Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Noblesse Oblige

Noblesse Oblige is an unusual little book that I picked up at a used bookstore on Cape Cod. Edited by Nancy Mitford, it's a slim volume that proclaims itself to be "an enquiry into the identifiable characteristics of the English Aristocracy". It makes this enquiry though a series of essays by Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, and others that dissect the distinctions, primarily related to language and speech, between the British upper class and everyone else.

The collection opens with an essay about sociological linguistics by Alan S.C. Ross in which he outlines some of the differences between upper class (U) and non- upper class (non-U) usage. This covers everything from how to refer to places ("I'm going to Downton" would be U while "I'm going to Downton Abbey" would be very non-U) to specific word choices (radio and wealthy are both non-U words, while wireless and rich are U). This is followed by Mitford's own essay, in which she offers her response to what Ross says, which is in turn followed by an open letter in which Evelyn Waugh responds to what Mitford says, and so on and so forth. It all has the potential to be very dry, but Mitford and Waugh (as well as some of the less famous essayists) bring just enough of their characteristic wit and irony to their contributions to make the subject bearable.

Based on some of the online reviews I've read, it seems that public opinion is a bit divided about Noblesse Oblige. Should its arguments be taken seriously or is it meant to be read as satire? I think the answer lies in the middle. It's essays provide genuine, albeit lighthearted, commentary about a minor social debate that arose at the time of its publication. It's by no means a must-read, even for Mitford fans, but it does have enough to interest and amuse to warrant a quick skim if a copy should happen to cross your path.

Incidentally, I can't help but wonder what George Bryant of Bogota, whose path my copy crossed back in 1964, thought about the book:


  1. Thanks for this review. I have read only two Nancy Mitford books: Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Due to those two books, I am a huge fan. You have motivated me to now look into her other books, many of which I own.

    1. I've now read many of Nancy Mitford's novels and want to start reading some of her nonfiction works. I also find reading books about the Mitford clan to be equally, or maybe even more, enjoyable.



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