A Mitford mantra for confined times

Or, childcare for misanthropes

The perfect Nancy Mitford line for the present moment is obviously: 

“I love children, especially when they cry, for then someone takes them away.”

But since social isolation means there’s no one and nowhere to take our crying children, let’s go with the runner up:

“If one can’t be happy, one must be amused, don’t you agree?”

This “could stand as the motto for her life,” according to her estate’s website. As one of six aristocratic sisters who have retained a cult following to this day, Nancy Mitford wrote a series of novels and biographies from an unapologetically snobby point of view. Like her good friend Evelyn Waugh, that haughty honesty fuelled her dark wit.

To be amused in these times, you might study U or Non-U, the parlour game Mitford popularized. In her essay The English Aristocracy, she explains that words like rich are U(pperclass) whereas wealthy is non-U. An aristocrat would eat vegetables, get sick and die; a businessman would eat greens, fall ill and pass away. Say the right words and you too can bleed blue. Or say nothing, which is usually the best option:

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 the Christian name by comparative strangers and the horror of being introduced by Christian and surname without any prefix. This unspeakable usage sometimes occurs in letters — Dear XX — which, in silence, are quickly torn up, by me.

Or perhaps your children might sing the day’s headlines to one another, as the fictionalized Mitfords did in Love in a Cold Climate:

There was always some joke being run to death at Alconleigh and just now it was headlines from the Daily Express which the children had made into a chant and intoned to each other all day.

Jassy: ‘Man’s long agony in a lift-shaft.

Victoria: ‘Slowly crushed to death in a lift.’

Aunt Sadie became very cross about this, said they were really too old to be so heartless, that it wasn’t a bit funny, only dull and disgusting, and absolutely forbade them to sing it any more. After this they tapped it out to each other, on doors, under the dining-room table, clicking with their tongues or blinking with their eyelids, and all the time in fits of naughty giggles. 

Children are horrible, aren’t they? And yet there’s no one to take them away.

Ultimately, this newsletter isn’t quite as dark as Ms. Mitford, so we’ll adapt her motto this way: If you can’t be happy, at least be amusing. Give those around you reason to smile, even darkly, if only so they can tolerate your company for the next umpteen weeks.


Quick quips; lightning

“I like children. If they’re properly cooked.”
— W. C. Fields

“Of children as of procreation—the pleasure momentary, the posture ridiculous, the expense damnable.”
— Evelyn Waugh

“Once you have children, it forever changes the way you bore other people.”
— Bruce Eric Kaplan 


This marks the 40th issue of Get Wit Quick, a weekly letter tapped out from a cold climate. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting cribbed Wodehouse’s famous dedication: “To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.” Oh fine, I ♥️kids; please ♥️this newsletter. You’re too old to be heartless.

Loading more posts…