I am rather a fan of the Mitford sisters, I have made it my mission to at some point have read every book they have published, be they fictional, essays, memoirs, investigative pieces or letters etc. One book I didn’t think I would get to read until I had saved up some serious cash was ‘Noblesse Oblige’ an edited collection by Nancy Mitford. This is a book which is rather expensive second hand and being a series of essays about class I wasn’t sure I was that fussed spending oodles of money on now. However a while back one of my friends was making an art installation of books for a hospital and had bought over 4ft of old Penguin classics and invited me to peruse it and pilfer from it as he had too many. This was one of the gems inside, one of those ‘oh my god’ book moments you sometimes have when your bookish excitement runneth over. Well actually it would have been worth the money because ‘Noblesse Oblige’ is a fascinating look not only into class and social history but also into how language evolves.
I do think that the subtitle of ‘Noblesse Oblige’ is a rather off putting and misleading one. It states it is ‘An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy’ which both sounds like it could be rather irritating and also potentially rather dull, actually it is neither. It does look at the distinctions of class, through essays and response essays and letters from various sources, but it looks at a lot more than that too, and is really rather funny both on occasion with intent but also with the hindsight of a modern reader.
In 1954 Professor Alan Ross of Birmingham University published an paper called ‘U and Non-U, an Essay in Social Linguistics’ all about class, the upper (U) and lower (Non-U) and how you could tell them apart in times where “a member of the upper class is, for instance, not necessarily better educated, cleaner or richer than someone not of his class’. This didn’t produce much outrage in Helsinki where it was published until Nancy Mitford’s beady eyes spotted it (possibly because her book ‘The Pursuit of Love’ was mentioned in it) and used it to discuss her love of the British aristocracy in an article in Encounter which then did cause a huge level of controversy, debate and some absolute fury and ill will throughout the UK and even in Paris and New York. This piece, ‘The English Aristocracy’ is the second section of the book.
What follows are further reactions to Nancy’s own essay. One looks at the future of class in ‘What U-Future?’ which is the last full essay before John Betjeman’s poem ‘How To Get on in Society’ and sadly is rather a damp squib to end upon as it is a little dull. The other two essays are fascinating, one, ‘Posh Lingo’ by ‘Strix’, looks at how language evolves and changes naturally but also with ‘fashion’, I found the history and stories behind words like ‘cinema’ and who the lower classes got it correct quicker when it arrived, plus tales of how ‘wizard’ and ‘cheers’ came in (and in the former case out) of fashion utterly fascinating.
My favourite response though was ‘An Open Letter’ to Nancy from her own well known friend Evelyn Waugh. Renowned for being a wit but also rather acerbic and occasionally spiteful he does indeed seem to have his claws out for his very own friend as he adds his own thoughts to the class debate and points out that Nancy is a delightful trouble maker to write such a thing but also someone who only just managed to be upper class and now resides in another country, so who is she really to even bring it all up?
“That way lay madness and I fear that if you are taken too seriously you and Professor Ross may well drive your readers into the bin. When in your novel you made ‘Uncle Matthew’ utter his catalogue of irrational prohibitions, you were accurately recording a typical conversational extravagance. When you emerge in propria persona as the guide to Doric youth, you are more mischievous.’
There is this dry and often sly wit running through the whole of ‘Noblesse Oblige’, in fact at the time many people thought (or hoped) it was a satire and now in the modern day the preposterous nature of it is often rather laughable. Really though ‘Noblesse Oblige’ is, as I mentioned earlier, a thoroughly interesting and insightful look at both class in social history and of the late 1940’s to early 1950’s in the UK but also as a record and look into how language and words change their importance and usage. I really rather enjoyed it, how could you not enjoy any book that brings in the word ‘primogeniture’ to argue a case? I do hope someone reprints it again one day.