Friday, July 10, 2015

Book Review - Nancy Mitford's Highland Fling

Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: 1931
Format: Paperback, 208 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

"I first came to Nancy Mitford my freshman year of college via her later books: Pigeon Pie, In Pursuit of Love, and Love in a Cold Climate, in that order. When I finally got my hands on Highland Fling, in grad school, I was deeply disappointed. The characters all struck me as deeply unpleasant; the writing was snide; and nothing really happened. (Other than a fire. There was a fire. But unlike a proper Gothic fire, where mad wives are immolated, here people just sat around in their pajamas and watched it burn, or ran in to rescue the odd Victorian knick-knack.)

Re-reading Highland Fling after a crash course on the 1920s was a very different experience. I still don’t love it as a novel, but as a testament about the mood of a certain group at a certain time, it’s incredibly telling, particularly vis a vis the clash between the generations and the self-imposed alienation of the younger, artsy set (while, of course, still taking advantage of things like wealthy relatives and free stays in castles).

It’s instructive to read Highland Fling in conjunction with In Pursuit of Love and Vile Bodies in conjunction with Brideshead. Both Mitford and Waugh got out, so to speak. They managed to rise above their Bright Young Origins, take a longer view, and mature into novelists who took a big picture view of their world. One gets the sense that many of their colleagues didn’t, that they remained trapped in a very small and recursive world.

What did you think of Highland Fling?" - Lauren Willig

Albert Gates has been in Paris making a name for himself as an artist. He is only returning to England, the land of creative blocks, because he has a show opening in the fall and he wishes to see his dear friends Walter and Sally Monteath as well as the venue for his exhibit. Turns out Walter and Sally are having a cash flow problem due to Walter's impecunious nature wherein he doesn't feel a lack of money should impact his good time. It doesn't help that his occupation is a poet, so there's not much cash coming in at all even when he gets work. Walter is trying to convince Sally and Albert to go on vacation to the Lido, an expense Sally says they can do without, when Sally is given a great opportunity.

Sally's Aunt Madge and Uncle Craig Craigdalloch, the Lord and Lady of Dulloch Castle, spend every August at said Castle entertaining a hunting and shooting party. But sadly Uncle Craig has been asked to go to Rhodesia and they are desperate to have someone host the house party, because cancelling it is out of the question. Sally agrees to play hostess, mainly because by living in Scotland for a few months her and Walter's outlay will be nothing, and by inviting Albert to entertain Walter and her friend Jane Dacre to entertain herself, it will be a jolly holiday. The bright young things don't quite mesh with the old horse and hounds military folk and their wives, but they do have quite a time making fun of them. Plus, to an artist and Victorian fanatic like Albert, the attics of the castle are strewn with fascinating relics that he can't wait to discover, of course with the help of the lovely Jane Dacre. It is quite a fun time in Scotland till the house starts on fire, but no one could have guessed that that would be the result of this jaunty trip.

My love of the Mitford sisters has lead me to read much on their diverse and odd lives. But reading nonfiction isn't quite the same as reading fiction, no matter how much that fiction may walk the line between reality and invention. I felt a profound relief in sinking back into my first love, Nancy's writing. In her writing Nancy has taken the bones of her life and made it into humorous fodder. Her writing is a light and breezy roman à clef. There is a bite to her wit, but there isn't a depressing darker side, there aren't sad family separations or miscarriages, just people jaunting about a castle in Scotland and watching men throw cabers, but viewed with a jaundiced eye.

The highlands were part of Nancy's growing up. Being shipped off to Scotland during various times in her life for holidays and hunts to sit in damp locales waiting for the guns to go off. While Nancy was born and raised a country girl, she really loved the glittering world of London into which she emerged after what must have felt like years of exile with her family. She was a bright young thing, and bright young things have a humorous take on this other life they are a part of, this horse and hounds set. Mockery is easiest to achieve with something that you love or have loved, hence teasing your family is so easy. Highland Fling is a loving tease of all that is Scotland and a hunting holiday, and it lightened my heart and made me wonder, once again, why so many of Nancy's books have been out of print for so long in the United States.

My favorite part of this book is a poem about the history of the tower that is part of Dulloch Castle called "The Lament of Lady Muscatel." Of course, the poetic history of Scotland is in the hands of Robbie Burns. Everybody knows Robbie Burns even if they don't realize it. The phrase "the best laid plans of mice and men/often go awry" is a modernization from Burns's poem "To a Mouse" which said "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft agley." Don't believe me? Just go ask Eddie Izzard. Well, I have a love hate relationship with Robbie Burns. Back in 2005 I had this kind of weird experience where I felt I was being stalked by Robbie Burns, and in the end it kind of relates back to Eddie Izzard. During the spring of 2005 I was traveling on the east coast, New York to Halifax. For some reason poetry was in the air, we wrote an ode to the town across the harbor from Halifax, Dartmouth, because of a lost wallet. This must have somehow summoned forth Robbie, because from then on out he was everywhere.

One rainy day I was wandering around Halifax with my friend Orelia and we found a statue to him in Victoria Gardens. On the drive back to New York we listened to The Proclaimers, and there were Burns references in their songs... then on the poets walk in New York, Burns again! The final appearance of Burns was on the drive home to Wisconsin while listening to every Eddie Izzard live show available and Burns reared his mousy head. Needless to say, I was a little sick of Robbie and have never quite forgiven him for haunting my every step. Therefore, Nancy, taking the piss out of him with her refrain "The pibroch i' the glen is boony/But waley, waley, wheer's ma Ronnie?" brought tears of joy and laughter to me. Also, the word waley entertains me to no end. But I think the fact that the poem is actually well done helps maintain that tease just right with a little love on one end and a little hate on the other.

The other aspect of the book I found fascinating is that the younger generation is obsessed with the Victoriana of their parents generation, ie the tat their parents hate. Albert, oh such an appropriate name, is so obsessed with the Victorian clutter that has been hidden away in Dulloch Castle that he goes about excavating everything he can lay his hands on from the dusty attics and moving it into the billiards room so he can document and photograph it for a little pamphlet he's writing. While this book was written in the thirties, it has a universal truth. The fact is style and taste is cyclical. When I was younger I remember loving sixties fashion, which my parents just hated, because they had had to live through it. I had a similar reaction when the eighties came back, and even more now that the nineties are. There's a nostalgia for the near past that we ourselves didn't live through. I personally had never thought much on this, thinking it was more a recent trend, but Nancy shows, without a doubt, this is something that has probably always been going on. And from a personal point of view we have to really feel for Lady Craigdalloch who views the destruction of the house as a good thing because at least all the horrid old Victorian tat is gone... she is not well pleased when she learns that Albert saved it all.


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