While looking through our archive recently we came across this review by Evelyn Waugh of Nancy Mitford’s novel Don’t Tell Alfred from 1960. Displaying a characteristic mix of erudition and passion for story telling (alongside more than a hint of bitterness), we thought that it was a weird slice of literary history that needed to be shared once more. From The London Magazine December 1960, Volume 7, No. 12.
It is nine years since Miss Nancy Mitford published a novel. In the meantime she has devoted herself to history, producing two studies whose charm and lightness of touch almost concealed the extent and accuracy of knowledge which illuminated them. Her last novel, The Blessing, though eminently readable and sparkling with feminine fun, was, we may now admit, a slight disappointment, reminiscent of her earlier work rather than of the two post-war books with which her true literary career began. (How agreeable for a writer not to be chidden with the loss of early promise.) We can without offence now admit the relative failure of The Blessing because in Don’t Tell Alfred she has written her most mature and satisfactory story, expunging the slight taint of the fashion-magazine which was discernible to the captious in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.
The best advice that can be given to a young writer of comedy is: ‘Never kill your characters’. This for two reasons: first, the frankly commercial: library readers like to resume where they left off and meet old and loved acquaintances. Mr P. G. Wodehouse’s characters are not only immune from death but from advancing age. Secondly, artistically; very few novelists indeed, and those not notably the best, are able to ‘create’ more than a limited cast. In social life it is usually the bores and parasites who ‘know everyone’, it is the rarer spirits who confine their friendship to a bande. In general this is true of novelists. The huge ‘canvas’, the crowded cast, have less to offer than the constant, intense observation of a single limited milieu. Miss Mitford killed Fabrice Sauveterre and had to resurrect him under the name of Charles-Edouard de Valhubert; she killed Linda, and now we find her again, eyes swimming with tears for suffering animals, as Northey in Don’t Tell Alfred. We have almost all the old friends in propria persona—Uncle Matthew, Davey Warbeck, even the ineffable Dexters, older but very much alive, entering the circus-ring at the crack of Miss Mitford’s whip and performing their routine with glittering precision. Lady Montdore is dead, as also Aunt Emily; neither much to be mourned. The Bolter remains off-stage but exercises her potent influence. Monsters, clowns and acrobats are all back under the Big Top with a few new modern attractions.
The series of turns which follow one another with brilliant management comprises the outrageous vicissitudes of diplomatic life in Paris. We are asked to accept, and readily to do so, an initial absurdity. Alfred Wincham, it may or may not be remembered, was the almost invisible don whom Fanny, the narrator of the first two books, happily married. He held the chair of Pastoral Theology and made rare, aloof entrances in his little house which constituted a pied-à-terre in Oxford for the Radlett children and Lady Montdore. We were once told he was elected Warden of his college but Miss Mitford gaily disregards this and in her present book he is still Professor and still in St Aldates. He was a socialist and it is not revealed to the reader that he is one of the faceless men who really govern England. On the strength of having worked with Ernest Bevin during the war – presumably in sending forced labour to the mines and factories – and having furtively but regularly lunched at Downing Street with Mr Attlee, he is appointed by a Conservative Prime Minister as British Ambassador in Paris. We have Miss Mitford’s word for this transition and do not demur. At first it seems that the theme of the book is to be the conflict between dowdy Fanny and the outgoing ambassadress, the beautiful Lady Leone, who has made the historic mansion a pleasure dome for her intimates. Fanny will win because she holds the cards. The realistic Parisians will transfer their affections quickly enough from the brilliant exile to the holder than bizarre picnics. That is, indeed, the theme of the first sixty hilarious pages which constitute a delightful short story. In this case it is Uncle Davey who comes to the rescue and when we realise that the episode is over, we tend to expect that he is to become the Jeeves who unfailingly produces the solution to the series of predicaments; but in fact he fades into valetudinarianism and is not particularly important in the later stages of the book. The story takes a different turn when it concerns the behaviour of Fanny’s four ghastly sons. Although ostensibly a theologian, Alfred appears to have brought up his family in total ignorance of the truths of religion. It is not very surprising to anyone except Fanny that they turn out to be cranks, cads and crooks. Alfred in a uncomfortable moment of truth expresses genuine dismay. It seems, at several points, that the theme of the book is to be the contrast between Northey—the social-secretary cousin, the reincarnation of Linda (‘Oh you are lucky to be so kind’), the irresistible Radlett—with her cousins in whom the wish to please is totally absent. But a vague belief that boys will be boys and that any generation is a revolt against its elders and betters eventually soothes the mother’s anxieties. There is an excellently rendered farcical conclusion which should not be revealed to the reader. Two other subplots run through the narration – the entirely delicious relations between Northey and a French politician, and the journalist who maliciously misreports everything for an English press-lord. This character lacks authenticity merely by his physical appearance. There is not good reason why he should not look just as Miss Mitford describes him. Somehow he does not carry conviction. Has she, perhaps, out of respect for the law, disguised someone of quite other physical characteristics?
The great, heartening feature of Don’t Tell Alfred is that it is incomplete. So many problems are left unresolved, so many characters have been left in the air, that one may confidently look for a sequel.
Has the book, then, any unifying quality? Yes, it is a socialist tract, the most explicit that Miss Mitford has yet offered us. She has never dissembled her subversive opinions but until now she has preferred to work in the class war as what used, in her youth, to be called ‘a fifth columnist’. Now she has come into the open. She is no longer concerned to exacerbate class-feeling by troubling the middle-classes in matters of diction. Here she is writing of the centre of European polity. Once she has displayed a schizophrenic social scene. There was on one side the Borelies and Kroesigs, coarse capitalists pretending to aristocracy, and on the other a fairyland of French dukes, every one of whom was an insatiable lover, an expert on women’s clothes and on eighteenth century bronzes; between them a dying world of eccentric, emotional, animal-loving English. Now, after a long sojourn in Paris she is willing to admit there may be moments of tedium in the highest French society. That, for Miss Mitford, is a Canossa and she is doing public penance.
The ‘Pull to the East’ is something so powerful that a mesmerist must be employed to counteract it. The young of the West look forward to no future; jazz and ill-earned money are their sole occupations. Dexter returns (can we doubt it?) as a spy for Russia. The ‘European Army’ is an absurdity. The Americans, whom ill-wishers have hitherto contented themselves with describing as bores and barbarians, are now represented as a doomed race; bewildered, drugged, dieted, psychoanalysed, suicidal.
‘Have you been committing again?’ was the question, referring to adultery, with which Miss Jessica Mitford tells us she used to greet her brother. Miss Nancy Mitford is the last of the ‘committed’ novelists.
Words by Evelyn Waugh.
Did you know you can buy our back issues dating back to the 1950s? Visit our shop for vintage bundles.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and app editions, subscribe to The London Magazine today from just £17.