Now they’re coming for Nancy Mitford

Plastering The Pursuit of Love with trigger warnings is patronising and absurd.

Lauren Smith

Topics Books Culture Free Speech UK

Now they’re coming for Nancy Mitford. Her novel, The Pursuit of Love, is the latest literary classic to raise the hackles of the modern publishing industry. New editions of the novel, published by Penguin, will carry a trigger warning, alerting unsuspecting readers that it contains ‘prejudices that were commonplace in British society’. Such prejudices, the new preface patronisingly tells us, were ‘wrong then’ and are ‘wrong today’.

It should come as no surprise that The Pursuit of Love contains scenes and views that modern readers might raise an eyebrow at. It was, after all, published in 1945 and is set during the interwar years. Much of the book is also based on Mitford’s own infamously mad aristocratic family. One of her sisters, Diana Mitford, left her first husband to marry fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Another, Unity Mitford, was a friend and admirer of Adolf Hitler, who shot herself in the head when Britain declared war on Germany. No one who is aware of this would be surprised that the book’s fictional Radlett family holds some views we might find offensive.

The prejudices Penguin wants to warn us about are mostly expressed by the character Uncle Matthew – the eccentric, cruel and rabidly xenophobic father of the novel’s main character, Linda Radlett. It’s certainly true that Uncle Matthew has some less-than-complimentary things to say about ‘bloody foreigners’. He hates Italians, Spaniards, the French and, perhaps most violently of all, the ‘Huns’. In fact, he boasts about killing several Germans with an entrenching tool during the Great War. He even has the offending instrument hung above the fireplace.

Uncle Matthew also holds a particular disdain for educated women, whom he ‘loathes’. And his children don’t fare much better. Not only does he regularly beat them – he also uses his bloodhounds to hunt them like foxes across his estate. In short, he’s not a very nice chap.

This is why putting a trigger warning on The Pursuit of Love is so ridiculous. As a reader, you’re not supposed to think that Uncle Matthew is an upstanding fellow or an exemplary parent. The book is really a tragicomedy – Uncle Matthew’s ignorant beliefs and wanton violence are supposed to be absurd and outrageous. Mitford does not want you to root for him.

This is the fundamental problem with trigger warnings. Readers are no longer trusted to be able to come to conclusions on their own. Instead, we are presented with notes and explainers that tell us exactly what we should be thinking and feeling about the words on the page.

We see these ludicrous content warnings practically everywhere now. Earlier this year, beloved children’s book Peter Pan was given a trigger warning for its supposedly ‘odd perspectives on gender’ by officials at Aberdeen University. And last year – without any sense of irony – students at the University of Northampton were warned that George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four might be an ‘offensive and upsetting’ read. More recently, it was announced this week that all new editions of PG Wodehouse’s books will receive warning labels for their ‘outdated’ language.

Thankfully, The Pursuit of Love has at least been spared a rewrite by the dreaded ‘sensitivity readers’. Penguin has confirmed that it is ‘printing the novel as it was originally published’. So Uncle Matthew’s tirades against foreigners and women will stay, albeit accompanied by a warning.

Other classics have not been so lucky. Notably, Roald Dahl’s works were vandalised by sensitivity readers earlier this year. In the new, sanitised version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Augustus Gloop is no longer ‘fat’, and the Oompa-Loompas are no longer ‘titchy’, but ‘small’. Even Ian Fleming’s James Bond books have been tampered with by modern publishers. The arrogance of these sensitivity readers is astonishing. They really think they know what makes for better prose than some of the greatest novelists of all time.

Trigger warnings and sensitivity rewrites are as insulting to the audience as they are to the authors. The implication here is that readers are incapable of separating the views of a fictional character from the views of the author. Or worse still, that general audiences are simply not clever enough to understand that people in the 1940s might have held different views than we do today.

Publishers need to ditch these infantilising trigger warnings and stop insulting our intelligence.

Lauren Smith is an editorial assistant at spiked.

Picture by: YouTube / BBC.

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Topics Books Culture Free Speech UK


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