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Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford

December 1, 2015 22 comments

Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford (1932) French title: Christmas Pudding.

Mitford_ChristmasIt may seem a bit early to publish a billet about a book entitled Christmas Pudding but I think it’s timely because I understood that now is the right time to prepare Christmas puddings. I don’t know if British people still have some for Christmas but after reading about it several times, I was curious and I had to try to make one once, just like I experimented with eggnog. Preparing our Christmas pudding four weeks in advance had my husband worried. “Are you sure we won’t get food poisoning?” “How do you know it won’t be rotten by Christmas” and “Isn’t it gross to eat something that’s been prepared so long before?” Well isn’t it gross to eat mould in your Roquefort or cheeses that smell like teenage sneakers? Everything is relative.

Back to Nancy Mitford’s delightful Christmas Pudding. We’re in 1932, in England. Paul Fotheringay has the blues. His fiancée Marcella Bracket treats him like dirt and he’s just published his first book, Crazy Capers and the critics are devastating. You think he’s just another depressed starving author? Not really. Paul’s book received glorious reviews from several worthy newspapers, like this one:

It reminded me sometimes of Mr. Wodehouse at his funniest, and sometimes of Mr. Evelyn Waugh at his most cynical, and yet it had striking originality.

mitford_christmas_frenchGreat references, no? The problem is Paul never intended to write something funny. For him, his novel is a poignant tragedy, so he feels totally misunderstood and humiliated. He’s trying to forget his ordeal at the Tate gallery where he meets a friend, Walter Monteath. Together, they decide to drop by Amabelle Fortescue, a common acquaintance and former courtesan. Amabelle tries to console Paul and suggests that he writes a biography, something to be taken seriously. Paul mulls over this idea and decides he’d like to write the biography of an English poetess of the 19th century, Lady Maria Almanack. He writes a letter to her descendant, Lady Bobbin. She refuses to give him access to Lady Maria’s journal.

Meanwhile, Amabelle has decided to spend Christmas in the country, in Gloucestershire. She rents a house near Lady Bobbin’s manor and invites her friends Walter and Sally Monteath. She’s also very fond of Boby Bobbin, Lady Bobbin’s son and she’s looking forward to seeing him. Bobby is still in Eton and he’s supposed to come back home for the holidays. He is also acquainted with Paul and they get along quite well.

Lady Bobbin is extremely outdoorsy and loves country life. She’d rather read Horse and Hound than Knit and Sew and she can’t understand that her son doesn’t like spending time in the fields, hunting or riding. In her mind, Bobby needs to spend time with a man who will teach him how to improve his mind and his riding. Lady Bobbin is in dire need of a tutor.

Amabelle and Bobby manage to have her hire Paul as Bobby’s tutor. So now Paul is staying at Lady Bobbin’s for Christmas, under the name of Paul Fisher and under the pretence of tutoring Paul. The bargain is clear: Bobby doesn’t need to study or stay outside and Paul has free access to Lady Maria’s journals. A win-win situation.

The joyful pair will simulate outdoorsy activities while actually spending time at Amabelle’s, gossiping and playing bridge. Throw into the mix Bobby’s sister Philadelphia, Michael Lewes aka Lady Bobbin’s cousin and former admirer of Amabelle’s and a nice local major and you have the most delightful ingredients for a Christmas pudding. I won’t say more about the plot and Christmas among this group of friends.

Mitford’s novel was exactly what I needed between chapters of Wandering Stars by JM G Le Clézio which is beautiful but intense. It brought a healthy dose of fresh humour. I chuckled, I laughed, I giggled, I had a grand time. This novel is to Britishness what baguettes are to Frenchness. They keep calling each other ‘darling’ and it’s like their tongue was speaking with their pinkie in the air.

Nancy Mitford reminded me of Evelyn Waugh, not surprisingly. She’s a ferocious observer of her world and she portrays this group of people with a harshness totally masqueraded as utter politeness. See here, when Sally Monteath says that their still unnamed daughter, whose baptism is scheduled in a couple of weeks, is rather ill and might not live. Her future godfather replies:

‘D’you think she’s likely to live or not?’ said Paul. ‘Because if there’s any doubt perhaps I could use your telephone, Amabelle, to call up the jewellers and see if I’m in time to stop them engraving that mug. It’s such an expensive sort, and I don’t want it spoilt for nothing, I must say.’

Here’s Compton Bobbin, Lady Bobbin’s manoir:

Nevertheless, a large, square and not unhandsome building, it bears testimony, on closer acquaintance, to the fact that it has in the past been inhabited by persons of taste and culture. But these persons have been so long dead, and the evidences of their existence have been so adequately concealed by the generations which succeeded them, that their former presence in the place is something to be supposed rather than immediately perceived.

Isn’t that a blow for Lady Bobbin? And what about Paul, obliged to ride in order to back up his cover story:

Paul, his unreasonable terror of horses now quite overcome by his unreasonable terror of Lady Bobbin, whose cold gimlet eye seemed to be reading his every emotion, decided that here was one of the few occasions in a man’s life on which death would be preferable to dishonour, and advanced towards the mounting block with a slight swagger which he hoped was reminiscent of a French marquis approaching the scaffold.

The pages ooze with wit, jokes and the plot progresses at a nice pace. Nancy Mitford mocks the older generation but shows how hers take pleasure in idleness. She portrays a sort of decadence and the tail of the Roaring Twenties. Paul and Walter wouldn’t imagine working beyond writing books and articles. This group of friends is still idle and partying but there’s a feeling that this will end if they want to settle down. Walter and Sally have a baby, Paul knows he needs to find a job. It is the 1929 economic crisis and champagne is scarcer: Lady Bobbin serves beer to her party.

The most enjoyable remains her biting sense of humour. Mitford belonged to the partying crowd of the Roaring Twenties. She was friend with Evelyn Waugh and one of the Bright Young People. I guess some of her friends and acquaintances found resemblances with real life people when they read her novel.

I owe this wonderful reading time to Barb from Leaves and Pages because I picked Christmas Pudding after reading her review last year. Thanks!

PS: I’m not going to start another cover-induced rant but look at these covers! The British and the French ones are equally insulting to Nancy Mitford’s mind.

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