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U and Non-U: Aristocrats’ Musings on Class

November 20, 2009

Since our friends at Anglotopia are traveling — in England, of course (!) — the next TGIF installment will run in early December. To insure maximum wit and intrigue, it will cover some of the mad, marvelous and maddening Mitford sisters. The six of them and their lone brother, children of Lord and Lady Redesdale, included among their number Communists, fascists, wits, authors, a muckraker, a farmer and a duchess. Let me introduce here some of their knowing insights  on class.

I could no more introduce the Mitfords in a paragraph than give you Winston Churchill in two sentences. But here’s a start, anyway: The angular Lord and Lady Redesdale (or David Freeman-Mitfords), married in 1904, were impecunious landed gentry who knew how to squeeze their pennies. Somewhat more unusually, they also knew how to dig for them; “Muv” and “Farve,” as their children called them, periodically took off for the Canadian wilderness to prospect for gold as a way to revive the family fortunes. Most of their time was spent on their austere Cotswolds estate, however, riding, shooting pheasant, bellowing at the children (Farve), baking whole-grain bread and raising hens (Muv), and overseeing their rambunctious daughters’  indifferent home-based educations. Strict but loving, they sent their son to Eton and raised their daughters for cloistered, demure womanhood, only to see them branch out toward every extreme of 20th-century culture. “Whenever I see a headline beginning with ‘Peer’s Daughter,’ ” Sydney Redesdale lamented, “I know one of you children has been in trouble.”

Sharp-tongued Nancy, the eldest, made her career as a writer of essays, biographies and humor. One of her greatest contributions to modern culture was the popularization of the English terms “U” and “Non-U.”

Have you ever heard them? “Non-U’ means ‘not done, dear,’ gauche. It comes from “Upper Crust” and may sound like a slang term, but actually emerged from a serious — in fact, rather dull — essay on “sociological linguistics” by a Professor Alan C. Ross of Birmingham University. It gets drearier: Ross’s article for Encounter magazine was distilled from a longer treatise in (I’m not making this up) “the Finnish philological periodical Neuphilologische mitteilungen.” Ross, like the fictional Henry Higgins after him, was obsessed with what differences in usage and pronunciation revealed about class. (For instance, the Uppers said “wireless,” while the non-U said “radio.” “Toilet-paper” wiped the non-U and “lavatory paper” was for the higher-born. And so on.)

What Nancy and some writer friends (including novelist Evelyn Waugh) did for U and non-Uwas to broadcast and amplify on Ross’s ideas in Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocrat, an only partially flippant anthology, amusingly illustrated. Some of Nancy’s contributions included:

  • An aristocracy in a republic is like a chicken whose head has been cut off: it may run about in a lively way, but in fact it is dead.
  • The younger sons and daughters of the very richest lords receive, by English custom, barely enough to live on. The sons are given the same education as their eldest brother and then turned out, as soon as they are grown up, to fend for themselves; the daughters are given no education at all, the general idea being that htey must find some man to keep them.
  • All English noblemen, according to themselves, are ruined.
  • Ancestry has never counted much in England. [Mitford is drawing a comparison here to Europe.] The English lord knows himself to be such a very genuine article that, when looking for a wife … he marries for love, and is rather inclined to love where money is.
  • Silence is the only possible U-response to many embarrassing modern situations: the ejaculation of ‘cheers’ before drinking, for example, or ‘it was so nice seeing you’, after saying goodbye. In silence, too, one must endure the use of hte Christian name by comparative strangers and the horror of being introduced by Christian and surname without any prefix.
  • The purpose of an aristocrat is most emphatically not to work for money. his ancestors may have worked in order to amass the fortune which he enjoys, though on the whole the vast riches of he English lords come from sources unconnected with honest toil; but he will seldom do the same.

Jessica Mitford, 13 years younger than Nancy, also observed adult mores closely. Having settled in the United States and devoted her career to leftist causes, in 1960, she cast a gimlet eye backward on her early years in Hons and Rebels, a memoir. Her class-consciousness expressed itself differently, but no less sharply, than Nancy’s:

  • Participation in public life at Swinbrook [the Mitfords’ estate and nearby small town] revolved around the church, the Conservative Party and the House of Lords. My parents took a benevolentif erratic interest in all three
  • According to my father, outsiders included not only Huns, Frogs, Americans, blacks and all other foreigners, but also other people’s children, the majority of my older sisters’ acquaintainces, almost all young men — in fact, the whole teeming population of the earth’s surface, except for some, though not all, of our relations and a very few tweeded, red-faced country neighbors to whom my father had for some reason taken a liking. In a way, he was not ‘prejudiced’ in the modern sense… My father did not ‘discriminate’; in fact, he ws in general unaware of distinctions between different kinds of foreigners.”
  • Muv was forever fending off a slightly mythical wolf from our door by the practice of various rather oddly chosen economies. She worked out the cost of washing and ironing an average of nine napkins, three meals a day, 365 days a year,  found it staggering, and eliminated napkins from the dining-room table forever. Paper ones would, of course, have been unthinkable, and individual napkin rings too disgusting for words. To her annoyance, the Daily Express ran the story of our napkinless meals uner the headline, “Penny-Pinching Peeress.”
  • Muv made sporadic efforts to interest us in the subject of household economy, and once offered a prize of half a crown to the child who could produce the best budget for a young couple living on £500 a year; but Nancy ruined the contest by starting her list of expenditures with “Flowers … £490.”
4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2009 10:15 pm

    Make that all Englishmen are ruined.


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