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The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford – good fun, most welcome at the moment.

November 7, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. (1945) French title: La poursuite de l’amour.

‘I don’t want to be a literary curiosity,’ said Linda. ‘I should like to have been a living part of a really great generation. I think it’s too dismal to have been born in 1911.’

I was looking for a book I was sure I’d enjoy and turned to The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. I had really fond memories of Christmas Pudding, its funny tone, Mitford’s witty prose, its eccentric characters and its entertaining plot.

In The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford takes us to Alconleigh, the Radlett’s family estate. The narrator is Fanny Wincham, a niece of the Radletts who spends her holiday at Alconleigh. Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie have seven children and Linda is the one closest in age to Fanny. They have a close relationship, built during the holidays at Alconleigh. Fanny tells us Linda’s story.

Raised by a father who uses his children as baits instead of foxes for fox hunting, the children are homeschooled under the supervision of a dubious French governess. The boys go to Oxford, the girls stay home since they don’t need education according to their father.

Uncle Matthew loathed clever females, but he considered that gentle-women ought, as well as being able to ride, to know French and play the piano.

Fanny’s mother had no inclination for motherhood and it was decided that little Fanny would be raised by Aunt Emily, Aunt Sadie’s sister and her mother’s sister as well. Aunt Emily had a more modern and conventional vision of girls’ education.

While Linda grew up with little structure and no formal education, Fanny went to school. She also led a quiet life with Aunt Emily who later remarried to Davey. Linda and Fanny grew up in a very different atmosphere.

The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives.

The two cousins are quite opposite but their bond is solid. Linda is fanciful, her goal in life is to have a full romantic life. She’s a sort of Emma Bovary. No solid education, expecting Great Love and unable to settle for less and bear the quotidian. Fanny, who married a scholar named Alfred muses, comparing her life to Linda’s:

Alfred and I are happy, as happy as married people can be. We are in love, we are intellectually and physically suited in every possible way, we rejoice in each other’s company, we have no money troubles and three delightful children. And yet, when I consider my life, day by day, hour by hour, it seems to be composed of a series of pin-pricks. Nannies, cooks, the endless drudgery of housekeeping, the nerve-racking noise and boring repetitive conversation of small children (boring in the sense that it bores into one’s very brain), their absolute incapacity to amuse themselves, their sudden and terrifying illnesses, Alfred’s not infrequent bouts of moodiness, his invariable complaints at meals about the pudding, the way he will always use my toothpaste and will always squeeze the tube in the middle. These are the components of marriage, the wholemeal bread of life, rough, ordinary, but sustaining; Linda had been feeding upon honey-dew, and that is an incomparable diet.

We follow Linda in her pursuit of love and Nancy Mitford takes us on a vivid tour of the upper-class milieu of the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve read her biography on Wikipedia and it’s clear her own life, family and friends inspired her.

I don’t want to spoil the plot and tell too much about Linda’s love tribulations. You’ll have to discover by yourself what happens to her.

Linda is an attaching character with a dazzling personality. People are drawn to her, despite her lack of any useful competence. Even if she tries to do something by herself, she fails spectacularly, has no qualms about it and recounts her endeavours with disarming ingenuousness. Here she is, playing house:

‘But oh how dreadful it is, cooking, I mean. That oven – Christian puts things in and says: “Now you take it out in about half an hour.” I don’t dare tell him how terrified I am, and at the end of half an hour I summon up all my courage and open the oven, and there is that awful hot blast hitting one in the face. I don’t wonder people sometimes put their heads in and leave them in out of sheer misery. Oh, dear, and I wish you could have seen the Hoover running away with me, it suddenly took the bit between its teeth and made for the lift shaft. How I shrieked – Christian only just rescued me in time. I think housework is far more tiring and frightening than hunting is, no comparison, and yet after hunting we had eggs for tea and were made to rest for hours, but after housework people expect one to go on just as if nothing special had happened.’ She sighed.

I guess everything is a question of perspective and upbringing, right. (Athough I dislike vacuum cleaners too. They stink, they’re noisy and make you sweat. *shudders*) Linda seems perfect for partying and chatting with friends and nothing else.

Besides Linda’s story, I enjoyed The Pursuit of Love for the picture of the British upper-class in the 1920s and 1930s. Strangely, it made me think of Brexit. Nancy Mitford’s characters react like the upper-classes of the time and she discloses their view of the world. Uncle Matthew hates foreigners.

‘Frogs,’ he would say, ‘are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.’

Like in The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett, I sometimes felt in the book an ingrained distrust for non-English things. I don’t think it’s intentional, it’s just built-in certainty that the English civilization tops everything else and that there’s “us” and “them”. I’m not sure that 40 years in the EU are enough to erase that feeling from a people’s psyche. Just wondering if it helped the Leave side of the campaign, pushing the right buttons.

At some point, Linda ends up in France and Nancy Mitford writes:

She looked out of the window and saw chateaux, lime avenues, ponds, and villages exactly like those in the Bibliothèque Rose – she thought she must, at any moment, see Sophie in her white dress and unnaturally small black pumps cutting up goldfish, gorging herself on new bread and cream, or scratching the face of good, uncomplaining Paul.

Being a middle-aged French, I perfectly understand what she means. But what do non-French readers make of this quote nowadays? There were also a lot of French sentences or expressions in that part of the book. Mitford’s readership probably knew French well-enough to understand but what about now? There were no footnotes to help a modern reader. It’s not the first time I notice passages in French without any translation. It’s easy for me but how do other readers feel about it? Is there a rule in publishing that says that these passages shouldn’t be translated?

After these random observations, I’ll leave you with this quote about Paris, one that still rings true and makes me long for my Parisian escapades to wander in neighbourhoods and visit art exhibitions.

Paris in the early morning has a cheerful, bustling aspect, a promise of delicious things to come, a positive smell of coffee and croissants, quite peculiar to itself.

  1. November 7, 2020 at 8:56 pm

    I learned enough French in high school to get the gist of most passages in novels. And I’m learning Spanish. It’s languages other than those two that send me to Google Translate.

    English writers of Mitford’s day would, of course, assume that English reader would know at least a little French. Since we all have access to translation apps these days, I think that such passages should be left in the original language. If it’s a cultural reference though, it could be useful to have a footnote in a reprint.

    Liked by 2 people

    • November 8, 2020 at 11:13 am

      Yes, there’s always Google Translate but it can be tedious to look everything up.

      I agree with you, I’m sure that Mitford’s readers knew enough of French to be able to read her book easily.
      I also think that these passages shouldn’t be translated in the text but left in the original. Footnotes wouldn’t hurt, though.

      Like

  2. November 8, 2020 at 12:18 am

    I read quite a lot of Nancy Mitford in the past. I think I was a little obsessed with the British upper class. I hope it was an obsession with understanding and not with wishing to belong. OK when I was in high school I did think having a knighthood would be pretty cool.
    Now I still think Mitford is fun to read, but more than a little unreal. I wish I could put my marriage problems down to the servants and the toothpaste.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 8, 2020 at 11:22 am

      Let’s say that reading Nancy Mitford is entering into a world fascinating to watch.
      I don’t envy the parties and the balls but I wish that, like them, I were not obliged to make a living. I don’t mean that I’d like to stay idle and spend my days in shopping malls. I mean that I wish I could devote my time to working on things that interest me but don’t bring any money.

      Mitford is fun to read and she’s not unreal, she describes her way-of-life and that’s unreal to us.
      About this quote about marriage. I think that she wanted to point out that Linda wanted to live in a constant state of passion but that it is not compatible with the day-to-day of marriage because, even in a loving marriage, you see your partner all the time and not always when they’re at their best. Hearts and flowers can’t be the quotidian. Fanny was ready for that, Linda wasn’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. November 8, 2020 at 12:22 am

    I agree with Debbie, there are some words (like baguette, or schadenfreude) which are widely used in English because there isn’t an exact translation, and Google Translate is there for any word that we can’t work out from context.

    Liked by 2 people

    • November 8, 2020 at 11:27 am

      Of course, there are more French words in English that we think. Here I’m talking about full French sentences, like
      – “Continuez donc, ma chère, allez-y. Jusqu’à présent, ça ne va pas mal du tout”
      – “Comme vous devez me mépriser”
      – “Qu’est-ce que j’ai fait? Mon Dieu, hélas, Fabrice, que pouvez-vous bien penser de moi? O, que j’ai honte”

      And you can’t always work it out from the context.

      PS: No typo this time, contrary to Giovanni’s Room.

      Like

  4. November 8, 2020 at 1:10 am

    I have this one yet to get to. I am giving Mitford a bit of a rest as I recently read The Blessing. I think you’d like that too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 8, 2020 at 11:30 am

      I have Love in a Cold Climate to read first but I’ll keep The Blessing in mind. We usually have similar reading tastes.

      Like

  5. November 8, 2020 at 1:30 am

    Great fun,frothyj and exuberant.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. November 8, 2020 at 10:02 am

    Lovely. I really enjoyed this too. Mitford’s a writer I have to be in the mood for (the focus on the upper classes can grate otherwise); but when I am, she really hits the spot. I think it’s the first in a trilogy, with Love in a Cold Climate and Don’t Tell Alfred. Plus, there’s a TV mini-series in the works with Emily Mortimer and Lily James.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 8, 2020 at 11:35 am

      I agree with you, you need to be in the mood for futility.
      She writes about a character:
      Marjorie was an intensely dreary girl, a few years older than Tony, who had failed so far to marry, and seemed to have no biological reason for existing.

      Ouch. But if you look closely, what’s Linda’s contribution to the world?

      It is the first of the trilogy you mention. I know that Love in a Cold Climate is good, I have it on the TBR. I understand that Don’t Tell Alfred isn’t as good as the others. Have you read it? (In any case, I’m sure it’s a nice Beach & Public Transport book)

      Like

      • November 18, 2020 at 9:40 pm

        Hah! Ouch, indeed. *chuckles* But, as you’ve said, in a prepared mood, this could provoke a laugh, if more a laughing-at kind of laugh than a laughing-with kind of laugh! I’ve only read one Mitford (not a famous one, the title escapes me in this instant) and haven’t been pulled to read another, but I might, some day. That quotation about Paris seems very simple but evocative nonetheless.

        Liked by 1 person

        • November 18, 2020 at 9:57 pm

          She has a great sense of humour, it’s undeniable.

          And yes, this quote about Paris is lovely and I miss going to Paris for a weekend.

          Like

  7. November 8, 2020 at 3:58 pm

    Thoroughly enjoyed this, to me it was such an unreal world they inhabit, but fun to peek into nonetheless. I like the passages in French which add a certain ambience, though maybe discreet notes in the back for the longer passages might be useful these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 8, 2020 at 11:30 pm

      I liked it too, for the same reason. It’s better not to think too much about how vapid these people are and enjoy the ride.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. November 8, 2020 at 5:45 pm

    I really enjoyed this, although as Jacqui says, I have to be in the mood for Mitford. You’ve quite tempted me for a seasonal re-read of Christmas Pudding!

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 8, 2020 at 11:31 pm

      Christmas Pudding is a lovely seasonal read. And yes, you’d better not think about the social issues behind their life style.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. November 8, 2020 at 6:02 pm

    I haven’t read any Nancy Mitford but you make it sound as if I should. That part on Uncle Matthew hating foreigners reminded me of Roderick Spode’s laughable-but-spooky character in Jeeves and Wooster, though I’m sure one could think of many other cultural references.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 8, 2020 at 11:32 pm

      Try Christmas Pudding, it’s seasonal, it’s fun and well-written.

      Like

  10. November 8, 2020 at 6:58 pm

    I seem to have gone through a very English upper classes phase in my reading in my teens, and probably even spoke (oh horror!) like Nancy Mitford’s characters, or Evelyn Waugh, or Noel Coward, P.G. Wodehouse or Somerset Maugham. I h aven’t read Don’t Tell Alfred but did enjoy the first two books in this trilogy. But I might have less patience for those sort of shenanigans nowadays.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 8, 2020 at 11:34 pm

      I believe I’ll still enjoy Love in a Cold Climate. You know what atmosphere you’ll find in that kind of books. The shenanigans come with the territory, it’s fun but I have to say I didn’t feel any compassion for Linda.

      Like

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