The Pursuit Of Love – Nancy Mitford
I am going through a phase of reading, often for the first time, novels from the mid-20th century by authors whose popularity has somewhat waned. This, her fifth novel, published in 1945, is the first of Mitford’s books I have read. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I rather enjoyed it.
It seems to me to work on two levels, a light, romantic comedy, gently satirising the behaviour and attitudes of an eccentric upper-class family, closely modelled on Mitford’s own. But there is a darker side to the book, a feeling that the pursuit of love for love’s sake is doomed to failure. The book’s rather curt and tragic ending underlines this sense that there is more to the book than meets the eye.
The book is written from the perspective of Fanny Logan, whose mother, nicknamed the Bolter, has palmed her off to be looked after by her sister, Emily, in order that she can pursue a series of ill-fated and unsuitable flings. Emily regularly takes her charge to visit her other sister, Sadie, in Gloucestershire. Sadie’s husband, the formidable Uncle Matthew, aka Lord Alconleigh, is a short-tempered, overbearing man, who disapproves of educating women, and despises intellectuals and foreigners, whom he calls sewers. He uses his pack of bloodhounds to hunt down his children. Surprisingly, they don’t seem to mind.
The children, there are six, spend much of their time in the only warm part of the house, the airing cupboard, and while away their time, dreaming of love. The eldest daughter, Louisa, marries the eminently suitable but dull John Fort William, but Linda, the book’s main character and the most beautiful of the sisters, is determined to pursue love. Her romantic decisions, though, prove disastrous.
As Mitford admits herself, there was something bipolar about the Radletts; they “were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives”. Linda takes this bipolarity of emotions to the ultimate.
The family disapprove of her first choice, but she goes ahead and marries Tony Kroesig. They quickly realise they are unsuited and drift apart – to modern eyes, Linda’s treatment of her daughter from the marriage, Moira, seems cruel and callous. She then takes up with a communist activist, Christian Talbot, and spends time on the front line in the Spanish Civil War before losing patience with his indifference and falling for the charms of the raffish Fabrice de Sauveterre whilst in distress on the platform of the Gare du Nord. The latter part of their love affair is conducted in wartime London against a background of the Blitz.
Mitford’s world view is unremittingly upper class, the plebs barely get a look in, and this may partly explain why she is now out of favour. You can imagine, though, that, as Britain was lurching towards victory, the book was seen not only as a bit of top-class light entertainment, which it is, but also a record of a world that was vanishing, never to be seen again.
Mitford can be witty, ironic and then almost at with the flick of a switch acerbic and cruel. She is not averse to some purple prose or an image that remains with you. When describing a family photograph of the Radletts, Fanny comments, “there they are, held like flies in the amber of that moment-click goes the camera and on goes life; the minutes, the days, the years, the decades, taking them further and further from that happiness and promise of youth, from the hopes Aunt Sadie must have had for them, and from the dreams they dreamed for themselves. I often think there is nothing quite so poignantly sad as old family groups.”
There is much to savour in a book that I was not sure about when I picked it up.