|Castle Howard, 2009.|
Lady Montdore and Polly is at odds over marriage. Polly is "out", and is almost twenty, but shows absolutely no interest in men at all (or in anything else, for that matter), which frustrates her mother. Fanny, recently married to a junior Oxford don and staying with the Radletts at Alconleigh while her new house is being done up, is brought in by both of them to act as a kind of buffer between them. Lady Montdore is bossy and overbearing, but can also be very charming and Fanny likes her a lot. Polly, also loved by Fanny, is a rather vapid, boring and unattractive personality - even though she is the most beautiful debutante in London society, a fact that is repeated over and over. Perhaps it is hard for a reader to like her, since we can not see her - beauty seems to be her only asset and she has such an abundance of it that it makes up for her lack of character. It´s hard to get particularly upset when she, upon her aunt´s death, confesses that she has been in love with her uncle-in-law Boy, a middle-aged historian, since the age of fourteen and is now intending to marry him. The matter is made even worse by the fact that this uncle has been her mother´s lover for years, is bisexual, and has paedophile tendencies (the Radletts call him "the lecherous lecturer").
So, things go spectacularly bad, but in the end everything turns out all right, in a rather amusing way, as one would expect from a story like this. My favourite passage in this book is about Uncle Matthew, who is aging and softening (and Fanny is also maturing, which perhaps mellows her view of him), and this is what happens when his younger daughter Jassy insists on being buried at a particular spot in the churchyard:
"'Write it down,' said Uncle Matthew, producing a piece of paper and a fountain-pen, 'if these things don´t get written down they are forgotten. And I´d like a deposit of ten bob please.' 'You can take it out of my birthday present,' said Jassy, who was scribbling away with great concentration, ' I´ve made a map like in Treasure Island,' she said. 'See?' 'Yes, thank you, that´s quite clear,' said Uncle Matthew. He went to the wall, took his master-key from his pocket, opened a safe, and put in the piece of paper. Every room at Alconleigh had one of these wall-safes, whose contents would have amazed and discomfited the burglar who managed to open them. Aunt Sadie´s jewels, which had some very good stones, were never kept in them, but lay glittering about all over the house and garden, in any place where she might have taken them off and forgotten to put them on again, on the downstairs wash-basin, by the flower-bed she had been weeding, sent to the laundry pinning up a suspender. Her big party pieces were kept in the bank. Uncle Matthew himself possessed no jewels and despised all men who did. (Boy´s signet ring and platinum and pearl evening watch-chain were great causes for tooth-grinding.) His own watch was a large loudly ticking object in gun-metal, tested twice a day by Greenwich mean time on a chronometer in the business-room, and said to gain three seconds a week. This was attached to his key-ring across his moleskin waistcoat by an ordinary leather bootlace, in which Aunt Sadie often tied knots to remind herself of things. The safes, nevertheless, were full of treasures, if not of valuables, for Uncle Matthew´s treasures were objects of esoteric worth, such as a stone quarried on the estate and said to have imprisoned for two thousand years a living toad; Linda´s first shoe; the skeleton of a mouse regurgitated by an owl; a tiny gun for shooting bluebottles; the hair of all his children made into a bracelet; a silhouette of Aunt Sadie done at a fair; a carved nut; a ship in a bottle; altogether a strange mixture of sentiment, natural history, and little objects which from time to time had taken his fancy."This is probably the most endearing description of a man´s character I have ever read (don´t you love how the wife ties knots in her husband´s key"chain" to remind herself of things?). And it is a good example of Nancy Mitford´s skill. If you like Austen-style stories with British excentric aristocracy in great houses, this is for you.