Jackson Mitford: holiday reading

Mick Jackson, The Underground Man. Picador paperback, 1998; first published 1997.

Nancy Mitford, Don’t Tell Alfred. Penguin paperback 2015 reissue, first published in 1960.

Jackson Mitford coversOne of my first blog posts was about Mick Jackson’s charming ursine caper Bears of England. I didn’t find The Underground Man as satisfying, but it is a more ambitious, complex and serious novel.

Perhaps that’s why. Despite his capacity for quirky humour, Jackson indulges his penchant for digressions and eccentric excursions and disquisitions too much, making this is an occasionally lacklustre read. Its protagonist is a wealthy landowning aristocrat in Nottinghamshire in the high Victorian period. ‘His Grace’, as his large, not entirely sympathetic staff address him, is based on the eccentric Duke of Portland.

An old man when the narrative begins, he’s bald, losing his faculties (including his sanity) and valetudinarian, like Emma’s father in the Austen novel. He has a tendency to become fixated on trivia, such as the objects he finds in the attic, and on maps, clothes – and tunnels. His huge country house already had some medieval tunnels constructed by the monks who once owned it. These were to enable them to escape when Catholics in England were persecuted.

Mick Jackson, The Underground Man coverThe duke employs engineers to build a larger network of such tunnels, wide and high enough to allow him to ride in his carriage along them. They serve no practical purpose, but amuse him enormously. This self-indulgent childishness is offset by the genuine care and fondness he shows for his estate workers and their families.

The problem is, that’s the plot. The 261 pages are filled with the minutiae of his daily existence, which is rarely more than mildly interesting. The chief interest of the novel is its depiction of a troubled soul and mind slowly deteriorating into a kind of paranoia.

The fragmentary structure doesn’t add to the coherence of the narrative, though the multiple voices that complement the main diary entries of the duke do provide occasional insights into the responses of those around him to the duke’s increasingly bizarre behaviour and erratic obsessions.

My other main holiday read was slightly more engaging: Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred. 

I took it to Spain with me not realising it’s a sequel to The Pursuit of Love, published in 1945, which I read a while back but never posted about here. I don’t find much to say about either novel, except they’re very funny in parts, moderately amusing much of the time, but frothy and ultimately insubstantial. I know it’s shallow of me but I find it hard to care much about characters like Fanny, the protagonist, when they’re given to saying things like this about a luncheon date with her errant son in London:

Never possessing a London house of my own I have always found the Ritz useful when up for the day or a couple of nights; a place where one could meet people, leave parcels, write letters, or run into out of the rain.

Linda’s mother is known as the Bolter, because of her fondness for running off with new partners when married to others. Here’s a sample of the arch humour that the novel is shot through with; eccentric, irascible but supposedly loveable Uncle Matthew, now an old man, is discussing her mother with Fanny:

‘How many husbands has the Bolter had now?’

‘The papers said six –‘

‘Yes, but that’s absurd. They left out the African ones – it’s eight or nine at least. Davey [Fanny’s uncle, another extreme hypochondriac] and I were trying to count up. Your father and his best man and the best man’s friend, three. That takes us to Kenya and all the hot stuff there – the horsewhipping and the aeroplane and the Frenchman who won her in a lottery. Davey’s not sure she ever married him, but give her the benefit of the doubt: four. Rawl and Plugge five and six, Gewan [Spaniard Juan who was introduced in The Pursuit – Matthew has no time for foreigners and wilfully mispronounces the name] seven…[etc.]


OK, that kind of thing is pretty funny at times, but some of the jokes and slang are just plain silly. The plot is full of abrupt reversals and revelations, and there’s a large cast of eccentric, mostly louche, lazy and rich characters (most of them have titles or don’t really need to work for a living) who are selfish or stupid or both. Some are said to be very clever or astute. Many of them have a stylishly epigrammatic turn of phrase – one of the pleasures the novel offers.

The approach of the ‘swinging sixties’ is surprisingly prominent in that one of Fanny’s less appealing sons (the other is a tiresome beatnik-bearded, parasitic fake Buddhist) Basil has become a dodgy tourist agent, mercilessly ripping off package holidaymakers. He speaks in a weird hybrid of Cockney, ‘beatnik’ and upper class toff jargon, dismissing his hapless clients as ignorant, bovine victims. Americans’ fondness for psychotherapy (here of a very dubious nature) is wickedly sent up. The other harbinger of the emerging teen/pop era is a rock n roll star with the unlikely name of Yanky Fonzy.

Nancy Mitford, Don't Tell Alfred coverI don’t think Nancy M really ‘gets’ pop culture, the hoi-polloi, or the nascent sixties – or wants to.

The Alfred of the title is Fanny’s Oxford don husband, who accepts a prestigious diplomatic post early on, thus sparking off the novel’s numerous divagations and complications, some of which are quite entertaining, but many are duds.

No doubt I should be more charitable, and accept that it’s all tongue-in-cheek and ironic and not to be taken too seriously. But I found the snobbery and occasional casual racism distasteful – though the novel in its best moments is very funny, and there’s a surprisingly racy sexiness about it.

11 thoughts on “Jackson Mitford: holiday reading

  1. Well, this is a blast from the past… I read this ages ago and rather liked it so I looked up my ancient review to retrieve my memories of it (see https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/144376364?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1). (It’s got a spoiler warning but since you’ve already read the book, that doesn’t matter).
    A more experienced reader now than back when I read it, I now wonder if there was more to the identity issue that I’d thought. Or is it just a reimagining of an historical personage that has too many divergent threads to be successful?

    • Lisa- I can understand your response to Underground Man: Jackson does create a rounded, complex & endearing character, & the portrayal of his growing confusion is sympathetically done. I just felt there were a few too many iterations of the duke’s strange obsessions, and the novel lost impetus. It is unusual though, and better in its realisation of his crumbling state of mind (those rambling journal entries in which he tries to make sense of his puzzling world – and body) than a biography could have managed. A curiosity.

  2. I’ve read and enjoyed Mitford in the past, but I must admit at the moment I probably would find myself much less tolerant of them. I seem to be able to cope with the upper classes in murder mysteries and the like but not in fiction where they’re taken a little more seriously. And I reacted *very* badly to the non-fiction story of “The Bolter”!!!

    • Kaggsy: I agree it’s necessary to show tolerance to unpalatable characters and plots, but there was just a little too much of that ostentatious opulence and complacent luxuriating in privilege and status in this novel for me to endure – even though it’s obviously meant to be seen in part as a parody or critique of such things; but NM seems also ultimately to find it perfectly natural, if amusing, for a personal secretary, a glamorous but scatty deb figure, to never do a stroke of work, and sponge money from everyone, with no intention of paying it back, instead offering insultingly vague promises that she’s keeping a careful record, ‘each for each’, of what she owes. On one occasion she takes the embassy Rolls from Paris to the coast in order to release in the sea a consignment of live lobsters presented as a gift to her employers. This is meant to be charmingly endearing; I find it ridiculous, I’m afraid, and symptomatic of the insouciant selfishness of people brought up to assume they have carte blanche to please only themselves. Maybe I’m just a puritan. Fanny is portrayed with more depth and finesse; all the others are caricatures, I feel.

  3. When I think of all the pleasure and intellectual satisfaction you could have got from reading Barchester Towers instead of The Burnt-out Case and these two…;-)

  4. I enjoyed Nancy Mitford so much when I was in my teens – 20s that I cannot change my mind now! Nothing could have been more different from my own background and life, but they have always entertained me. Yes Northey is intensely irritating, and this is the weakest of the three main books, but I like the Paris setting. (What I love even more is the collection of Mitford’s letters to and from Evelyn Waugh in the 40s 50s & 60s.)
    BTW the Bolter is Fanny’s mother, not Linda’s.

    • Oops, thanks for straightening out my lapse. I think in a different frame of mind I’d have enjoyed this much more. i Just bought a biography of the Mitford sisters in a charity shop, so shall look into the background some more.

      • Yes, I think frame of mind is probably key when it comes to reading Mitford (and Evelyn Waugh for that matter). I recall reading her ‘Christmas Pudding’ over the holidays last year and finding it all a bit silly. Fanny is the one who saves The Pursuit of Love by acting as something of an observer of the Radletts – her level-headed attitude to life comes through in the narrative.

        • Maybe so, Jacqui, though as i said in some of my replies below, there are some pretty unpalatable aspects and assumptions on display in this novel – though it does have a superficial charm.

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