“My immediate impression was that he did not seem at all like a husband. He looked kind and gentle”
Re-reading Nancy Mitford’s stylish, witty tale of an eccentric, aristocratic family fiddling whilst Rome burns (or, as the 1930s advances towards war) was the perfect weaning/antidote to my recent immersion in a couple of major, towering, American novels (Steinbeck, Yates)
The problem with reading enormous, wonderful, meaningful writing, is that it becomes impossible to follow. Writers of brilliance only mean that more mundane writers are met with an expression of distaste, by this unforgiving reader. My normal ‘weaning’ is to read a non-fiction book, but I’m afraid that Yates left me with absolutely no time for a non-fiction writer who was not also a writer, a fine writer. I abandoned with irritation a non-fiction which was a crass combination in style of dry academia and Reader’s Digest overblown.
And then, oh joy, I came across The Pursuit of Love in a second hand shop. A well written re-read, a world away from the towering ones, is of course, the answer.
Nancy Mitford was of course, one of the Mitford Sisters : Mitford’s own background as the daughter of Baron Redesdale with her 6 siblings, clearly provided the imaginative springboard for the eccentric Radlett family of this book.
The Radletts are a remarkably opinionated and individual family. Paterfamilias Matthew is an irascible high Tory, his wife Sadie is permanently surprised that she seems to have produced a large brood of children. The central story of The Pursuit of Love is that of the second daughter, beautiful, sentimental, romantic, wilful Linda, and it is told by her cousin Fanny, who is a much more sober, grounded character. No doubt in response to the fact that her mother, known to all as ‘The Bolter’ abandoned her at an early age to ‘bolt’ in rackety fashion, with a succession of unsuitably lovers. Linda shows some worrying signs of being drawn to overwhelming love affairs, from an early age, emulating Fanny’s mother.
The joy of the book is that the voices of the characters are wonderfully drawn, succinctly observed, and there is a sure narrative drive, and a kind of snapshot of a class and a time, of course cranked up into ‘types’ which could be clichés if they were not written with such sparkle and sharp observation.
What really struck me in reading the book is that although the manner is frothy, there are some quite painful events within the pages – abandoned and unloved children, war, death. But the manner in which tragedies are experienced is pragmatic and rather ‘not talked about’ It’s a world away from our emoting culture. Some of the characters certainly appear to behave extremely shallowly, and have shallow concerns, but it would be a mistake to believe they ARE shallow. It’s more that the approved manner of being is to make light of misery, to get on with things, not to indulge emotions
Here is a typical little gem. Linda has given birth and Fanny (who is pregnant) is visiting her in hospital
At this point the Sister came in and Linda introduced us……She went away and presently returned carrying a Moses basket full of wails
‘Poor thing,’ said Linda indifferently. ‘It’s really kinder not to look’
‘Don’t pay any attention to her’, said the Sister. ‘She pretends to be a wicked woman, but it’s all put on’
I did look, and, deep down among the frills and the lace, there was the usual horrid sight of a howling orange in a fine black wig.
‘Isn’t she sweet,’ said the Sister. ‘Look at her little hands.’
I shuddered slightly, and said:
‘Well, I know it’s dreadful of me, but I don’t much like them as small as that; I’m sure she’ll be divine in a year or two.’
The walls now entered on a crescendo, and the whole room was fulfilled with hideous noise.
‘Poor soul.’ Said Linda. ‘I think it must have caught sight of itself in a glass. Do take it away, Sister’
This is (to my mind) wonderfully funny, plus saying stuff which is/was probably unthinkable – a lack of maternal feeling – but exploding the received ‘normal’ idea of mother and child instantaneous bonding with a feather light, nonetheless razor sharp barb
Mitford is frothy, light-touch, sharp and elegantly understated in her humour. ‘Pursuit’ is at its best, for me, in the early stages of the book, where the central characters are in their early teens, on the verge of no longer being children, but young girls who will soon ‘come out’ and enter the marriage market.