When 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.
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.