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Archive for the tag “Mitfords”

How Quebec Was Won


Nancy Mitford, Wigs on the Green (1935)

Ah, the Mitfords — so far, they’ve never let me down. We’ve already considered Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, as well as Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, and now Nancy has come through with another reference to Canada.

Wigs on the Green is  Nancy Mitford’s first novel, and a good part of it is given over to a parody of British Fascism in the form of the “Union Jackshirts,” who are a joke on Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts. (P.G. Wodehouse also parodied Oswald Mosley in the form of Roderick Spode, leader of the “Black Shorts,” in The Code of the Woosters, published three years after Wigs on the Green — overall a funnier book, I would say, but Mitford did get there first.) The main exponent of Union Jackshirtism is Eugenia Malmains, a young, out-of-touch heiress who lives on a country estate with her even more out-of-touch grandparents.

The reference to Canada comes as part of a pageant of English history that is put on at the end of the novel to raise money for the Union Jackshirt cause; here, Jasper Aspect is reading out the list of the scenes that will make up the pageant:

First messenger arrives announcing the victory of Wolfe over French Pacifists in Quebec.
First Episode: Wolfe, while reading Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” to his troops, is hit by a stray bullet and dies on a heap of straw. Rackenbridge brass band plays the “Dead March in Saul”.  (151-2)

The script for the pageant has been written under the guidance of Eugenia, who despises all enemies, real and perceived, of the Jackshirt cause as “Pacifists,” which is why the French army under Montcalm are designated “French Pacifists.” Other pacifist enemies range from a group of local artists (who do indeed attempt to disrupt the pageant) to Eugenia’s nanny, whose main crime in the service of pacifism seems to be trying to prevent Eugenia from leaving the house.

The events in the pageant are a garbled version of actual history: Wolfe died the day of the battle on the Plains of Abraham, having been hit by three musket balls. He did not die reciting Gray’s “Elegy,” but according to Edmund Gosse’s biography Gray, he did recite (most of) it (from memory!) to one of his soldiers the night before the battle, saying he would rather have written that poem than take Quebec. Here is the passage from Gosse:


Gray’s full “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” can be read here.

I assume some version of the story of Wolfe’s victory and death was current in England in the Mitfords’ time; I have no idea whether Nancy had actually read Gosse’s book. I suppose we could take offence at the fact that Wolfe so underrates the possession of Canada that he would rather have written a single poem (albeit a very famous one) than win our entire nation for the British Empire. We could also be offended that the version of events presented here is so confused, reducing a key moment in Canadian history to a farce — but of course the entire pageant is meant to be a farce, and we would have to be rather dull not to laugh along with every other reader.

On the positive side, the winning of Canada was considered an important enough event to be included in a pageant of British history — I think that definitely rates as a compliment.


Here is a rendition of the Dead March from Handel’s Saul:


Mother Runs Off … to Canada


James Lees-Milne, Another Self (1970)

Another Self is generally referred to as a “semi-autobiographical novel,” though today, no doubt, it would just be marketed as a “memoir”. Lees-Milne is best-known as a diarist – a number of volumes of his diaries have been published – and as a key figure in the early years of the National Trust, and was also a member of the Mitford circle. (There are similarities between his description of his father in this book and the father figure in the work of Nancy and Jessica Mitford.) Another Self gives an account of his childhood and youth, the idea behind the title apparently being that the person he was then is no longer the same as the person who wrote this book.

The reference to Canada comes at a point in the book when Lees-Milne is describing how his parents reacted to his lack of success at Eton:

My housemaster recommended that there was little point in my remaining at school beyond the summer half. Eton, he hinted, could do little further for me, and I might just as well make room for some other boy who would benefit from it. My father was naturally in a blazing temper. My mother who could not face up to the recriminations which, she explained, would only make her ill, kissed me fondly goodbye, and sailed away to Canada.  (45)

There is something about that scene – not romantic precisely – but melodramatic, I think. The threat of illness, the fond kiss, the abrupt departure for a distant location – these elements seem borrowed from the Victorian stage and make this moment feel not so much natural as constructed for effect – though whether constructed by the author or by his mother is hard to say.

Canada’s emphatic placement at the end of the paragraph makes our country the dramatic culmination of the whole passage – it is this departure to Canada that the narrative leads up to. And yet Canada itself remains mysterious. Why does she sail to Canada? What does she do there? We are never told. The name of our country simply sits on the page, unexplained and, perhaps, inexplicable.

Of course, as a (former) British colony, Canada would offer at least some of the comforts of familiarity to Lees-Milne’s mother: she would be able to speak the language and so on. We could almost imagine Canada as a sort of sanatorium, maintained by the Empire, where Englishwomen can go when they need a break from life at home. After a few months in the colonial wilderness, no doubt, whatever problems they had back in England will begin to look relatively minor.

And in fact, in the next chapter the narrator’s mother is back in England, and no reference to Canada is ever made again. We can speculate about the reasons behind the journey – did she have a lover there, or a lover who was going there? She had already run – or more accurately, flown – off with a balloonist before the abrupt departure to Canada, so something along those lines is possible – but we are never told.

Canada is the means by which the mother dramatically gives up on life and escapes from reality, but only temporarily. Sailing to Canada is not a real decision with irrevocable consequences; it is, rather, a gesture that conveys the mother’s mental and emotional state at that particular moment in time, but can always be retracted later. For her, living in Canada is a momentary aberration, not a permanent state.

Those Ghastly Colonials


Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate (1949)

Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford’s sort-of sequel to The Pursuit of Love, doesn’t just mention Canada – it features a Canadian as a major character, and both raises and then undermines a number of common ideas about our country and its citizens. The novels share several features: like The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate is again narrated by Fanny; again has very little to do with Fanny’s life, but is rather the story of one of her acquaintances, Polly; and again makes ample use of the Mitford family in the guise of the Radletts. Many of the characters from the earlier novel recur, though seen from slightly different angles, as it were.

As for the evocative title, if it has led you to hope that the novel is all about how to get naked and stay warm in a snowbank, I’m afraid I must disappoint you: the “cold climate” of the title refers to England (which must make any Canadian laugh, but anyway).

On to the story: Polly is the beautiful but cold daughter of Lord and Lady Montdore, and the first half of the novel concerns Lady Montdore’s attempts to marry her daughter off to a suitable bachelor. One of Lady Montdore’s great disappointments is that the family’s beautiful country house, Hampton, cannot be inherited by Polly, but instead will go to Cedric Hampton, a young relative the family has never met from – wait for it – Nova Scotia.

Here is Lady Montdore laying it out:

‘Oh, dear, oh, dear! Now, if only we were a French family, they seem to arrange things so very much better. To begin with, Polly would inherit all this, instead of those stupid people in Nova Scotia – so unsuitable – can you imagine Colonials living here?’  (271)

And similarly, a few pages later:

‘The young man from Nova Scotia simply gets Hampton and everything in it, but that is an Aladdin’s Cave, you know, the furniture, the silver, the library – treasures beyond value. Boy was saying they really ought to get him over and show him something of civilization before he becomes too transatlantic.’  (281)

And this:

‘Sad, isn’t it, the idea of some great lumping Colonial at Hampton!’  (367)

Here we can see the English aristocracy’s attitude to Canada: “stupid people … so unsuitable … Colonials.” The incredulity implied by the question at the end of the first passage makes it clear that Canadians are viewed as simply not good enough to live in a stylish English house.

The second passage continues in the same vein, with the reference to showing the Nova Scotian something of civilization indicating that no one thinks there’s any civilization to be found in Canada; no doubt it’s essentially a wilderness inhabited by people not much better than animals. Only Europe can provide civilization – and there we see the one ray of hope. The boy from Nova Scotia is not beyond recovery; if he could just be rescued from Canada and brought to Europe in time, perhaps the touch of civilization could smooth out his savage nature (“too transatlantic”) and make him someone who might not be welcomed, but could at least be tolerated, in the drawing rooms of society.

I don’t want to summarize the entire plot here – too labyrinthine – but, for the sake of comprehension, I’ll hit the high points: Polly disappoints her parents by marrying her uncle, Boy Dougdale (who has also been her mother’s lover, apparently – let’s hope Park Chan-wook doesn’t make a film adaptation). In response to this inappropriate marriage, her father cuts her out of his will entirely:

‘Of course lots of people say Polly isn’t Lord Montdore’s child at all. King Edward, I’ve heard.’
‘It doesn’t seem to make much difference now, whose child she is, because he’s cut her out of his will and some American gets it all.’  (383)

This is one of the most remarkable references to Canada I’ve come across. Without even mentioning Canada, it says so much about us: even in fiction, we get taken for Americans.

In the second half of the novel we actually meet Cedric Hampton, the Nova Scotian who will inherit all of Lord Montdore’s estate, and this is where things get particularly interesting. Mitford sets us up with a few more references along the lines of what we’ve come to expect:

‘Now, fancy moving in Canada. You’d think one place there would be exactly the same as another, wouldn’t you?’  (397)

And this:

Words dimly associated with Canada kept on occurring to me, the word lumber, the word shack, staking a claim…. How I wished to be present at Hampton when this lumberjack arrived to stake his claim to that shack.  (399)

So there he is again: our old, and seemingly inescapable, friend, the Canadian lumberjack. The passage is a miniature summary of how a well-off young Englishwoman of the time would think of Canada – ironically so, it turns out, because then we meet the “lumping colonial,” the “lumberjack,” Cedric Hampton himself, and things take a turn for the unexpected:

There was a glitter of blue and gold across the parquet, and a human dragon-fly was kneeling on the fur rug in front of the Montdores, one long white hand extended towards each. He was a tall, thin young man, supple as a girl…. He was flashing a smile of unearthly perfection….  (401)

It turns out that this nominal Canadian has not been living in Canada for years; in fact, as he says himself:

‘…kindly Nature has allowed a great sea-fog of oblivion to rise between me and Nova Scotia, so that I hardly remember one single thing about it.’  (406)

He’s been living in Paris, depending on the kindness of Barons, involved with a “selfish” German “boy” named Klugge; he is “kind and thoughtful and affectionate, like a charming woman friend” (413); he turns out to be a member of quite a different tribe from what we were led to expect:

‘Aesthetes – you know – those awful effeminate creatures – pansies.’  (420)

For us as Canadians, Cedric’s actual appearance, when compared to what everyone expects of him before he arrives, marks a significant shift in the perception of Canadians in the English novel, and brings about an equally remarkable shift in the views of the English aristocrats in the book – for Cedric becomes like a son to the Montdores, especially Lady Montdore, who at the beginning of the novel loathes the very idea of his existence. He turns out to be a sophisticated aesthete with an extensive knowledge of art, architecture, poetry, fashion, furniture, personal grooming – pretty well any subject of interest to society ladies with more money and time than they know how to spend. He charms every member of high society he meets, usually by seeming to have an intimate knowledge of, and deep interest in, whatever subject the other person is most fascinated by. He is a glittering chameleon, always exactly what the other person wants him to be.

This seems to suggest that Mitford had a view of Canadians quite a bit more nuanced than many of her compatriots had – or even have today. In part the intention of the novel is satirical, of course; she builds up expectations of a coarse, unsophisticated Canadian, and then shifts the direction of the novel by introducing a completely different sort of character. And Cedric’s sophisitication is the product of his time in Europe, not in Nova Scotia – though really it’s the product of time in Europe combined with his innate nature, which suggests Canadians aren’t doomed to never be more than lumberjacks; we have at least the potential to understand and appreciate the finer things, so long as we are brought into contact with the improving influence of European civilization.

There is also the idea that “blood will out” to consider – Cedric’s mother was a Canadian woman, but his father was a member of the English aristocracy, and perhaps we are meant to understand that it is the aristocratic half of his background that makes the life he creates for himself possible.

Nevertheless, the story of Cedric Hampton represents a fascinating reversal of the view of Canada taken by Dickens, say, or Basil Bunting, as a land of new opportunity for Englishmen; in the case of Cedric, it is his leaving Canada and coming to Europe that opens up a social and cultural world where a person with his aesthetic and theatrical inclinations can succeed and become an adored figure of high society – something that surely never would have happened in Halifax or Dartmouth, where he might well have simply withered away.

Icebergs, Shipwrecks and Stock Whips


Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love (1945)

The volume in the photo contains two Nancy Mitford novels, The Pursuit of Love and its sequel of sorts, Love in a Cold Climate. Both novels mention Canada, but as they were originally published separately – and as Love in a Cold Climate has numerous references to Canada – I’ll give each one its own post.

For Those Unacquainted with the Mitfords…

If you’re not familiar with the whole cult surrounding the Mitford family, then this Wikipedia entry is at least a starting point; Mary S. Lovell’s book The Sisters is essentially a combined biography of the whole family, though with the focus on the daughters. Or you could read The Pursuit of Love, which is one of the books that helped create the cult in the first place: the Radlett family in the book is based on the Mitford clan, with the characters of Aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew representing Nancy Mitford’s parents. (Another key book in the creation of the family mythology is Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which we’ve already considered.)

The experiences of Linda Radlett, the main character in The Pursuit of Love, are modelled on Nancy Mitford’s own, though the book is actually narrated by Fanny, a cousin of the Radletts’, perhaps to give some slight authorial distance.

And Now, the Important Stuff: Canada

There are only two passing references to Canada in The Pursuit of Love, and both come in the early chapters that deal with the childhood experiences of Fanny and the Radlett children at Alconleigh, the Radletts’ country estate.

When a child I spent my Christmas holidays at Alconleigh, it was a regular feature of my life, and, while some of the them slipped by with nothing much to remember, others were distinguished by violent occurrences and had a definite character of their own…. There was the unforgettable holiday when Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie went to Canada. The Radlett children would rush for the newspapers every day hoping to see that their parents’ ship had gone down with all aboard; they yearned to be total orphans – especially Linda, who saw herself as Katy in What Katy Did, the reins of the household gathered into small but capable hands. The ship met with no iceberg and weathered the Atlantic storms, but meanwhile we had a wonderful holiday, free from rules.  (6)

Here Canada, or at least the journey to Canada, is clearly associated with great distance and considerable danger; enough danger, in fact, that the death of parents, and consequent freeing of their children from troublesome parental rules, is a real possibility. The reference to Atlantic storms suggests the approach to a wild, uncivilized place; the mention of an iceberg focuses our reputation as a cold, Northern land. 

The iceberg also recalls the Titanic, which famously ran into an iceberg south of Newfoundland and sank in 1912, when Nancy Mitford would have been around 8 years old. Perhaps she is recalling that here.

The obvious (unanswered) question that arises from the passage is, why were they going to Canada in the first place? Winter doesn’t seem the ideal time for a holiday in a place even colder than England. Did they just want to see another part of the world? Did they have relations in Canada? There’s no way to tell, but it seems like a bit of a compliment that these two English aristocrats braved the storms and icebergs to visit our humble land. 

A few pages later we get this:

Uncle Matthew was no respecter of other people’s early morning sleep, and after five o’clock one could not count on any, for he raged round the house, clanking cups of tea, shouting at his dogs, roaring at the housemaids, cracking the stock whips which he had brought back from Canada on the lawn with a noise greater than gunfire, and all to the accompaniment of Galli Curci on his gramophone, an abnormally loud one, with an enormous horn, through which would be shrieked ‘Una voce poco fa’ – ‘The Mad Song’ from Lucia – ‘Lo, here the gen-tel lar-ha-hark’ – and so on, played at top speed, thus rendering them even higher and more screeching than they ought to be.  (22)

In case you were wondering, a stock whip is not the same as a bull whip. Stock whips are used for mustering cattle, so the whip’s Canadian provenance suggests a place full of livestock and cowboys – though stock whips actually seem to have originated in Australia, not Canada, so why Uncle Matthew should have a stock whip from Canada is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps he acquired it on his trip there, when he didn’t drown in a shipwreck?

Uncle Matthew is portrayed in the novel as prone to wild rages, and here the Canadian whip is associated with the angry, out-of-control side of his character; the fact that the whip is from a country probably viewed as half-savage by the English aristocracy of the time perhaps adds an extra element of violent primitivism to the description of his behaviour (though one could read it more as quaint eccentricity).

So there’s not a lot new about Canada here: it’s a distant country, getting there can be dangerous, the livestock and wild animals probably outnumber the humans – and yet it’s worth visiting, though it’s not clear why. Interestingly, the Mitfords really had been to Canada: David Mitford (father of Nancy, Jessica et al.) even owned “a dear little gold mine” (Jessica’s phrase) here, which he thought would make him rich. Alas, it didn’t.

Some General Observations

As a writer, Mitford hovers somewhere between a novelist and a memoirist; most of her best-known works are fictionalizations of her own experiences or the experiences of her family members and friends, and you can see even in these brief passages her tendency to create run-on sentences by constantly adding further specific details to her descriptions, as if jotting down memories as they occur to her.

She does, however, make some notable alterations to the family history. I’ll mention just one: in The Pursuit of Love, Linda’s first marriage is to Tony Kroesig, the son of a rich banker of German descent. Much is made of Uncle Matthew’s disgust at his daughter marrying a German, and when the Second World War breaks out the Kroesigs are portrayed as sympathetic to Hitler and scheming to get their money out of England, while the Radletts would never think of leaving and are all ready to fight and die for their beloved homeland.

In reality, of course, two of Nancy Mitford’s sisters were staunch fascists and ardent supporters of Hitler – a fact she elides in the novel by removing those sentiments from her family, and by extension the English aristocracy as a whole (where they weren’t exactly unknown), and ascribing them instead to the nouveau-riche, recently arrived Kroesigs. Which seems a bit unfair, but there it is.

Canadian Xenophobes

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels (1960)

Let me just note, for those not already familiar, that this book is published by New York Review Books, a fantastic source of hard-to-find books (though in hunting down the link I find Dead Souls is their featured title, which is actually fairly ubiquitous. Oh the cruel ironies of life!) They also have a great children’s series.


There are a couple of points of interest here; let’s tackle the meatiest first.

We sailed for New York on February 18, 1939, on the Canadian ship SS Aurania. (p. 198)

Perhaps only a Canadian would note the irony implicit in this: Mitford and her husband, Esmond Romilly, sailed on a Canadian ship, but of course they weren’t going to Canada – no, they were on their way to a far more glamorous and exciting destination – New York. Their brush with Canada was merely a means to get somewhere else.

A description of the voyage follows:

Our fellow passengers were Canadian tourists, and Polish refugees who had managed to get on the immigration quota. Since there was little to liven up the voyage, we devoted our attention to taking sides in the continuous battle that raged between these two groups.

Some of the Canadians had taken it upon themselves to preserve the Anglo-Saxon purity of the steerage class bar from the “foreigners”. The bar was small, generally crowded, and stuffy. A group of Canadians generally managed to monopolize it early in the evening. “This place stinks of polecats,” they said loudly when some of the immigrants tried to come in. Esmond, assuming his most super-English-upper-class-public-school manner, escorted a group of Poles through the Canadian phalanx. “I really must apologize for these ghastly Colonials. They’re virtually uncivilized. Too bad we couldn’t have sailed on an English ship.” For once he was enjoying outsnobbing the snobs.

For a country that now prides itself on welcoming immigrants, this doesn’t make the most charming reading. Romilly’s comments about the Canadians play on the standard trope of colonials taking on the characteristics of the wild land they have settled, becoming more savage than the cultured sophisticates who remained home in the mother country. And putting on his most upper-crust attitude is the perfect touch; even today, most Canadians are cowed by the mere sound of an English accent. A cockney could proclaim himself a lord in Toronto and be met with bows of obeisance.

No insight is given into the motivations of the Canadians, but this sort of imposition of inferiority tends to work in a chain i.e. the English make the Canadians feel inferior; the Canadians then have to find someone (in this case, Polish refugees) that they can make feel inferior in their turn; and so it goes until the person at the bottom is left screaming at his child or kicking his dog. Perhaps the Canadians were acting out the contempt they had just been treated to on their tour of Europe. If so, Romilly’s joke about uncivilized Colonials must have twisted the knife with particular sharpness.

Moving on….

Romilly’s decision to join the Armed Forces to fight in the Second World War while he and Mitford were living in the United States brought about another brush with Canada:

[Esmond] was exultant at being in a position to arrange the details of his own participation in the war. Had he been caught up in the English conscription he would have found himself at the mercy of officialdom, with nothing whatsoever to say about what branch of the services he would join. As things stood, he was free to steer as clear as possible of the more tradition-bound centers of the armed forces. He decided to leave immediately for Canada, there to volunteer for the Air Force.

Notice that the reason for enlisting in Canada is entirely negative – he doesn’t particularly want to be part of the Canadian armed forces, he just wants to avoid English conscription. Romilly was the nephew, by marriage, of Winston Churchill, and to him Canada is nothing more than a useful backwater that provides him with some much-desired obscurity.

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