Wigs on the Green
By Nancy Mitford
Insisting that all the characters in Wigs on the Green are "drawn from the author's imagination," as Nancy Mitford does in the first pages of this comedy of manners initially published in 1935, is giving far too much credit to the author's imagination and far too little to the peculiarities of Nancy's real-life cast of characters. Particularly in the Mitford family's case, the truth is often stranger than fiction.
Despite the popularity of Nancy Mitford in Wodehouse- and Waugh-loving circles, her third novel remained out of print in Britain until now; the author insisted upon it. Wigs pokes gentle fun at the British Union of Fascists and Blackshirts as feckless young characters casually join the movement to get girls and pass the time—but somewhere along the line that joke wasn't funny anymore. "Too much has happened for jokes about Nazis to be regarded as funny or as anything but the worst of taste," Nancy confided to Waugh in 1951.
This was certainly true in those initial post-war years, but as Charlotte Mosley argues in a new introduction, Nancy's reluctance in reissuing this novel had more to do with the furious response of family members. Her sister Diana, who was first maîtresse and then wife of BUF founder Oswald Mosley (and mother-in-law of Charlotte Mosley), cut off contact for years, and her sister Unity, who so loved Hitler that she would lodge a bullet in her brain the day England declared war on Germany, threatened to never speak to her again.
At its heart, however, Wigs on the Green is not a political novel. Rather, it is a sometimes witty, if not especially thoughtful, look at England's leisure class and a reflection upon love and marriage ("It's such a fearful gamble. Much better to put your money on a horse and be out of your misery at once."). Noel Foster and Jasper Aspect (the latter based on Nancy's womanizing, caddish husband, Peter Rodd) set off from London to Chalford in the hopes of finding rich heiresses to marry. When they meet Eugenia Malmain, the wealthiest heiress in England and a thinly veiled portrait of Unity Mitford, she is standing on a washtub shouting the virtues of the Union Jackshirts. To her cast of eccentric characters, Mitford adds wealthy runaways, a falsely cultured local beauty and a dotty grandfather whose insane asylum is an exact replica of the House of Lords. As only they can in genteel British novels, hijinks ensue, and everything comes to a head at a grand Social Unionist pageant at Eugenia's estate.
Though the movement the novel lightly ridicules would eventually tear the world, and the Mitfords apart, at the time it was written Fascism was still an eccentric and mostly harmless hobby of Britain's upper class. As one character portentously puts it, "I think Hitler's a splendid fellow too, although I'm not sure he doesn't carry things a shade far sometimes." It's no longer in poor taste to mock Fascists, but because the novel and its conventions are d'un certain âge, you still may not find it all that funny.