Friday, May 27, 2016

"The Pursuit of Love" and "Love in a Cold Climate," by Nancy Mitford

While reading a review of yet another book (at least two or three of which I have read) about the famous Mitford family, I saw mention of “The Pursuit of Love” and “Love in a Cold Climate” (originally 1945 and 1949, but available in many editions since then) as Nancy Mitford’s best novels. I was reminded of how much I have enjoyed her several novels over the years, and feeling in need of something light, humorous, and very British, I re-read these two interlocking (although each can stand on its own as well) novels (each of which I have read a couple of times before, but not recently) and enjoyed them thoroughly. Readers probably know the background of the Mitford family, but just as a quick refresher: The family of six sisters and one brother were part of the British upper class, raised during the period between World Wars I and II in a huge house in the country with little education (for the girls) but much exposure to books and educated people. They developed their own little society with secrets, inside jokes, special languages, and general hilarity. What makes them noteworthy is that Nancy became a bestselling novelist; Jessica became a famous Communist and muckraking writer (“The American Way of Death”) in the United States; Diana and Unity, in stark contrast, became Fascists and were involved with Hitler; only Pamela and Deborah led quieter, more conventional lives. These two novels are, in slightly disguised form, about the girls during their childhoods, and into their early adulthoods, but focus by far the most on Nancy herself (“Linda” in the novels). Political differences, or even politics at all, are rarely discussed; they would definitely not fit with the mostly lighthearted (although with some personal sadnesses) stories in these novels. A cousin “Fanny” is invented to serve as an involved observer and narrator who has spent much of her childhood with the Mitfords (the “Radletts” in the novels). “The Pursuit of Love” focuses on the childhood years, and then jumps to the girls’ young adulthood years. “Love in a Cold Climate” has most of the same characters, but focuses largely on a grand neighboring family, the Hamptons. Again, Fanny serves as the main observer and narrator. The plots of the novels are both too complicated and too light (although at times turning quite serious) to summarize here. Suffice it to say that they are mainly about family life, outsized characters, the relationships of the “girls” with each other, their parents, their neighbors, and their various suitors. The books are beautifully written (writing in this style is much harder than it looks), very entertaining and funny, if you like this genre of British domestic comedy of the early-to-mid twentieth century, and I do, very much. But it is not everyone’s cup of tea. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!) Another issue is that the books are sometimes quite blatantly un-PC, and certain storylines definitely jar on our twenty-first century sensibilities. I, although I concede to no one in my PC-ness, thank you very much, am willing to give the novels partial passes in view of the time period when the events happened and when the novels were written.
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