Date of Degree

9-2017

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor

Rachel Brownstein

Committee Members

Carrie Hintz

Amy Herzog

Subject Categories

Literature in English, British Isles

Keywords

Nancy Mitford, interwar, women, aristocracy, Bright Young People, England, comedy

Abstract

Our Vile Age is a study of the interwar novels—here, defined loosely as novels written during and/or about the period between the wars—by the English author Nancy Mitford. The eldest of the notorious Mitford sisters—six aristocratic women whose lives defied social and political conventions of the era—she was identified with the Bright Young People, a socially-privileged group of pleasure-seeking men and women whose youth spanned much of the 1920s and 1930s. Like literary peers such as Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, and Henry Green, she narrated this generation’s navigation of society, marriage, politics, and war in novels written through the post-war era. Though popular with readers then and now, Mitford’s work has nevertheless been largely overlooked by critics, often reduced to a secondary role in her colorful, endlessly dissected biography. Indeed, because of her greater emphasis on typically female plots about romance and family and her teasing humor, scholars and readers have categorized, if not outright dismissed, her novels as light, frolicsome comedies. My central objective is to recover these interwar novels from this frothy reputation by establishing them as thematically and formally complex works whose frivolity conceals and constructs a space in which Mitford negotiates gender and class anxieties over her own identity and place in the socially, culturally, and politically unstable interwar world. Though her work is commonly supposed to be upholding a patriarchal, aristocratic status quo, I argue that these texts set out to subvert it—demonstrating the ineffectiveness of its male authority figures and the aimlessness of the young men set to inherit that authority, while also destabilizing the tropes of established literary genres—and instead advocating for female authority, illustrating the ways in which young, upper-class woman can attain such power, from marriage (Highland Fling, Christmas Pudding) to politics (Wigs on the Green, Pigeon Pie) to an adoption of more progressive, middle-class values (The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate).

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