Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford

Sophia Garfield had a clear mental picture of what the outbreak of war was going to be like. There would be a loud bang, succeeded by inky darkness and a cold wind. Stumbling over heaps of rubble and dead bodies, Sophia would search with industry, but without hope, for her husband, her lover and her dog.

And so begins Nancy Mitford’s satire, Pigeon Pie.

Mitford was in a unique position – a member of high society, a War volunteer, and with family members who were Hitler-supporters, communists and fascists, she was able to take pot-shots at her own kind with reasonable authority. And take shots she did – there’s endless entertainment in poking fun at society luncheons, eccentric lords and ladies, weekends in the country, high jinx in hallways and people acting above their station. In Pigeon Pie, she turns her attention to the outbreak of World War II, when everyone who’s anyone is a spy.

The main character, Lady Sophia Garfield, feels obliged to take a voluntary position at a first aid post (although she would have rather be a précis writer at the Foreign Office), but aside from this, life continues largely unchanged.

‘Has the war begun?’ asked Sophia, wondering who could have ordered soup for luncheon…

It’s important to note that Mitford prefaced Pigeon Pie with an apology, explaining that the book was written in 1939 and published in May 1940 – essentially in the short period between the declaration of war in September 1939 and the start of actual conflict. The intent was not to make light of the War but to skewer the role of the upper classes during that time.

This is not my favourite Mitford – the numerous espionage and counter-espionage scenes, cases of mistaken identity and characters hiding in wardrobes were a little too much but, as always, Mitford’s wry observations on the upper class are a treat. Although not quite as subtle as some of her other books, Pigeon Pie is wickedly funny and Mitford’s one-liners are outstanding –

Sophia, who had never seen a sandbag before, began to cry, partly from terror and partly because it rather touched her to see anybody taking so much trouble over a church so ugly that it might have been specially made for bombs.

And Sophia’s godfather, describing his war effort, says – ‘I’m to go down to Torquay with our evacuated orchids.’

3/5  Mitford has a keen eye for the frivolous and exposes it superbly.

Sophia began on her egg and was attacking it with vigour when she saw that something was written on it in pencil. Not hard-boiled, she hoped. Not at all. The writing was extremely faint… this must be, of course, a code. She knew that spies and counter-spies had the most peculiar ways of communicating with each other, winking in Morse and so on; writing on eggs would be everyday work for them.

10 responses

  1. I enjoy Nancy Mitford, but she sucks you in to thinking in a very upper class way. For all her satire, she’s very comfortable with her upper middle class life and ‘amusing’ posh relations.

    • I’ve had a Mitford Sisters biography in my TBR stack for over a decade – I really should read it before I read any more of Nancy’s books – I think it would provide some more context (particularly relevant to the one I read before Pigeon Pie – Wigs on the Green).

  2. Nancy Mitford used to work at the bookshop where I’m now employed, and we’ve got a healthy chunk of Mitfordiana in our core stock—Pigeon Pie looks more genuinely amusing than some of her others, which I agree generally get you to think in a more upper-class way than I’m comfortable with…

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