The Pursuit of Love

After I failed Proust and then finished three Klas Östergren novels in a row, I really felt that I had been reading much too seriously for far too long. Reading should be more joyful than this. So I decided to go on with the Nancy Mitford series, and started with "Pigeon Pie" from 1940, which began with an apology from the author, calling it "an early and unimportant casualty of the real war which was then beginning". I only lasted a few pages into it, and I can see why she would have been reluctant to re-publish it. So I just moved on to "The Pursuit of Love", which is, along with "Love in a Cold Climate" her best known work.

Compared with her early comedies, "Highland Fling", "Christmas Pudding", and "Whigs on the Green", there is more depth in this novel, and even though she is very funny, as usual, it is a tragedy, really. It revolves around an aristocratic family, the Radletts, who live at the Cotswold estate Alconleigh. The narrator, Fanny, is raised by her aunt Emily after her mother, called "the Bolter" (we never learn her real name), has left her baby on her sisters´ doorstep and gone on to an adventurous life abroad with a string of husbands. Her other aunt, Sadie Radlett, wants to raise Fanny with her cousin Linda, who is the same age, but her uncle Matthew refuses, as Fanny´s father is one of his old enemies. In spite of this, Fanny spends most of her holidays at Alconleigh with her cousins and the rest of the time lives with her aunt Emily and her husband Davey, which is probably lucky for Fanny, as uncle Matthew must be one of the most irascible characters in fiction and Davey the dad everyone would want. Uncle Matthew´s idea of fun is arranging an annual Christmas hunt - with the children as prey - mounting the horses and setting the dogs after them. Aunt Sadie is a rather distant and cold mother, and it is no secret that this eccentric couple, this family, was moulded on Mitford´s own, childhunt and all. It is funny, for sure, but horrible as well. One of the sisters starts saving her pennies for a runaway fund aged seven, and eventually also runs away to America. Which is more or less exactly what Decca Mitford did.

As they grow up the story focuses on Linda, who marries after her first season "out", and has a child  with a man who turns out to be a bore. She goes in the footsteps, to some extent, of Fanny´s mother, and the rest of the novel is all about what becomes of her. Mitford pushes her writing style and I jumped a bit at these lines about what it was like to attend one´s first ball:
"This then is a ball. This is life, what we have been waiting for all these years, here we are and here it is, a ball, actually going on now, actually in progress around us. How extraordinary it feels, such unreality, like a dream. But, alas, so utterly different from what one had imagined and expected; it must be admitted, not a good dream. The men so small and ugly, the women so frowsty, their clothes so messy and their faces so red, the oil-stoves so smelly, and not really very warm, but, above all, the men, either so old or so ugly. And when they ask one to dance (pushed to it, one cannot but suspect, by kind Davey, who is trying to see that we have a good time at our first party), it is not at all like floating away into a delicious cloud, pressed by a manly arm to a manly bosom, but stumble, stumble, kick, kick. They balance, like King Stork, on one leg, while, with the other, they come down, like King Log, on one´s toe. As for witty conversation, it is wonderful if any conversation, even of the most banal and jerky description, lasts through a whole dance and the sitting out. It is mostly: 'Oh, sorry - oh, my fault,' though Linda did get as far as taking one of her partners to see the diseased stones."
Not unlike going to one´s first disco dance, as I recall...

The garden feature at which Churchill proposed to his Clementine.
I like Mitford´s style, she is unapologetically unsentimental, and even though some modern readers may find some of the family relationships a bit exaggerated, particularly between parents and children, I think she is spot on; even though she turns it into good comedy, there is a complex double edge here, and quite a bit of real pain - but also a good deal of love - poured into it.

I think Linda in this story has some likeness to Diana Mitford, the beautiful sister who ran away from her Guinness husband to marry the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, but most of all, I think she is modeled on Nancy herself, who dedicated the novel to her French lover Gaston Palewski. 

With this fifth novel Mitford really matures into a good storyteller, and the BBC made an adaptation for television in 2001 with Rosamund Pike as Fanny. There was another adaptation in 1980 with Judi Dench as Aunt Sadie. Both adaptations are titled "Love in a Cold Climate", which is the name of Mitford´s next novel, another tale of Fanny´s which takes place during the same time frame. I am reading that one now, so that will be the topic of the next post.

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