Friday, January 18, 2013

Review: Wigs on the Green, by Nancy Mitford

Pages: 192
Original date of publication: 1935
My edition: 2010 (Vintage)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Borders, April 2011

Wigs on the Green was written as a satire of British fascism, and specifically a satire of the members of Nancy Mitford’s family that partook of the movement. Sir Oswald Mosley, Nancy Mitford’s future brother-in-law, formed the British Union of Fascists in 1932 and by the mid-1930s, when this book was written, the BUF had aligned itself with the Nazi party in Germany.

Mitford regretted writing this book and worked to suppress copies of it from getting out to the public (not surprising, honestly). The plot focuses on a young woman named Eugenia Malmain (based on Unity Mitford); and two young men who come to the town of Chalford with mischief on their mind. Eugenia is a rather idealistic young woman who works tirelessly on behalf of a political party called the Union Jackshirts (a play on the word “Blackshirts,” the uniform of the BUF), and the plot contains a lot of witticisms and attempts at humor. The meaning of the title comes from an 18th century saying that signifies that a brawl is about to break out—a brawl so forceful that it would knock men’s wigs off. The culminating moment of the novel is an 18th-century-themed pageant, hence the literal, and satirical, meaning of the title.

I definitely found humor in the characters that Mitford gives us. But I think that, because the author was so close to the subject that she pokes fun at, she didn’t have a chance to distance herself from her characters. So there’s not much in this novel that’s truly fictional; just an exaggerated portrait of the people that Mitford knew (she originally meant the book to be a satire of Sir Oswald Mosley, by centering the plot around a character named General Jack). 

This is certainly not one of Nancy Mitford’s best books; it's hard to satirize fascism and so the book falls flat in many places. Its dated theme isn't particularly funny now, and it certainly wouldn't have been funny at the time it was written. As Dorothy Parker, a vehement anti-fascist, wrote in 1939, "I don't think these are funny times... I don't think I can fight fascism by being comical, nor do I think that others can." I think with the hindsight of 70 years, the book might have actually been better with the mythological three chapters she apparently got rid of in order to appease her sister Diana. As such, there are holes in the novel; it seems like a rough draft at times. It’s easy to see why, in the political climate of the 1930s and 1940s, Mitford didn’t want this book reprinted.


vicki (skiourophile) said...

I found it a quite uncomfortable book - she was definitely too close, I think! You can see absolutely why it was suppressed, especially given Unity's fate.

Cozy in Texas said...

I haven't heard of this movement or the book - thanks for posting - very interesting.


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