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This was my first encounter with Nancy Mitford and my reason for reading these two novels – arguably, her best-known – wasn’t just for themselves. I decided I ought to read them before I got started on Letters Between Six Sisters (Charlotte Mosley’s collection of correspondence between her Mitford relatives) and Decca – Jessica Mitford’s letters. I didn’t, therefore, expect to enjoy the novels as much as I did.
Both novels are set during the inter-war period and are set firmly among the English upper-classes. Mitford uses the perspective of a young, female member of that class to describe what life with them is like; the restricted roles played by women, the snobbery and xenophobia, the complexities of privilege – huge houses and estates coupled with the demands of living up to it when one’s income doesn’t always meet the demands that those things entail.
Mitford is often labelled with the prejudices of her age – snobbery, distaste for the poor, and an affection for fascism. However, as Philip Hensher points out on page ix of his introduction, later in life, Mitford expressed a ‘strong distaste’ for one of her early novels, because she found its approach to fascism flip. To be fair to her, she was a writer of comedies of manners, not a prophet. However, she was courageous enough to admit that the events of the 1930s and 40s had forced a whole new context onto her work (and that of many other writers) and it couldn’t be wished away. Nor did Mitford see herself as being outside politics. An interesting and important aspect of The Pursuit of Love is Linda’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War.
Back to these two novels. Once you’ve read both of them, they are hard to discuss separately. They are hugely readable, hard to put down, sad, cruel and funny. Mitford does all of her characters, from Fanny’s huge Uncle Matthew, to the lesser Lavender Davis as three dimensional beings. Her way of introducing them is interesting. She shows them up in a negative light first, then allows their positive qualities to emerge as the narrative develops. This is very different to the usual approach, which is to present the character’s good side first, only gradually allowing his or her negative qualities to emerge, so that disappointment sets in with the reader as it does for the other characters.
Davey Warbreck, who marries Fanny’s Aunt Emily, is a hypochondriac fuss-pot, who is always on some health regimen or other. This is how we see him first, and we wonder why the lovely Emily is bothering with him. Then by degree, we encounter Davey as kind, decent, selfless and generous towards his wife’s very trying family. He takes on Fanny as his own, although she’s not Emily’s daughter, providing her with the love and stability she needs. Fanny’s own parents are a disaster. Her father is virtually absent throughout the two novels, her mother (known in the family as The Bolter because of her habit of running out on husbands) is a butterfly. She’s funny and entertaining, and to be kind to her, her husbands are such lightweights, she’s unlikely to have caused any of them much pain. But she’s not a good mother and had Fanny not had Emily, Davey and the Radletts, she would have been in very poor straits indeed.
Fanny’s aunts and their respective husbands give Fanny the family she needs. She spends her term-time with Emily and later Davey and her holidays, at Alconleigh, the family seat of the wonderfully described Radletts. They consist of Sadie, her husband Matthew, (who is a properly-eccentric member of the aristocracy) and their huge brood of children. Matthew is in some ways, an archetypal English lord. He is devoted to lineage, family, land, hunting shooting, fishing and the denigration of foreigners. He is appalled by his neighbour, Lord Merlin, partly because of Merlin’s taste in company –Merlin does not, on principle, object to foreigners. Matthew also holds the view that educating girls is pointless, while having little time for silly, ignorant females. He is completely devoted to his intelligent, assertive wife, while his favourite child is Linda, a defiant little madam who gives him many times the pain and trouble of her more compliant (and more boring) older sister.
Matthew is clearly complex, and has prejudices that run to bigotry, but he’s not a monster. Like many an obdurate parent before him and since, he has the uncomfortable knack of sometimes being right, albeit in ways he might not expect. Linda’s marriage to Tony Kroesig is a disaster, not because of Tony’s German background, but because he and his family are greedy, Hitler-loving bores. Another of Matthew’s pet hates is the expensive palaver of bring girls out into society. The reader sees this process as a stressful cattle-market for the pretty and a crushing ordeal for the plain and cannot help but wonder if Matthew has a point.
Part of Mitford’s appeal is her flair for depicting men. She does a huge variety of them, from the almost overwhelming Matthew Radlett, to the nasty, squirrelly Boy Dougdale, to the very camp and very sweet Cedric Hampton. She has the capacity for making apparently exasperating characters endearing and turning those we ought to approve of into the relatives we can hardly abide. Linda’s older sister Louisa becomes, after her marriage, smug and judgemental about everybody who fails to live up to her standards of propriety. She’s not a bad woman, but she becomes dull and self-righteous.
However, Mitford also has a sure touch with women. She has a flair for the flaws and sweetness of young women – Linda, her naughty sister Jassy, the rather remote and lovely Polly, but more so for older women. Lady Montedore would be very easy to dislike – she is a pushy, snobbish freeloader, who, it transpires, is also a lonely old lady. We also see Fanny’s Aunt Sadie, the only person who can pull her belligerent spouse to heel. Fanny, who narrates both novels, is a funny, moving voice, but as a character in her own right, she is something of a cipher, reflecting other people’s personalities rather than her own. For example, she only engages in misdemeanours when Linda drags her into them and it is Linda who is seen as a bad influence rather than the badly-parented Fanny.. For a girl from such an unstable background, Fanny is remarkably well-adjusted. Perhaps Mitford is telling us that money and privilege make all the difference if we have them and know how to make the most of them. Or perhaps she is suggesting that for all the importance we place on family and background, they have their limitations and we should not discount the importance of individuals in their own lives.
Penguin Classics, 2000 Introduction by Philip Hensher. ISBN: 014-118149-4. 512pp.