Tatler Reopens U/Non-U Debate

A recent feature article in Tatler magazine reopens the ever popular discussion of English social class markers usually referred to as the U/Non-U debate originally sparked by an article by Nancy Mitford. This latest discussion is by Matthew Bell. Here is an excerpt:

[Mitford’s] article, published in the CIA-funded magazine, Encounter, provoked an outcry, not least from her old friend Evelyn Waugh. In an open letter denouncing her for lobbing this grenade into British society, he wrote: ‘There are subjects too intimate for print. Surely class is one?’

Reading Mitford’s essay now, you realise how quickly everything changes. Back then, her observations on class were based on language – whether you ‘took a bath’ (non-U) or ‘had one’s bath’ (U). Whether you said ‘chimneypiece’ (U) or ‘mantelpiece’ (non-U). Today, having a bathtub at all is a sign of leisure, and therefore U (showers being much more common in every sense), while having a fireplace has become similarly recherché – and therefore U – in an age of remotely controlled central heating. Of course it was all tongue-in-cheek, a big old tease on the petit bourgeois. […]

A complicating factor in modern U-usage is that for years it has been cool not to be U. Sixty years of rock stars and Hollywood actors dominating the scene means nobody wants to seem upper class, even if they are. So being U has evolved to mean other things. It is about taste, and style, and culture. About being aware of the myriad nuances detectable in how people speak and interact and behave. That’s not always easy: while shibboleths such as ‘shoes have laces’ and ‘motorcars are black’, as one Chairman of the Stock Exchange insisted, have been gladly tossed aside, and even such guardians of correct form as 5 Hertford Street now accepts jeans – as long as they’re not ripped. And the hoodied figure ahead of you in the check-in queue is as likely to be the groovy young Viscount Loamshire of Waugh’s novels as he is to be a disruptive tech billionaire.

Here are a few pairings from Tatler’s new glossary of U/Non-U useages and practices:

New U/Non-U

Eating bread/Dietary requirements

Taking a centrist view/Jacob Rees Mogg

Champagne/Most white wine

EasyJet/British Airways

The North/The South-East

Loving your parents/Being friends with your parents

Knowing about plants/Knowing about yachts

Waugh’s comments on Mitford’s article (in the form of an “Open Letter” to Mitford) also appeared in a later issue of Encounter. Both were included in a collection of essays on the subject edited by Mitford: Noblesse Oblige (1956); and Waugh’s “Open Letter” is collected in EAR. Loamshire is a fictional county mentioned by Waugh in Put Out More Flags and Men at Arms, but the Viscount from that district may be a Tatler creation. Another revival of this discussion in TLS a few months ago drove up the price of Mitford’s essay collection in the internet secondhand book market. See previous posts. Perhaps this one will lead to a reprint.

A Florida affiliate of the US TV network NBC recently posted a review by its Culture Critic Michael Langan of the collected Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (1996). After a brief summary of the life and works of both writers he described their letters:

Charlotte Mosley, Nancy Mitford’s niece, daughter of Diana, has edited all this business. She is an absolutely wonderful editor. Mosley does what almost no one does anymore: She places beautifully clear footnotes on the page of the text that one is actually reading, rather than dropping them into the bowels of the endpaper somewhere, where one needs a flashlight to find them. […]

The letters are very brittle at times. Both writers were accomplished satirists in their own right, able to snap one’s head off with a single slight. […] By the end of their correspondence, in 1965, ennui had taken over. Waugh wrote: “Darling Nancy, It was very nice to hear from you. I have not written because the last 10 months have been ineffably dreary — my only excursions to dentist and funerals and my house perpetually full of grandchildren.”


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