Someone bought me this lovely edition of Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding from Capuchin Classics, and I have to confess I can’t remember who it was, I purposely saved it to read over Christmas, and I’m so glad that I did. I began reading it in the quiet of Christmas morning, before the big family Christmas lunch and present unwrapping that takes over the rest of the day. It was a perfect, light accompaniment to Christmas, and one I shall be keeping to read again one day.
While Christmas Pudding certainly doesn’t show Nancy Mitford at the height of her deliciously, sharp brilliance, there is still a delightful Mitfordian absurdity about this, her second novel, which makes it utterly readable. There is in fact something slightly Woodehousian about this society comedy, in which Christmas actually only plays a very small part. For here we have an impoverished writer, an infamous and enormously popular society beauty in her mid-forties, a young Etonian baronet, a romantic heiress, a devoted couple with a new baby, an eligible, though slightly dull lord and a slightly terrifying mamma who devotes herself to all things hunting. Bright young things, and landed gentry, a world Nancy knew well, and there is just a hint of Mitford’s bitter streak – but naturally it is suffused with humour.
“If I had a girl I should say to her, ‘Marry for love if you can, it won’t last, but it is a very interesting experience and makes a good beginning in life. Later on, when you marry for money, for heaven’s sake let it be big money. There are no other possible reasons for marrying at all.”
Paul Fotheringay is the writer, his first book Crazy Capers has just been published – to some success – only Paul saw it as a terrible tragedy; the world thinks it the funniest book of the year. Down hearted, Paul is determined to write a book the world will take seriously. Paul is a typical bright young thing, though destined to have to manage on a mere £300 a year, Paul shudders at the idea of real work, and is surrounded by a circle of society friends who know how to party, many of whom are much wealthier than he is. One of Paul’s greatest friends is Amabelle Fortescue a wealthy society beauty, a widow at the centre of society, she has a Cartier account and the much younger Lord Lewes is still annoyingly in love with her. Amabelle, with her great insight, realises at once that Paul has wanted his book to be taken seriously and suggests he try to write a serious historical biography. With Amabelle having taken a house for a couple of months around Christmas near the estate of Compton Bobbin, Paul hits upon the idea of writing the life of Lady Bobbin’s grandmother, a nineteenth century poet. With all the papers and journals of the lady poet at Compton Bobbin, Paul writes to Lady Bobbin requesting permission to study them and write his biography with her blessing.
“Mother, of course, takes a lot of exercise, walks and so on. And every morning she puts on a pair of black silk drawers and a sweater and makes indelicate gestures on the lawn. That’s called Building the Body Beautiful. She’s mad about it.”
Lady Bobbin is a fairly fearsome chatelaine, and master of the fox hunt, refuses absolutely to entertain the idea, dashing Paul’s hopes. Until that is Amabelle comes up with a plan to get Paul into Compton Bobbit in the guise of the young Sir Rodderick (Bobby) Bobbin’s tutor. Bobby another great pal of Amabelle’s is in his last year of Eton, and anxious to avoid the sportsmanlike instruction that his mother wants him to have in order to secure a place at Sandhurst. With Paul and Bobby in cahoots they can both get what they want. Also part of the gang are Sally and Walter Monteath and their new daughter, they are dreadfully poor, very much in love, and exist largely by cadging off wealthy friends, and already plan on hocking some of the christening gifts. Walter and Sally are very much the embodiment of the bright young things, they have little thought for the future, no actual employment, and parents they may be, but they still party fairly hard, until the sun is up.
Safely installed at Compton Bobbin, with Lady Bobbin off hunting every day, Paul is free to examine the papers of Lady Maria Bobbin, while Bobby is able to please himself. Obliged to ride out occasionally to maintain the fiction of Lady Bobbin’s timetable, Paul who is terrified of riding holds on for grim death until out of sight, when he and Bobby retreat gratefully to Amabelle’s temporary adobe next door, to gossip, while a groom is employed to exercise the horses. All this subterfuge is working wonderfully well, until Paul decides he is in love with Bobby’s older sister Philadelphia, who has also caught the eye of the far more eligible Lord Lewes – who in turn has had to finally believe that Amabelle doesn’t want him. Amabelle’s advice is sought, once more, and Amabelle happy to interfere, her experienced eye sees at once what disaster beckons.
“The trouble is that people seem to expect happiness in life. I can’t imagine why; but they do. They are unhappy before they marry, and they imagine to themselves that the reason of their unhappiness will be removed when they are married. When it isn’t they blame the other person, which is clearly absurd. I believe that is what generally starts the trouble.”
This may not be Mitford’s brightest or best, but there is still an awful lot to enjoy and delight in. Highland Fling and Pigeon Pie are the two Mitford novels I have yet to read, so I must seek them out one of these days.