A book which I’ve just this moment finished (1 down, 39 to go). Reprinted by Capuchin Classics at the beginning of July it’s been something of a struggle to get hold of, the only place I’ve actually seen it for sale is in the wonderful Bakewell bookshop, (though if you couldn’t buy a Mitford book that close to Chatsworth it would be a pretty poor show) but by that time I’d finally managed to order it via amazon after it being persistently out of stock for about a month.
Either way my persistence paid off and I couldn’t help but start this book almost the moment I got it. It’s not a long book and for all its faults it’s an absorbing read, all in it probably only took 3 or 4 hours to get through and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Which is another reason for the slight feeling of resentment I’m harbouring over how hard the darn thing was to get hold of, it just shouldn’t be this difficult. ‘Highland Fling’ has been on my book radar for a good 3 years (since I first noticed it on Capuchin’s list). I’m hardly the only Mitford fan out there, and unlikely to be the only one who doesn’t feel her bank balance can take the unexpected withdrawals that pre orders result in. Is it really unreasonable to hope to find books like this in bookshops? Apparently it is in Leicester. (And here ends my complaint for tonight.)
Back to the book, which I’m inclined to see as a bit of a coup for Capuchin, especially after ‘Wigs on the Green’ (summarizing my opinion thus – interesting period piece with a few good jokes and rather more bad ones. Appealing to fans, but not the finest indicator of what Nancy Mitford’s like at her best!) and ‘The Water Beetle’ (very mixed essays) I had quite low expectations. Happily ‘Highland Fling’ totally exceeded said expectations, true the plot is almost nonexistent and the quality of the writing patchy, but there are brilliant pen portraits which must have been taken from life, and a really good sense of a clash of cultures between the county set and the bright young things.
This I think is the key to why ‘Highland Fling’ is more than the curiosity that ‘Wigs on the Green’ is. Fling was the first novel that Mitford had published and was written whilst she was still in her 20’s (it says in the introduction) so the lack of polish is easy to overlook, it feels like, and possibly was an attempt to make some money, but it also has all the authentic Mitford hallmarks – wit, wisdom and some very cutting observations. The central characters are Sally and Walter Monteath, a young couple who sit on the fence between county respectability and the bright young things. As much as Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Vile Bodies’ this gives a feel for that group, though I suspect Mitford was rather more of an insider, especially class wise than Waugh ever was.
She captures the boredom and pointlessness of country house parties dedicated to killing as much game as possible (whilst possibly bagging a suitable husband) along with the frantic but essentially just as pointless round of cocktails and practical jokes of the younger set. More than that though she also explores what separates the generations. The younger set are basically pacifists – genuinely revolted by the waste of the war they missed (though destined to fight in the next one) the ‘Grown ups’ incapable and unwilling to question the values they have always live by. One character (the sympathetic Mr Buggins) sits between, he fought in the trenches and in a nice little speech quietly and convincingly tells how those 4 years robbed him of his ability to be useful or productive. There are other episodes like this which not only stand out but more than stand the test of time. The bright young things seem like children, but it’s clear that they will for the most part outgrow their childishness, it’s also clear that Mitford believes there are more dangerous faults than a penchant for silly pranks and living on credit.