Tomorrow night, the final part of the latest adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit Of Love will screen on the BBC, but it is imperative you do not watch it. Or, if you do, you absolutely must hate everything about it: the characters, the author, the author’s family and – most of all – everyone who enjoys any and especially all of the above. A man has decreed it must be so: “I demand an end to the glorification of these six dead posh women and their dysfunctional, unpleasant, and largely fascist family,” historian Guy Walters wrote – nay, demanded – last week when promoting his feature for the Daily Mail, which argued, well, that, for a further 600 or so words. Walters bemoaned the popularity of these “overvenerated, overrated and overprivileged women” because, ugh, is there anything worse than women who are loved too much? “Mitford moonies always take exception to the application of the f-word [fascist] to the family, but the unpalatable fact is that many of them were a bunch of sordid fascists, and those who weren’t were either communist or politically apathetic,” Walters writes.
As a fully paid-up Mitford moonie, I don’t know which members of the tribe Walters has been talking to but, believe me, they are not representative. We are very aware of the political predilections of the Mitford sisters, and that’s exactly why we’re fascinated by them. Otherwise, they’d be just another posh family; with two Nazis (Diana, Unity) and one communist (Decca) among the sisters, they are thrillingly sui generis, bewilderingly headstrong, extraordinarily extraordinary. Shock announcement: women don’t have to be likable or even admirable to be interesting. They can be awkward, complex, inconsistent, morally dubious, frustrating, passionate and absurd. You know, the same things that make men interesting, too.
Alas, we don’t even have the time to ask why a book by Nancy – neither a communist nor a fascist, and deeply in love as an adult with a Jewish hero of the French resistance – should be damned for the political affiliations of her sisters. (Although I’d actually far rather watch a show about the Mitfords’ lives than another adaptation of Nancy’s novel, but I’m awkward like that.) Note, also, my restraint in not pointing out the irony of an article in the Daily “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” Mail criticising others for their politics in the 1930s. Instead we can just file away this latest instalment in my ongoing series – magnum opus, even – entitled Men Explain Why Women Are Wrong To Like What They Like.
After Walters posted his article, he was inundated with responses, largely from men, all of the “Good one, mate! Off to tell the wife why she’s always been wrong about these posh birds” variety. Because it just so happens that those “Mitford moonies” tend to be women. There’s a funny thing that happens with things that are largely favoured by women: they are treated as trash. Silly. Childish. “Guilty pleasures”, to use one of the most annoying phrases in the English language. We see this with fashion (which is dismissed in a way that, say, sport is not), with romantic comedies (which are sneered at in a way that, say, superhero movies are not) and with the Mitfords (who are written off as aristo Nazis in a way that Evelyn Waugh, who was a dreadful snob, and PG Wodehouse, who was accused in his time of being a Nazi collaborator, are not).
We especially see this with TV shows aimed at women. Earlier this year, I tweeted how “fascinating” (stupid) it is that Sex And The City – a show about a bunch of white women making jokes and shagging – is considered embarrassingly retro and borderline offensive, but The Sopranos – a show about a bunch of white men killing each other – is considered an untouchable classic. Well! The howl of outrage was so great that a friend in New York called to tell me I was “trending in America”. (I broke America! Watch and learn, Robbie Williams!) Well, I guess the truth hurts. Yes, The Sopranos had brilliant writing, but it also featured multiple episodes about Tony suffering from the runs. And, yes, Sex And The City talked about anal sex and blowjobs, but also breast cancer, bankruptcy and infertility. But the latter was originally created by a woman, starred women and was made for women, and the former was created by a man, starred mainly men and is adored by men – women, too, yes, but it’s the male approval that is the key factor here.
This isn’t (just) about sexism – this is about fear. It’s fear of women enjoying things that have nothing to do with male approval. It’s fear of women getting the joke that some men don’t. And, most of all, it’s fear of women who are smart in a very specific way: Nancy Mitford may not have been accoladed like Waugh, but she understood the human heart much better. “The charm of your writing,” Waugh once wrote to her, “depends on your refusal to recognise a distinction between girlish chatter and literary language.” Her brilliance was to understand that there need be no distinction at all.