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Balloon Boy’s Forebears? When Life’s a Joke for Aristos

December 4, 2009

I hope it’s not giving too much away to say that pranksters are afoot in today’s Anglofiles TGIF, my regular party column just out on the Anglotopia site. Use the link to visit Anglotopia — you’ll like the column, I dare say. But rush right back here for to read more about the Bright Young Things’ sense of mischief, and impunity.

Those of us living staid, careful lives — where exceeding the speed limit or drinking dated milk represents the extent of our daring — will always marvel at the noisy few who flout convention and break the rules, especially when they do so in the name of social climbing. How else to explain the success of reality TV? And we can be forgiven a certain salacious satisfaction at seeing them punished — hoping, for instance, that White House gate-crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi face federal charges, or delighting at the prosecution of those reckless “Balloon Boy” parents, whose blithe lies required a costly rescue operation.

But there’s another type of mischief-maker even we common folk tend to wink at (or once did, anyway), and that’s the high-born wag who means no harm but just doesn’t know how to be serious. Pampered students of prep schools and fine universities provide some of the best examples, with Animal House perhaps representing an extreme. The unofficial “senior prank day”at my New Jersey prep school featured stunts like greasing every banister in the building and placing a Volkswagen Beetle in the school lobby. (Not so original, it seems. That the car was the headmaster’s, however, added an element of risk.) When some clever boys shoved the maintenance chief’s pick-up into a ravine in the late ’70s, though, the administration finally clamped down and ended the prank day rite.

Given the protections of the class system that prevailed even after World War II, well-bred miscreants may be even more familiar to the English. How else could Prince Harry have thought they’d all laugh when he wore a Nazi uniform to a costume party? From Victoria’s bad-boy prince to today’s “public school” boys run riot, most Brits will recognize the phenomenon of aristos’ acting out.

Eton students ready to celebrate, 1932

Perhaps the best explanation of the way how good breeding can lead to bad (if amusing) behavior, comes from Jessica Mitford, who was born into English aristocracy but became a muckraking American leftist. The best example she knew was the young man with whom she eloped at age 19, the roguish Esmond Romilly — Winston Churchill’s renegade nephew, a socialist firebrand, and a casualty at age 23 of the air war over the English Channel, lovingly profiled in Hons and Rebels.

[A]among his contemporaries, [Esmond] appeared as a delightful but formidable figure, always excellent company because so predictably unpredicatable, at times a leader, but more often too dangerous to follow … Esmond and I would have scouted the idea that anything in our conduct was remotely attributable either to heredity or to upbringing … Yet our style of behaviour during much of our life together, the strong streak of delinquency which I found so attractive in Esmond and which struck such a responsive chord in me, his care-free intransigence, even his supreme self-confidence — a feeling of being able to walk unscathed through any flame — are not hard to trace to an English upper-class ancestry and upbringing.

One of the more dashing legacies of high-born high-jinks, consisting mainly of wild parties and insouciant satires, comes from the “Bright Young Things” of the 1930s, best memorialized by novelist Evelyn Waugh. The renowned “Mitford Sisters,” five daughters of a minor provincial aristocrat, are perhaps the most surprising members of this set of upper-class rogues, given their gender.

Their isolated country-manor upbringing proves one of the best documented incubators of affluent public jokesters. Largely uninterested in the horses-and-hounds pursuits available to them and educated mostly (and poorly) at home, most of Lord and Lady Redesdale’s children resorted to odd, imaginative games and jibes to entertain themselves and the many friends they later acquired. (Two of the sisters actually enjoyed country pursuits. Their lone brother, Tom, a more serious sort and musically inclined, proved not a ringleader but a genial accessory to the others’ mischief.)

All the sisters cherished quirky monikers and inside jokes. They dubbed Tom “Tuddemy,” for instance, and  Diana “Honks,” and poor, staid Pam forever known as “Woman.” “A hon” was family code for a dear, a delight, a mensch. (The term’s origin is unclear even to the sisters — though not, Jessica insists, from the honorific “Hon.”) The younger girls even developed an entire cutesy language of their own, called Boudledidge (“bowdle-didge”).

Teasing was an (often pointed) extension of these jocular tendencies. Straight answers were almost tabu. When she was forced out of art school after just one month, Nancy airily informed young Jessica (“Decca”) that she had quit for want of housekeeping. “Oh, darling, but you should have seen it!” drawled Nancy of her tiny “bed-sit” apartment. “After about a week, it was knee-deep in underclothes. I literally had to wade through them. No one to put them away.”

Seizing on the sensitive nature of youngest sister Deborah (“Debo,” later the Duchess of Devonshire), the sisters concocted sad, silly stories to upset her. One of Nancy’s (“Bodley’s”) went: A little houseless match/It has no roof, no thatch/It lies alone it makes no moan/That little houseless match.” So often did Nancy repeat it, that she needed only to glance pointedly at a box of matches to launch an avalanche of tears.

It’s widely acknowledged that Nancy, the eldest, mocked the most and most mercilessly, as Mary Lovell annotates in The Sisters. “Do you realize,” she once asked Unity, Jessica and Deborah, “that the middle of your names are nit, sick and bore?” Not surprisingly, to Nancy’s bromide, “Sisters are a shield against life’s cruel adversity,” Jessica retorted, “Sisters are life’s cruel adversity!”

The girls sprayed their fun and invective upward, too, as much as they dared, toward their proper and long-suffering parents. Embarrassing them was always good sport, for starters: Strapping, stubborn Unity (“BoBo” or “Boud”), to relieve her boredom and awkwardness on the debutante circuit at age 18, routinely brought her pet rat to dainty teas and stodgy dinner dances.

Back at home, Jessica’s early foray into class consciousness — achieved through a program of Leftist reading — prompted an ironic new identity for her father, Lord Redesdale, she recounts in Hons and Rebels, her memoir. “I developed the theory that he was a throwback to an earlier state of mankind, a missing link between the apes and homo sapiens. …

“‘Come on, dear,'” Decca would admonish “Farve,” “I want to measure your cranium to see how far it corresponds to the measurements of Piltdown Man.’

“My mother confiscated my allowance for calling him ‘the Old Sub-Human,'” Jessica admits, “but he didn’t really mind.”

When her mother, Sydney Mitford (“Muv”), offered a prize to the daughter who could draw up draw up the best yearly budget for a family income of £500, Nancy threw a wrench in it with her one-line entry: Flowers — £498.

In fact, entire books written by the sisters — Jessica’s memoir and Nancy’s satirical novels — might be seen as extended jokes on their parents and the fading Way of Life they stood for. Nancy’s classic Pursuit of Love introduced the unforgettably raging, idiosyncratic “Uncle Matthew,” who was ever-after confused in the public  mind with the (also temperamental and quirky) Lord Redesdale, on whom he was based.

The Socialist Explains

“Too much security as children, coupled with too much discipline imposed on us from above by force or threat of force, had developed in us a high degree of wickedness, a sort of extension of childhood naughtiness,” Jessica wrote many years later. She was theorizing about herself and Romilly, but could have been talking about any one of her rakish peers.

Was it something worse than “naughtiness” they got up to, however? Committed by members of the prosaic working classes, some of Romilly’s and his friends’ “pranks” would have been called plain theft. “Years later, Philip Toynbee reminded me of the time we had stolen a car-load of top hats from the cloakroom of the Eton Chapel,” she writes. Instead of throwing them into the Thames, however, or otherwise disposing of them, Romilly sold them, Lovell points out in Sisters, somewhat undermining the blow for Class Warfare.

The trick may have been being a “rich kid” who stole only from other rich people. Over after-dinner smokes at one party near Washington, D.C., in 1939, Jessica relates, guests listened to their host Eugene Meyer, defend the Lend-Lease plan:

“‘I say the British are incapable of stealing from us.,'” pronounced Meyer, influential owner of the Washington Post. “As though drawn by sympathy to the representative in their midst of that gallant little island,” Mitford continues, “all eyes turned to Esmond, who had quietly slipped away from the circle by the fireplace and was busily and methodically stuffing his pockets with some excellent Meyer cigars.

“Far  from being annoyed with us,” she writes, “Mr. Meyer treated the whole thing as a huge joke.”

And isn’t that my point?

Balloon sketch from BrianFit (Brian Fitzgerald) at Flickr.
Photo of Ditcheat Manor by Liz Gould.
Photos of "Little Rascals" (girls) and "Little Smirk" (boy) courtesy of PlayingWithBrushes on Flickr.
One Comment leave one →
  1. Marcia Slade permalink
    December 6, 2009 3:34 pm

    Mandy, Your tale of family sisters was all new to me. I found it interesting!
    I also find it interesting that you pick the topics that you do.
    I am so impressed with your inquisative mind and the way you present your research.
    After a year, you will most certainly have enough give and take to write an interesting book!

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