Nancy Mitford's Dirty Family Laundry

Nancy Mitford (right) with two Mitford sisters. Hulton-Deutsch Collection-Corbis

In 1951 Nancy Mitford rejected an offer to reprint her pre–World War II satire Wigs on the Green, explaining to her friend Evelyn Waugh, “Too much has happened for jokes about Nazis to be regarded as funny or as anything but the worst of taste.” She had other reasons to worry. The novel’s bubble-headed heroine, Eugenia Malmains, was a portrait of Nancy’s Nazi sister, Unity; The Union Jackshirt movement Eugenia espouses was a hilarious parody of the Blackshirts, led by fascist Oswald Mosley, soon to be the husband of her sister Diana. And beyond the family squabble the novel had caused, even razor-witted Nancy was chastened by how blithely she had laughed off fascists and Nazis. “After all, it was written in 1934, I really couldn’t quite have foreseen all that came after,” she wrote defensively. Never republished during her life and out of print for decades, Wigs has now been reissued along with two other neglected Mitford works that reveal why her wry social observations still sting.

Artistically, the finest of the rediscoveries is The Blessing (1951), a sparkling novel of cross-cultural manners in which a refined English beauty named Grace marries a dashing French nobleman who refuses to give up his permanent mistress or casual affairs. That is the norm in France, he argues, and Grace wonders if she can ever adopt such a worldly attitude, a potent theme in our more free-wheeling day. With its lethal wit and lack of sentimentality, The Blessing deserves a place next to Mitford’s acknowledged masterpiece, The Pursuit of Love (1945), a fictionalized portrait of her eccentric childhood, and it is just as autobiographical. Drawing on her long liaison with a womanizing French military hero, Gaston Palewski, Mitford transforms her romantic compromises into ultrasophisticated comedy.

Wigs is a charming but slighter novel, whose political edge makes it a bigger discovery. Its Bright Young Things social satire concerns characters like Jasper Aspect, a penniless moocher hunting for a rich wife, and Poppy St. Julien, wondering whether to divorce her wandering husband. The priceless Mitford creations include Peersmont, a lunatic asylum for peers modeled on the Houses of Parliament so the old boys feel at home. But at the center is Eugenia—tall, blonde, and beautiful, like Unity—an aristocratic heiress who stands on a washtub on the village green recruiting Jackshirts. With empty-headed enthusiasm, she mouths the philosophy of her beloved leader, Captain Jack, about the decline of Britain under “a putrescent democracy,” but what she really adores are the Jackshirt banners, shirts, and emblems that give her a cause and a sense of belonging. Mitford is merciless in her portrayal of Eugenia as a person who slavishly follows political fashion. Fascism, with a dash of Nazism, happens to be the trendy cause of her day.

The satire might have been even more pointed if Nancy hadn’t engaged in her own appeasement policy. She showed the Wigs manuscript to Diana and in deference eliminated several chapters concerning Captain Jack. Before publication she wrote to Diana, insisting, “Far the nicest character in the book is a Fascist, the others all become much nicer as soon as they have joined up.” This fooled no one.

The Mitfords got past the episode, but Diana, an unrepentant fascist until she died at 93, did not learn until after Nancy’s death that her sister had denounced her to the government during the war. Unity stalked Hitler until she became his friend, and when Germany and Britain went to war, she shot herself in the head. No wonder Nancy shied away from revisiting Wigs. Her essential targets were not her sisters or fascism, though, but political herd mentality itself. In our era of the Tea Party and rabid commentators on the right and left, her long-lost ridicule seems perfectly at home.