Sunday, 26 October 2014

Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford

Apparently I bought Pigeon Pie (1940) by Nancy Mitford in Clun on 15th August 2011. I have no idea where Clun is and no recollection of having gone there, but I suppose I must have done! I read the novel quite a few months ago, so forgive any patchy memory (I'm linking to some great reviews at the end!)

For all my Mitfordmania, I have actually only read one Nancy Mitford novel (The Pursuit of Love); despite very much enjoying it, and having lots of others on hand, I still haven't actually read any more. So I picked up this purchase from mysterious Clun, and started. The first thing I noticed was the author's note:
I hope that anybody who is kind enough to read it in a second edition will remember that it was written before Christmas 1939. Published on 6 May 1940 it was an early and unimportant casualty of the real war which was then beginning - Nancy Mitford, Paris, 1951
Well! That's quite the start, isn't it? As Nancy warns, this novel is about the phoney war - that bit at the beginning of war where everyone prepared themselves for an onslaught, and not very much happened. And so she is able to be rather casual about the war, in a way that would look rather scandalous even by the time of publication. And the heroine of Pigeon Pie is nothing if not casual. Lady Sophia Garfield is a flippant socialite who has married for money, finds her husband a bore, and lives for the petty squabbles she has with the other doyennes of London society.

I do rather love this compact description of the phoney war:
Rather soon after the war had been declared, it became obvious that nobody intended it to begin. The belligerent countries were behaving like children in a round game, picking up sides, and until the sides had been picked up the game could not start.
England picked up France, Germany picked up Italy. England beckoned to Poland, Germany answered with Russia. Then Italy's Nanny said she had fallen down and grazed her knee, running, and mustn't play. England picked up Turkey, Germany picked up Spain, but Spain's Nanny said she had internal troubles, and must sit this one out. England looked towards the Oslo group, but they had never played before, except like Belgium, who had hated it, and the others felt shy. America, of course, was too much of a baby for such a grown-up game, but she was just longing to see it played. And still it would not begin.
The things that do begin, in Pigeon Pie, are rather extraordinary. A much-loved singer is killed, and Sophia finds herself swept up in an unlikely espionage and kidnap plot. None of it is treated particularly seriously - it is definitely silly rather than tense, and a wry eye is never far from the narrative. The denouement is just as unlikely as all the rest, and treads an awkward line between satire and failure...

I love Mitford's tone, and I love her observations about the in-fighting of the upper classes. In another novel, Sophia could have been great fun.  But I'm not sure that Pigeon Pie (for me) is ever more than quite good. And that isn't particularly because of insensitivity (although that warning was perhaps more pertinent in 1951) but because Mitford is turning her hand to a genre at which she is not an expert.

Others who got Stuck into this book

"The tone is maybe a little uneven, but when the wit works it really does sparkle." - Jane, Fleur Fisher in Her World

"It feels unreal and flippant; the language makes it seem a little like Enid Blyton for adults." - Karyn, A Penguin A Week

"A very enjoyable tale, filled with the usual Mitford acerbic wit, ridiculous characters and finely observed minutiae of upper class inter war life." - Rachel, Book Snob


  1. Clun is in Shropshire. It appears in A Shropshire Lad, I think.

  2. Good timing - I'm currently reading The Pursuit of Love and enjoying it very much.

  3. Beat me to it, Rosie. Just zipped to the bottom of the post to observe that, "Clunton and Clunbury/Clungunford and Clun/Are the quietest places/Under the sun"

    This quote was apparently pinned to a noticeboard in the newsroom of the Whitchurch Herald in the late 1940's with the scrawled addition, "Just one murder. That's all we ask."

  4. Sounds a little like the Provincial Lady in Wartime - at least as far as the temporal setting of the phoney war, not much happening, light tone, etc.

  5. I've always enjoyed her first novel, Highland Fling, but there's no doubt that it, and the three which followed it - Christmas Pudding, Pigeon Pie and Wigs on the Green - are nowhere near as well written, clever and funny as the final four which start with the Pursuit of Love. Reading them through in order, though, you really see her development as a writer in almost every way - plot, dialogue, social commentary, wit ... fascinating and enjoyable.

  6. I started with The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate, and when I read the earlier books I found them a little disappointing - except for Christmas Pudding. I thought the tones in this one were a little jarring.

  7. Thanks for the pic, Simon. I enjoy glimpsing other people's bookshelves.

  8. Interesting edition - I may possibly have the same one somewhere! Hindsight is a terrible thing for some books, but I still think this would be worth reading for the humour and your quote about the countries behaving like children is excellent!

  9. Great quote! I've read a few Mitford novels and so far I've enjoyed Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love the best. However, I think I really enjoyed the biography by Mary Lovell even more! It's called The Sisters and it's really fascinating, one of my favorite books of the year so far. If you haven't read it I highly recommend it. Their actual lives are even more interesting than the novels.


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