When office worker Noel Foster inherits three thousand three hundred and fourteen pounds from an aunt and sets his heart on finding a girl to marry, his friend tells him, ‘It’s such a fearful gamble. Much better put the money on a horse and be out of your misery at once.’ And so starts Wigs on the Green, the third novel by Nancy Mitford. But as well as a social satire of the upper class circles in which she moved, as in her previous novels, in Wigs on the Green Mitford had a more personal target in mind: the fascist pretensions of her sisters Unity and Diana. The sisters disliked the novel; it caused a family rift and was not republished within Mitford’s lifetime [she died in 1973].
Money and sex are at the heart of the story; the spending and gaining of money, the marrying into money, and the pursuit of sex seemingly regardless of the eligibility and marital status of the intended. Noel and his friend Jasper Aspect go to Chalford in search of the young heiress, Eugenia Malmains. Their first glimpse of the over-enthusiastic fascism-obsessed Eugenia is as she gives a public speech on behalf of the Union Jack Movement to the Chalford villagers, ‘Britons, awake! Arise! Oh, British lion!’. This is the first of Mitford’s novels to transition from the Twenties, with tales of the chaotic partying and shenanigans of the Bright Young Things, into the Thirties and the rising threat of fascism in Europe. The fascination with National Socialism, the jackboots and roaring nationalism portrayed in Wigs on the Green was actually happening as the blackshirts of Oswald Mosley – husband of Mitford’s sister Diana – gained in popularity. Read today, this is still funny but I also found uncomfortable parallels with the 21st century nationalism of Brexit. For this reason alone, Wigs on the Green is worth reading. Mitford excels at comic portrayals of characters verging on ridiculous but with the capacity for self-deception we may recognise in real people.
Noel falls in lust with local beauty Mrs Lace. Meanwhile, two mysterious young ladies, Miss Smith and Miss Jones, check into the village pub The Jolly Roger, soon followed by two men in raincoats. The two men, and two women, all suspect these to be detectives. As Noel starts to resent the way Jasper runs up bills on Noel’s tab and not his own, Jasper mischievously hints to Mrs Lace that Noel is something other than he appears. He likes to be treated as a normal person, he hints, because of course he is very special. This leads her to believe Noel is an exiled Balkan prince. Noel and Jasper sign up for Eugenia’s party and are now addressed by her as Union Jackshirt Foster and Union Jackshirt Aspect. Meanwhile Eugenia is brought into conflict with friends of Mrs Lace, the thespians and artists from nearby Rackenbridge. As political differences widen and unsuitable sexual conquests are sought, the climax comes at an event originally intended as Eugenia’s coming-out party – a pageant at Chalford Park when everyone comes together to act out the visit of George III and Queen Charlotte – which evolves into a Union Jack Movement event instead. Chaos is the result.
There are moments of sharp social observation and moments that made me chuckle. The political satire is cutting, but stays in the background; Mitford had to tread a fine line in order to avoid being sued by her brother-in-law.
‘Wigs on the Green’ by Nancy Mitford’ [UK: Penguin]
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