The Pursuit of Love ~ Nancy Mitford

IMG_0167When looking for a novel contemporary with its 1949 publication for my Years of My Life  project one possibility was Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. Although I was assured that I didn’t need to have read The Pursuit of Love to understand the later work, there was a copy in the library last time I was there so I decided to bring it home and give it a try.

I have to admit that what I tend to think of as large country house sagas have never appealed to me.  The whole Downton Abbey phenomenon passed me by completely. Consequently, given that the only Mitford I have ever so much as seen lived at Chatsworth, I’ve pretty much passed on them as well.  My mother was brought up in a tied cottage on a large Yorkshire estate where her father was the farrier.  Her mother had been a housemaid at Castle Howard. Our sort doesn’t mixed with their sort.  Having read The Pursuit of Love I’m still of very much the same mind.

It isn’t, let me say straightaway, that I can’t appreciate it as a well written novel. Frances, the narrator, draws us into the world of her Uncle Matthew, Aunt Sadie and seven cousins in their Cotswold house, Alconleigh, very successfully.  Even those members of the family whom we meet only fleetingly have a sturdy reality to them which gives them a life of their own.  The description of their cold, draughty old home rings horrendously true.  Even had father been willing to spend more on fuel it would almost certainly have been impossible to heat such a monstrosity. In fact, it is probably Mitford’s success in portraying the move from girlhood to adult status of her leading characters, Frances, Louisa and above all Linda, which was the novel’s undoing in my eyes.  Their perpetual preoccupation with finding love, particularly that of Linda, who is the novel’s main character, in a country where families were starving for lack of work, families who would have given anything for the money which paid for despised party dresses, simply irritated me.  I wanted to give them all a good slap and tell them to count their very substantial blesssings.

I know, I want the novel to be something other than it is and that is unfair.  And I did find some things to admire.  I certainly had more time for Uncle Matthew than I had for Linda’s inlaws, the Kroesigs, whose attitude towards the working class is despicable to say the least. Driven only by the desire to make more money they label any man who is poor a rotter, bad at his job, idle, feckless, immoral.  Come the onset of war they are prepared to be off as fast as their money can take them.  Uncle Matthew doesn’t understand this at all.

Uncle Matthew had no doubt a large income, but it was derived from, tied up in, and a good percentage of it went back into, his land. His land was to him something sacred, and, sacred above that, was England. Should evil befall his country he would stay and share it, or die, never would the notion have entered his head that he might save himself, and leave old England in any sort of lurch. He, his family, and his estates were part of her and she was part of him for ever and ever.

And that is what he does, blugeoning the estate workers into a formidable Home Guard which would probably have given Captain Mannering a run for his money.

I also found myself, much against my better judgement, becoming very fond of Davey,  the girls’ step uncle.  Oh, he would have driven me insane with his constant mithering about his health and diet, but when the chips are down (sorry about the pun) it is Davey who comes to the rescue time after time.  In the sort of appraisal Mitford’s characters might have used themselves, he is ‘a good egg’.

But, overall this was not a book for me.  When I hit passages such as

Marjorie was an intensely dreary girl, a few years older than Tony, who had failed so far to marry, and seem to have no biological reason for existing.

or

I have seen too many children brought up without Nannies to think this at all desirable. In Oxford, the wives of progressive dons did it often as a matter of principle; they would gradually become morons themselves, while the children look like slum children and behaved like barbarians.

my hackles rose and rose again.  I understand that Mitford is writing about what she knows and that when the novel was published in 1945 there would have been a larger audience who would also have appreciated her sentiments. But not me.  Shall I go on and read Love in a Cold Climate?  No, I don’t think so.  It would almost certainly annoy me every bit as much as this did to no good purpose whatsoever.

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The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street

imagesWhen I first blogged about my visit to Heywood Hill and the launch of my Year in Books project, Ali was kind enough to point me in the direction of a book of the collected letters exchanged between Nancy Mitford and the original proprietor of the shop, Heywood Hill.  Mitford had worked in the shop from 1942, although by the time this correspondence begins she is, for the most part, living and working abroad.  However, that doesn’t bring a halt to her interest in the shop and in the politics (actually some might say petty bickering) rife amongst the staff who are still employed there.

The collection includes letters that take the reader right up to the point of Mitford’s death from cancer in June 1973 and by that time Hill, himself, had retired and left the shop behind him.  However, as both were so immersed in the literary world, their correspondence is still full of anecdotes about writers and their works as well as, occasionally, news of the shop itself.

Nevertheless, it is the letters sent while Hill was still working regularly in the shop that fascinate me the most, and especially those that include titbits about some of their more interesting customers. Here, for example, on January 22nd 1958:

A man has just been in to ask if we will tear 3 illustrations out of a new art book in the window for him.

Well, why wouldn’t you?

Or my particular favourite from March 26th the previous year:

Mrs Hammersley has just been in with just a gold shell hatpin gleaming from under the layers of veils. She was here, she said because of her 80th birthday and could she borrow a book so of course I gave her one…

I am hoping that when I reach my eightieth birthday and want to borrow a book they will give me one as well although if I’m still living in the Midlands it might be quite a way to go just on the off-chance!

Before reading this I had had very little literary contact with Nancy Mitford.  I’ve read her sister Jessica’s letters and I used to see Deborah walking around the estate at Chatsworth sometimes when I was visiting friends in the area but other than that I know very little at all about the Redesdale family.  Having now made her acquaintance, however, I would rather like to deepen it.  I suspect that The Pursuit of Love is probably the best place to start with her fiction but I would also like to read a biography of the family as a whole, if such a thing exists.  I know that many of you are Mitford fans so if you have any suggestions as to what I should be looking for then I would be very grateful.

There is a second book of letters concerning Number 10 Curzon Street, a Spy in the Bookshop, which is now sitting on my bedside table waiting to be begun.  If there are any more anecdotes worth the sharing, then look out for a second post.