by Nancy Mitford
Publication Date: January 1, 1960
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Fanny Wincham—last seen as a young woman in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate—has lived contentedly for years as housewife to an absent-minded Oxford don, Alfred. But her life changes overnight when her beloved Alfred is appointed English Ambassador to Paris.
Soon she finds herself mixing with royalty and Rothschilds while battling her hysterical predecessor, Lady Leone, who refuses to leave the premises. When Fanny’s tender-hearted secretary begins filling the embassy with rescued animals and her teenage sons run away from Eton and show up with a rock star in tow, things get entirely out of hand. Gleefully sending up the antics of mid-century high society, Don’t Tell Alfred is classic Mitford.
Oh this was a lot of fun. Ostensibly the third book of the series that includes Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, it’s been so many years since I read the first two that I barely remember the important characters, but it made not a lick of difference. Don’t Tell Alfred takes place 30 years after the events of the first two books, and anybody who is still alive is almost too different to recognise anyway.
Fanny is now the main character, rather than just the narrator, but it seems she’s also a helpless bystander in the three ring circus her life has become when Alfred becomes the Ambassador to France. One hilarious calamity after the other – most involving her extended family, if not her own children – has her scurrying to keep one step ahead of the chaos, and if not one step ahead, arranging the fall out so that Alfred comes out looking his best.
Not quite under the surface of these calamities – it bubbles up regularly throughout the story – is every parents lament over their childrens’ avowal to reject every principle they were ever taught. This being the late 50’s, the rejection is, as the age of Aquarius looms, that much more outsized and outrageous.
Throughout the narrative, Mitford takes potshots in turns at the British, the French and, of course, the Americans (I’m pretty sure it’s a national sport in the UK); about the only country to come out unscathed from her pen are the Irish, which she feels a rather lot of sympathy for. It all reads as though it’s meant in good fun and it adds to the often manic laughs.
So far, Mitford is 3 for 3; I have a couple of her other titles on my TBR and I’m curious how well the humor will hold with a whole new cast of characters.