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

November 7, 2020 22 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.

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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