I have had something of a Mitford addiction in the past – reading many, though not all, of Nancy’s novels and devouring several of the many books written about this extraordinary family. The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate are of course Nancy Mitford’s best known novels, and I have wanted to re-read them for some time.
In this novel undoubtedly her most autobiographical novel Nancy Mitford used her famous wit to lift the lid on the absurdities of aristocratic life – particularly the aristocratic life of the Mitford family.
Fanny – our narrator – having been dumped by her mother The Bolter (a thinly disguised Lady Idina Sackville) has been brought up by her aunt Emily, and spends holidays with her cousins the Radletts at Alconleigh a large uncomfortable house in the country. Aunt Sadie – sister to Emily and The Bolter is the vague mother to seven children. Uncle Matthew (again a thinly disguised Lord Redesdale – Nancy’s father) roars and stomps around the estate, hunting is his favourite occupation, and so when fox hunting is out of season he hunts the children instead. Constantly railing against anything he sees as foreign or anti British Uncle Matthew, dreadfully un-pc and terrifying to the children, is really quite hilarious.
“Uncle Matthew went with Aunt Sadie and Linda on one occasion to a Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet. It was not a success. He cried copiously, and went into a furious rage because it ended badly. “All the fault of that damned padre,” he kept saying on the way home, still wiping his eyes. “That fella, what’s his name, Romeo, might have known a blasted papist would mess up the whole thing. Silly old fool of a nurse too, I bet she was an R.C dismal old bitch.”
Life at Alconleigh is one of large unheated rooms, teasing and gossiping in the hons cupboard – the one warm place in the house. The Radlett children are unschooled, as Uncle Matthew doesn’t believe in schools, and so they are instead the charges of a governess. Of the Raddlett children Linda is the one closest to Fanny, a hopeless romantic, she is destined to marry badly twice before finding the love of her life. Growing up with her cousins running slightly wild at Alconleigh –when not living quietly with her dear Aunt Emily, Fanny learns about love through Linda, before marrying her own quiet Oxford Don.
“She was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love. Twice in her life she had mistaken something else for it; it was like seeing somebody in the street who you think is a friend, you whistle and wave and run after him, but it is not only not the friend, but not even very like him. A few minutes later the real friend appears in view, and then you can’t imagine how you ever mistook that other person for him.”
Linda lives outside the conventions of the day – just as Nancy’s sister Diana had – and horrifies her parents when her first marriage ends. Yet she resolutely pursues her own idea of love, finding it eventually in Paris as the world lies on the brink of war.
I find The Pursuit of love a wonderfully funny and touching novel, Nancy Mitford was a famous tease and in The Pursuit of Love she teases wonderfully, using her own wonderfully eccentric family as the model for her characters.