counter on blogger

Pickle Me This

September 24, 2014

Marvelling at The Mitfords


I am sad that today we live in a world without a Mitford sister, not a single one, as The Duchess of Devonshire has died at the age of 94. Debo was close to my heart as it was to her Chatsworth House that I visited in 2004 whilst experiencing a throat infection, and fell down in a faint among the sheep droppings, and it was still worth the trip. This was at the height of my Mitford-mania, after I read Mary S. Lovell’s The Mitford Girls and became utterly fascinated. They were connected to everything! Debo’s husband’s late brother’s wife’s was John F. Kennedy’s sister, Kathleen. The commonplace variety of banana is called Cavendish was named in the 15th century for her family line. Plus she was a Duchess. Sister Nancy was the comic novelist; Diana divorced a Guinness to marry Oswald Mosley, which led to a falling out with Decca, who became a communist and ran away to fight in the Spanish Civil War (before immigrating to America to become a journalist); Pamela was a lesbian, and otherwise (comparatively) dull, except she had an Aga that matched her eyes; and yes, Unity, Hitlers girlfriend, who shot herself in the head at the advent of World War Two. Has non-fiction ever been so fascinating? They were like the Spice Girls, but smarter, longer lived, and with fascism. Such amazing, compelling lives. (I love that they were fictionalized in Jo Walton’s excellent Small Change trilogy).

I have a whole shelf packed with Mitford books—the Lovell biography, theirs and Decca’s collected letters, Decca’s non-fiction and autobiographies, Nancy’s novels, and even Debo’s collection of columns, Counting My Chickens. I cherish every one of these and always will, even more so now that the sisters are all gone. Stranger than fiction—they’re proof of that. The best and worst of Englishness—they’re a reminder of the spectrum of human experience.

I even wrote a poem about them, back in the time in which I did such things as write poems.

Extremism was so fashionable that first season

“Why must all my daughters fall for dictators?”
~ Lady Redesdale (Sydney Mitford)

Extremism was so fashionable
that first season.

At the races my daughter won herself a diplomat
and my husband and I my husband and I
concerned with crashing stocks had our veritable sigh
and we folded our hands and nodded then,
as he stood on a box and took up his pen
because she looked on so loving
I couldn’t help but be pleased,
in spite of his wife, in spite of their life
and his radical politics leaning far right.

There was the matter of war in Spain
which (she said) was just a prelude.

This was the littlest daughter, always contrary,
“I will run away, you’ll all be sorry.”
When she finally fled, it was to throes of war
and she didn’t bring a stitch to wear,
to fight for the reds or marry for love
just to be where the action was happening.
She had to deny her former life
to prove her worth as working-class wife,
they came back to fight for the cause from their home
on the slummier side of South London.

The man of the year was a small man
seeking room to grow.

My middle daughter found him on her travels
my sullen, silly girl, by his words became so serious
when she sang them in her own voice
we consented, it was her choice
but he was such a charming gentleman
when he had us all to tea.
(But this is when the trouble starts, as you will see)

Solidarity was demanded on the homefront
but for us, this was impossible.

My golden older daughter and her lover- now her husband-
the coincidence of their ideological proximity
translated to sympathy for the enemy
and this daughter of mine, fond of long days and wine,
spent war years charming the Holloway Prison for Women.

The littlest one fled to America, still wedded to her cause,
kept her affiliations testifiable, and sincerity undeniable-
she had rallies and babies and books to write and
for seventeen years she refused to cross the line,
she fought the fascist front known as The Family

My husband and I- my husband and,
as his opinion of the Germans was established years before
when he’d lost a lung fighting in the First World War
and he could not abide by the company
of the leader with whom I’d had the pleasure of tea.

Especially not while the world was coming apart
at its bursting Versaillesian seams.

And my silly daughter could not abide by bursting seams
to choose between England and the man of her dreams
on September first, nineteen thirty-nine
she put a gun to her temple in an attempt to stop time.

My outspoken daughters had been drawn to men
who could outspeak them.

They dared to defy us with dictators- an original act of rebellion-
typical; no middle men, they loved instead
their moustaches and regalia their marching men with unbending knees
Prussian fortitude, Yugoslavian ingenuity
and all those ideals that had the trains run on time.
I could not raise a shallow woman; my daughters
my twentieth-century casualties, there was a time
behind every powerful man was a good woman
and I had birthed nearly all of them.


March 3, 2008

This weekend I read

This weekend I read Descant 139, and loved in particular “In the Time of the Girls” by Anne Germanacos, the “Synchronicities” section, and poems by Changming Yuan– “delicately hung is this earth/ a bluish cage in the universe.” I also read the February 7 issue of London Review of Books, and “Derek, please, not so fast”— a review of As I Was Going to St. Ives, a biography of Derek Jackson (to whom Pamela Mitford was but a footnote! I had no idea: “To call his carry-on goat-like would be grossly unfair to goats, who seem celibate, faithful, and even tempered by comparison”). The William Faulkner interview in The Paris Review Interviews II was stunningly awful, brilliant and profound. I will soon be starting to read Nikolski, and after that I’ll get to Brighton Rock.

I also began culling my library in preparation for our move. A shedload will be donated to the Victoria College Library Booksale on Thursday, but anyone who wants to can drop by before then is welcome to sort through the stacks. Assuming you know where I live, in which case you’re probably my friend, and I’d be happy to see you anyway.

December 10, 2007

The Mitfords Edited by Charlotte Mosley

Here is not a book for the common reader: you have to know and “get” the Mitfords in order to appreciate Charlotte Mosley’s collection of their letters The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters. My journey towards such knowing and getting began about five years ago when I read Mary S. Lovell’s biography The Mitford Girls. I’d plucked it off a shelf in Waterstones one day whilst on a lunch break, and I can’t remember now what possessed me to do so, but I was enthralled by these sisters, their family and their story. Nancy, the lady novelist; Pamela, who had her Aga custom-painted to match her blue eyes; Diana, who married a Guinness heir and then left him for the leader of the British Fascists, was fond of Hitler and never repented; Unity the Nazi, whose own fondness for Hitler led to her suicide attempt two days after England declared war on her beloved Germany in in 1939, where after she lived brain damaged until her death in 1948; Jessica the Communist, who ran away to the Spanish Civil War and then to America where she made a career for herself as a “muckracker”; and Deborah, who would become the Duchess of Devonshire.

Only England could have made them, and only in the twentieth century at that. Their story is the century summed up, from society balls to “Well Lady, the inevitable has occurred, Dinky is going to have a baby by a black man”. Their relationships best understood by the phrase: “I naturally wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him if it was necessary… but in the meanwhile, as that isn’t necessary, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be quite good friends.” I’ve written plenty here about my Mitford leanings. How I’ve loved the other volumes in my Mitford library since the Lovell: Nancy’s novels, Jessica’s memoirs, even Debo’s book (I visited in Chatsworth House in 2003 and would have enjoyed it much more had I not been terribly ill at the time and having to keep collapsing on the grass amidst sheep poo). I read Decca’s letters earlier this year and absolutely adored them.

This collection of letters is essential, and I found them fascinating– though I didn’t enjoy them as much as Decca’s. Perhaps a collection between six people wouldn’t have the same narrative arc? And also that Unity’s and Diana’s letters were so disturbing, the latter right up until the very end as she perpetually viewed herself as victim (though the years she spent imprisoned during WWII for her relations to the Germans must indeed have been traumatic). But I learned so much new stuff here, about Debo and Pamela in particular and how interesting (but not inter-esting) each one was in her own right. Debo is also as fine a letter writer as her far more literary sisters. That though Jessica and Nancy were terrible liars, this trait was not unendearing somehow. That the homeliest sister turned out prettiest in old age (I think, at least– Pamela). How impossibly hard is one life, and any life, even one which is most extraorder.

What an amazing bond is sisterhood, which these letters demonstrate. The jokes, secret languages, grudges, traumas, and joys. Collections of letters also manage to represent death like no other literary form I’ve encountered (as I found when I read Carol Shields’ letters in June) –the absolute silence of a writer’s cessation is incredibly powerful, and real. With Nancy’s and Pamela’s in particular, and then in the end that blank page. To think of all the life that created these, which is as palpable as the page upon which they’re printed.

December 10, 2007

The letters

“Thinking it over, in my case it’s the letters that I miss mostly– why, obviously, comes from living so far away from most dead people I really adored. (Oh for the writing on the env[evelope]!) Much love, Henderson” –Jessica Mitford to her sister Deborah, 1994

November 28, 2007

Isn't work dreadful

“Susan isn’t work dreadful. Oh the happy old days when one could lie & look at the ceiling till luncheon time. I feel I shall never be right again until I’ve had trois mois de chaise lounge– & when will that be?” –Nancy Mitford to her sister Jessica, 1944

November 25, 2007

More teacups

“Posh people had more jokes just as they had more teacups, and when they sat down to write both were in evidence.” –Andrew O’Hagan, “Poor Hitler”, reviewing The Mifords: Letters between Six Sisters

October 25, 2007

Point Form

Anansi‘s 40th Birthday is amusingly recapped at the Descant blog.

A new Mitford book is out today– a collection of letters between the sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosely, which I can’t wait for. Remember how much I loved Decca’s? On here for how “no one will ever write letters like this again”.

Kate Christensen, whose first novel I enjoyed last month upon introduction by Maud Newton, is interviewed by said Newton. Of the bits I loved best: “In my late teens and early 20s, when I was developing my idea of how I wanted to write, I glutted myself on twentieth-century English novelists. It seemed to me that, en masse, Drabble, Pym, Spark, Mantel, and Wesley, as well as quite a few equally brilliant Englishmen, had signed a British-Writer Pact agreeing to foreswear heavy-handedness, egotistical earnestness, and didacticism and to embrace instead black humor, deft social insights, wit, lightness, and a float-like-a butterfly sting-like-a-bee verbal dexterity. I wanted to sign that pact, join their gang and live in London and drink in their pub.”

I used to enjoy Maud Newton’s Friday Blogger Stephany Aulenback, and so I was happy to find out she was blogging again. And even happier when I saw she’d published an interview with Sara O’Leary. She is the author of When You Were Small, which is one of the most beautiful children’s books I’ve ever seen.

March 17, 2007

Dangerous Territory

The Guardian Books Blog seems to be all down with everything I wrote papers on in my “Authorship and its Institutions” class last year. Like this on acknowledgements pages (though my paper was way better). And this response. Oh yeah– I also wrote a paper called “Oh No! Not Another Portmanteau!” about blooks, which the Guardian blog has nothing to say about (so 2006) but I justed wanted to let you know about that fine title.

Anyway. A Guardian blogger defended chick lit last week. Oh chick lit, you are indeed “much maligned” and the topic of my final paper “Writing in the Shadow of a Hungry Genre”. Now, I don’t seek out chick lit usually, though I have read some excellent books in my time which fortunately or unfortunately fall into that genre. Just to give you my chick lit cred, I’ve enjoyed books including Don’t You Want Me? and My Life on a Plate by India Knight; Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner (and I love her blog). I’ve been known to read the novels of Jenny Colgan as well.

So I’m not a complete snob; I’ve read around a bit, and I think chick lit/lit is divided more than anything by the use of language. It is not subject matter, plot or character (though there are patterns relating to these in chick lit). Just because there are similarities between the plots of The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver and Me vs. Me by Sarah Mlynowski does not demean one nor heighten the other. And you know what? I am going to read both these books in the next month and let you know if my hunch is right– that in terms of language, they’re worlds apart. (Thanks Ragdoll for that link). I will let you know.

I do agree with the Guardian blogger that chick lit needs no defending. I think chick lit and lit fic could coexist quite happily, could support each other even, that women deserve a wide range of books to choose from and there’s nothing wrong with a novel you can drop in the tub. But. My title was about “the hungry genre”, because chick-lit is a cannibal! Female literary fiction writers (and their readers) have good reason to be threatened by a genre that tries to force all women’s writing into a narrow pigeonhole for the sake of marketibility (and forget about those who don’t fit). It is this pigeonholing that connects Lionel Shriver to “chick-lit” at all (for her last book, she got “anti-chick lit”; her new book is “the next step after chick lit”). Have you ever read Lionel Shriver? I’ve never read anything less “chicky” in my life! And all of this blurring of distinctions would be not so terrible if there wasn’t so much chick lit churned out that’s absolute garbage. My crux/thesis statement? That chick lit is “no longer just a genre of popular fiction, but instead has become the touchstone by which almost all contemporary fiction written by women is gauged”. And I don’t think that this is good for anyone.

And it’s the garbage that is the main problem, undermining Jenny Colgan’s quite chick-litty but good (I think) books; putting crabby brilliant Lionel Shriver up against writers it would be beneath her to spit on; giving India Knight pink covers and cartoons even though the woman is a serious comic genius; re-doing Nancy Mitford with all the chick-lit frills (and see Shriver spitting point). I just wish that readers would demand more of their reading. I wish that different kinds of writers didn’t need to feel threatened by one another. But as I concluded my paper (and with the aid a thesaurus, I can see): “Anti-chick lit’s corybantic gestures and the force of its criticism are a direct response to chick lit’s literary cannibalism, and a last ditch effort not to be eaten alive”.

March 3, 2007

Full Disclosure?

I don’t really see how one can attack a collection of letters, except on two terms: the first, maybe you don’t like reading letters; the second, the letters are boring. As my entries of late have made clear, Decca: The Collected Letters of Jessica Mitford was hardly boring. This book was absolutely enthralling, and Mitford’s letters found their way into my dreams. Epistolary dreams! You can’t fathom it. This was such an absorbing book, a twentieth century overview, and a record of one absolutely fascinating life. Jessica Mitford was a complex, exasperating, difficult woman, but she was brilliant, funny and sharp, and I have never before gained such an intimate understanding of character from a book as I did with this one.

And so, when one takes a collection of letters that are decidedly not boring, the plan of attack must be through character. Fine, I suppose. Though that seems to me a strange approach for a book review, and probably inappropriate. And no doubt, Jessica Mitford herself would not disagree with Daphne Merkin’s review in Slate that she was neglectful mother, that “vitriolic archness was her first and last defense”, or that empathy was not always her forte. Etc. etc. (though I think this reviewer simplifies her character considerably– eg. why she “airbrushes” her deceased son from her memoir, because she could not bear to relive his death through writing about it).

What is inexcusable, however is for a reviewer to write such a review, with its snide attacks, and not mention that she herself is rubbished in the book, perhaps underlining her perspective? Decca, page 706: Sez Decca: “[Did you read the] New Yorker women’s issue? Some good, some awful. One of the worst was by someone called Daphne Merkin, v. long and all about how she craves to be whipped (she’s a masochist) with nary a joke in it. Marina looked up “Merkin” in the OED– says it means “a pub*c wig”.

So perhaps Ms. Merkin had a bone to pick, but shouldn’t she have been a bit more honest about picking it?

February 24, 2007

Injurious Reads

Everyone is right. Disgrace is wonderful. And Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford is impossible to take in morsels– I keep binging. Now reading Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin. Upcoming: The Library at Night.

I had a reading-related injury today when I read whilst brushing my teeth, paid too little attention to the latter activity, brushed too hard and and now my poor sweet gums are ailing. Reading is a dangerous business really. Sometimes holding the book makes my elbow ache.

I just came back from a splendid dinner at the beautiful new home of Natalie Bay whose fine company made the evening fly by. We’ve lived in all the same countries and so we spend most of our time talking about things no one else can stand to hear about. Which suits us well. And we’re off to Peterborough for the weekend, and the temperature calls for brass monkeys.

Further, Tide Simple Pleasures has rendered our apartment redolent with something slightly synthetic, but we like it. It smells better than we do. And, all real pleasure this week has been brought to us by crumpets.

Next Page »

Pre-Order my New Novel: Out October 27


Sign up for Pickle Me This: The Digest

Best of the blog delivered to your inbox each month! The Digest also includes news and updates about my creative projects and opportunities for you to work with me.

Stop Wondering about Blogging, and Build a Blog That’s Wonder-Full:

Get My New Free Download: 5 MORE Prompts to Bring Back Your Blogging Spark!

Photo Kerry Clare with her Laptop

My Books

The Doors
Twitter Pinterest Pinterest Good Reads RSS Post