Friday, March 15, 2019

Nancy Mitford

I decided to try Nancy Mitford after having heard vague references to her for years, most recently in my reread of The Uncommon Reader. She wrote in the 1940s-50s and while I don’t know anything about her, a brief search has suggested she is a well known British author who both delights and annoys readers depending on their bent.

I suspect that at the time her writings were quite daring*. The Pursuit of Love is mainly about a woman’s search for affection and love through numerous husbands and relationships. Spanning the late 1920s through to WWII, it charts the lives of the Radlett family told through the narrative voice of their niece, Fanny. Harsh Uncle Matthew presides over Alconleigh with his vague, gentle wife Sadie and their numerous children. Fanny has been raised by her Aunt Emily, but spends holidays with the Radletts. Her own parents have been not been on the scene, her mother moving from man to man and hence called Bolter by the rest of the family. The first half of the book charts their life and history to her twenties and then gives the story of the various relationships Linda, Fanny’s cousin, embarks on.

It’s a meandering read, at many times there is no clear idea where the story is going, it just seems to be a string of various accounts of family life. It also requires some ability to read French, or in my case, to use google translate while reading the iBook (much easier!) At the same time, it is engaging and eminently readable, with funny anecdotes and descriptions showing Mitford’s skill with words and expression. I enjoyed my time in it.

Next was Love in a Cold Climate, still narrated by Fanny with the same cast of Radletts hanging around, and her aunt Emily and Uncle Davey. Part 1 centres on Polly Hampton, only beloved child of Lord and Lady Montdore, one of the richest families in England. Polly is a close friend of Fanny’s, and they spent their later teen years often together. This book had some details of how Fanny met her husband Alfred, but really the details here are about Polly, who shows no interest in love at all to the despair of her mother. Until, horror of horrors, as soon her aunt is dead and buried, she reveals an enduring love for her uncle Boy Dougdale. The final section of this makes for odd reading as up to this point Boy has been dismissed as the Lecherous Lecturer by the Radlett children, his being known for being quite ‘handsy’ with young girls over the years. This is flippantly dismissed as a bit of a joke throughout the book, but in our current climate adds a definite feeling of distaste and unease that one assumes was not intended by the author. In Part 2 the Montdores have found the new heir, Cedric, a distant family member, who they feared would be a provincial hick from Canada, but is in fact a stylish, gay man from Paris, who completely turns their lives upside down. The story gets even odder from this point.

What was surprising was how quickly each novel finished. They both meandered for hundreds of pages and then ended quickly and abruptly almost as if she got sick of writing them. There is no doubt that Mitford wrote quite devastating critiques of English aristocracy, and her turn of phrase, all through the narrator Fanny, is light, cheerful, gossipy and interesting. At the same time, while it very readable and I was keen to see how it played out, it wasn’t as enjoyable for me as The Pursuit of Love.

*or as I am beginning to suspect, as my literary education on English writers in high school was mainly limited to Shakespeare, Chaucer, Austen and a few others, I really don’t grasp the range of what is out there.

No comments: