their side. She was the only family member to support Diana when she left Bryan Guinness, but the relationship quickly fell afoul of Diana’s new enthusiasm. Nancy was against taking anything too seriously: “There isn’t a pin to put between Nazis and Bolshies—if one is a Jew one prefers one & if an aristocrat the other that’s all as far as I can see,” she wrote to Violet Hammersley in October 1939. There would an ongoing battle for family loyalty as one by one all the Mitfords except Nancy visited Germany and were swept up or repelled by Nazism. Lady Redesdale and the only son, Tom, were enthusiastic converts. Lord Redesdale was not and fought to stave off Unity’s growing commitment. Husband and wife would find it easier to live apart.
The family is perfectly summed up by a thank-you note from the thirteen-year-old Deborah—the youngest daughter and last living—to Diana in October 1933:
Darling Honks, Thank you SO much for the HEVERN eveninger, [Nanny] was ‘dumbfounded’ when Nancy told her what it cost. I honestly never seen anything quite so lovely in all my life. I even forgive you being a fascist for that. Thanks ever so much. Best love from Debo
“Hevern eveninger” is Mitfordese for “heavenly evening bag.” The sister’s letters are full of such precious speak and nicknaming—Nancy refers to Mosley in her letters to Diana as the TPOL, The Poor Old Leader. This Mitford Touch heavily infects Wigs on the Green, but less successfully than it would in the novels that keep the family famous: The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949). The Mitfords recreated as the Radletts are delightful, Eugenia Malmains less so.
It’s generally said that Wigs was never reprinted in order to maintain the family peace—until her death in 2003, Diana brooked no criticism of Mosley—and its reappearance now certainly supports that contention. Diana vehemently opposed Nancy’s project from the start; she convinced her sister to drop three chapters and make it so that Captain Jack never appears. This was a mistake, and I wonder if the extra material survives in any form. The narrative logic of Wigs begs Captain Jack to appear for the Chalford Park pageant and show himself a fool and a coward, disillusioning Eugenia. But that would have called for Nancy to denounce fascism, and she was trying to have her book and get along with her sister, too. She managed neither. Diana broke off relations until after the war.
Unity, though, did not. Her relationship with Nancy remained exactly the same (and with Jessica, who rarely ever spoke to Diana after she took up with Mosley—“Apart from darling Nancy’s funeral, it’s been absolute nonspeakers ever since Munich”). While Unity was swept up by enthusiasm for an evil man, she never lost the mix of forwardness and innocence that had charmed everyone. The greatest interest of Wigs is the humanizing portrait of Unity, who has gone down in history as “Hitler’s girlfriend.” When war was declared in 1939, she shot herself in the head with a pistol Hitler had given her, only to survive and live another nine years an invalid. Unity’s sad end made republishing this satirical portrait too painful for Nancy.
Postwar, too, Nancy was busy enacting her own version of Diana’s infatuation. She may have decried and derided Mosley in Wigs, but she nevertheless acted just like Diana when she fell for the Gaullist politician Gaston Palewski. She gave up her life to his needs and continued to insist on his wondrousness—he’s the model for Fabrice de Sauveterre in The Pursuit of Love—even when, after years of stringing Nancy along, he married a much younger woman. The Mitford sisters all seemed doomed to bind themselves to narcissistic men. Beyond Diana and Unity, Pamela had the much-married physicist and Mosley admirer Derek Jackson. Jessica took the Left fork, in thrall to the Communist Esmond Romilly. Deborah, the most commonsensical of the sisters, seems to have escaped this fate, but even she may have had an affair with John Kennedy and her letters show an obsession with him not uncharacteristic of her siblings’ various idées fixes.
We love the Mitfords for the girlish glee captured in their letters, memoirs, and Nancy’s two romans-à-clef of their upbringing. Wigs on the Green is an important addition to the large library of Mitfordiana. But there remains much to despair of in their personal histories. The fascination of a family related to Winston Churchill who all dined with Hitler won’t likely fade, and Wigs is a reminder of the darkness underneath all that froth.
Robert Messenger is the Books Editor of the Wall Street Journal
more from this author