When U are not U…or are U?

Posted by: on Apr 23, 2010 | 2 Comments

Recently, one of my academic advisers recommended I read Nancy Mitford’s collection of essays and letters entitled Noblesse Oblige, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. The collection focuses on Ms. Mitford’s original article “The English-Aristocracy” published in Encounter in 1954, and the various responses and criticisms that resulted. It is full of essays of varying tone and intended gravity, and the entirety of it is peppered with droll illustrations.

The article itself is a largely inflammatory treatise on the value, tradition, and trajectory of the English Aristocracy as a unique socio-political class that is both necessary and justified. The main argument Ms. Mitford engages is the then-popular debate of “U” vs. “Non-U” (Upper Class vs. Non Upper Class) speech, and the ways in which this coded speech underscores larger social differences between the classes and effectively proves that the upper-middle class cannot seamlessly integrate with the Upper class. It is almost-hilariously snobbish and the way in which she engages the “class-struggle” is anachronistic at best. This makes for a fabulous read, and the seriousness of the article is debatable – but the debate it stirred up did at times get quite serious.

Without getting too much into the more political and grievous responses, my personal favorite is the snarky riposte by non other than Ms. Mitford’s dear friend Mr. Evelyn Waugh. He begins by calling her “an agitator – agitratrix – agitateuse? – of genius” and continues by citing her most central case study as “a delicious vignette, typical of your fictions.” Mr. Waugh’s wit is wry, precise, and rings frighteningly true. He uses the very U-Speak she defends to undermine her and poke fun at her premises. After critiquing Ms. Mitford’s essay, he concludes his own with the plea “I hope you are just teasing, as I am. I hope. I wonder.” I must say, so do I.


  1. Easy and Elegant Life
    April 23, 2010

    The received pronunciation debates continue. BBC now broadcasts all sorts of regional accents spoken by their reporters. Interesting.

    I'm still working on my "mid-Atlantic".

  2. William
    April 27, 2010

    I enjoyed your blog post on this topic.

    I am currently finishing a survey looking at Ross and Mitford's theories in 2010, to see if they are still relevant. (In short – yes and no!)


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