Thursday, 28 October 2010

Penguin no. 1976: Don't Tell Alfred
by Nancy Mitford

This book is not that easy to assess. It is perfectly readable. The problem is one of comparison - it is the last in a trilogy of books by Nancy Mitford, and the first two are so exceptional that this one can’t help but seem a little insipid. The three books are all narrated by Fanny, who is very conventional and generally unsure of herself, counterposing the colourful and eccentric characters that surround her and whose stories she recounts in the first two novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. The third book concentrates on Fanny’s story, and it is a middle-aged Fanny who has gone to live in Paris, and who seems curiously detached from her children and her husband. The people around her are still far more interesting than she is; in this case it is her children and her niece. It is their unusual exploits which must be kept from Alfred, her husband.

In one sense then reading this novel is like catching up with old friends, finding out how their lives panned out and who has died. But in a more interesting sense, the book reads like a warning about the future and the direction England is taking. It seems very unusual for a book written around 1960; it laments and details the loss of old buildings in London, and it is set very firmly against the modernist tradition of rejecting the past and embracing the future. At a time when architects looked forward to a Utopian future of planned cities filled with concrete tower blocks and freeways, when Brasilia was under construction and before Trellick Towers had even started, she has a character stating that “modern architecture is the greatest unhappiness there has ever been. Nobody can live in those shelves, they can’t do more than eat and sleep there... the result. Gloom, hysteria, madness, suicide.” I cannot recall another ‘60s book that adopts this tone. How amazing to find that the social costs were evident to some before the tower blocks and New Cities were even built. I wish she had managed to shout it louder.

This idea is also explored in the way the children’s interests and ideas are parodied. The children either have no interest in money, or are looking for ways to get rich quickly. They reject Fanny and Alfred’s values and choices, and in so doing reject hard work, respect, thought and education. They impose on others and they don’t care.

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