Nancy Mitford’s most controversial novel, unavailable for decades, is a hilarious satirical send-up of the political enthusiasms of her notorious sisters, Unity and Diana.
Written in 1934, early in Hitler’s rise, Wigs on the Green lightheartedly skewers the devoted followers of British fascism. The sheltered and unworldy Eugenia Malmain is one of the richest girls in England and an ardent supporter of General Jack and his Union Jackshirts. World-weary Noel Foster and his scheming friend Jasper Aspect are in search of wealthy heiresses to marry; Lady Marjorie, disguised as a commoner, is on the run from the Duke she has just jilted at the altar; and her friend Poppy is considering whether to divorce her rich husband. When these characters converge with the colorful locals at a grandly misconceived costume pageant that turns into a brawl between Pacifists and Jackshirts, madcap farce ensues. Long suppressed by the author out of sensitivity to family feelings, Wigs on the Green can now be enjoyed by fans of Mitford’s superbly comic novels.
Once more, I found myself enjoying one of Nancy Mitford's comedy of manners. While I don't think Wigs on the Green is her best novel, this Mitford sister always succeeds at engaging and entertaining the reader with the convoluted to-ing and fro-ing and the witty banter between characters. Here she might have gone a little bit over the top with romantic tangles, but her acid humor makes up for it:
She listened calmly while the suggestion was being made, and then said that it was too unlucky, but Queen Charlotte's dress was now finished, and could never be altered to fit Lady Marjorie, as there were no means of letting out the seams on the hips and round the waist.[...] Poppy said at the time to Mrs Lace that as she looked exactly like Queen Charlotte, she was quite right to keep the part. Unfortunately, owing to its target's total ignorance of English history, this Parthian shaft went wide of the mark.One thing I love is that her set of main characters is usually more or less small, and thus a manageable one, but she finds the way to sneak in other characters from previous novels as secondary characters, as is the case with MP Captain Chadlington and Lady Brenda. Isn't it great to get updates on the lives of characters you cared about before? I get giddy when I spot the references.
The best part of Wigs on the Green is that it serves as a small window to the past, to a pre-WWII UK, when Nazis weren't yet a threat. I have to say I cringed at some of the statements making light-hearted fun of Hitler, but I live in a post-WWII world. And it is surprising how easily the British nobility accepted and even welcomed fascism. Of course, the Mitford family is a good example as any, and Nancy Mitford didn't even try to disguise she was using her own sisters as characters. The young Eugenia Malmains is a slightly more histrionic version of Unity Mitford, while Diana might have inspired Poppy. I wonder whether the pacifist artists had traces of Jessica. It is no wonder that the publication of this novel caused a riot inside the Mitford family. While it is generally accepted that Nancy was making fun of her sisters, I don't think she was really aiming at hurting them. Strained as their relationship was, they still were the Mitford sisters, in unison. After all, the divorce of Poppy/Diana doesn't have bad consequences, and the Union Jackshirts/fascist triumph in a way. In the end, Nancy retired Wigs on the Green from the market, and it hasn't been republished until recently.
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