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Don't Tell Alfred    by Nancy Mitford order for
Don't Tell Alfred
by Nancy Mitford
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 2010 (1960)
Hardcover, Softcover, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

I've never read a book by Nancy Mitford before, but Don't Tell Alfred is a funny book. This was apparently the last novel that she wrote because critics claimed her earlier books were better and funnier, and apparently Nancy Mitford didn't take criticism well. She also didn't like Americans, but I can forgive her that since she never travelled to the United States, and there are a lot of Americans I don't like much either, even though I am one.

The lead, Fanny Wincham, who has appeared in the earlier books as a supporting character, is married to a college professor who has been appointed British ambassador to Paris. Fanny is understandably nervous about this change of circumstance, since she will be in charge of entertaining many high-level government people, and her life in England was much quieter. She is going to have to buy a whole new wardrobe and undergo a transformation from the somewhat dowdy casual clothing she prefers to much more formal wear. Since she has been feeling a bit bored and downhearted though, she decides to embrace her new life with enthusiasm. 'Alfred's miraculous appointment might effect a miraculous cure. I had often longed to leave behind me a token of my existence, a shell on the seashore of eternity. Here was my chance ... at the very least I would now have a little tiny place in history as one of the occupants of a famous house.'

Fanny's problems begin in earnest when the previous ambassadress refuses to leave. She has ensconced herself in an apartment of the embassy which has a separate entrance, and is being visited every night into the wee hours of the morning by all the friends that she made while she was legitimately a part of the embassy. To complicate matters for Fanny, the sensible young woman whom she hopes to obtain as her social secretary gets married suddenly and her sister Northey arrives instead. Although everyone loves her, she isn't much help as a social secretary and introduces a few new problems of her own for Fanny, such as bringing home every stray animal she encounters. Fanny's sons complicate matters also when the oldest brings his pregnant wife and adopted baby to stay, arriving looking like the dirty hippies that they are in the middle of Fanny's first state dinner. The second son pops in and out of the embassy frequently at unexpected times wearing strange outfits while acting as tour guide for the young man who has married Fanny's mother.

Fanny draws on friends and relatives for help with her various difficulties and the result is a truly entertaining send-up of society in England and France in the late fifties. Mitford spares no one, whether it be the youth culture of the times, the hapless Paris correspondent of a London newspaper, the American the ambassador entertains who is just back from Russia, or the psychiatrist who believes that everyone with mental problems is being pulled by some mysterious force to the east or the west. Through it all, Fanny tries to spare her husband Alfred, the ambassador, whose job is difficult enough to her way of thinking. I really enjoyed reading Don't Tell Alfred and recommend it highly.

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