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April 20, 2006

Black Mischief VI

The contraception pageant, catastrophically interrupted by traditionalist Azanians, is the major action of this chapter - just as any intelligent reader would foresee. Quite unexpected is the point of view from which it is witnessed. Waugh introduces two new characters, Dame Mildred Porch and Miss Sarah Tin, earnest leaders of the Dumb Chums Club, an animal-rights organization. The ladies have interrupted their return from South Africa to investigate Azanian horrors. They are indomitable types who get on by ignoring inconvenient facts and threatening to "tell the Foreign Office." They clearly prefer animals to human beings but have no idea why everyone wouldn't share this preference. Waugh has a lot of fun toasting them. The unsoundness of Dame Mildred is brought through when she writes to her husband,

I enclose cheque for another month's household expenses. The coal bill seemed surprisingly heavy in your last accounts. I hope that you are not letting the servants become extravagant in my absence. There is no need for the dining-room fire to be lit before luncheon at this time of year.

The letter is followed by diary entries that eloquently betray Dame Mildred's unbearable personality.

No news train. Wired legation again. Unhelpful answer. Fed doggies in market place. Children tried to take food from doggies. Greedy little wretches. Sarah still headache.

Presently the ladies arrive at Debra-Dowa, where they are shocked not to be put up at the Legation. Installed at Youkoumian's Hotel, they meet Basil Seal (Dame Mildred knows his mother), and note that he is...

Continue reading about Black Mischief at Portico.

Posted by pourover at April 20, 2006 06:23 PM

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For some reason, whenever Mildred Porch appeared, the image that popped into my head was Margaret Rutherford in Murder, Ahoy.

I particularly liked Waugh's use of Dame Mildred's diary entries to convey, as you so aptly put it, her 'unbearable personality,' and, I would add, her innate sense of British superiority:

March 9th...Saw Roman Missionary. Unhelpful. Typical dago attitude towards animals. Later saw American Baptists. Middle class and unhelpful because unable talk native languages.

What Dame Mildred has conveniently forgotten is that she, too, is unable to speak the native languages, as we see when a native soldier, attempting to prevent her from leaving the hotel after the aborted birth control pageant, speaks to her first in Sakuyu and then in Arabic, to which she responds in English and French (and pidgen English at that--'British subject. Me. British subject. No savvy?') (It also occurred to me that the reference to 'native languages' in the diary entry might have been intended to include English, as a slap at the American Baptists' inability to speak the 'Queen's English.')

And then there's Dame Mildred's attitude towards the native people (as opposed to the native animals), which to me is summed up perfectly by both the excerpt you quote as well as her diary entry of March 11th:

Road to station blocked broken motor lorry. Natives living in it. Also two goats. Seemed well but cannot be healthy for them so near natives.
High-minded and clueless indeed!

I expect that were Black Mischief to be more widely-read these days, Waugh would succeed in alienating not only people of color but, with the introduction of Dame Mildred, animal-rights' activists as well.

One final thought: when you first started this series of posts, I read the entire book and am now re-reading each chapter as you add new material; in re-reading Chapter VI, I noted a seemingly innocent (but in retrospect, sinister) exchange between Prudence and Basil. Do you know which one I mean?

Posted by: jkm [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 4, 2006 06:47 PM

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