Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love (1945)
What it’s about: England, the 1920s. The story is narrated by Fanny, an upper-class girl whose “wicked” mother (known as “The Bolter”) has left her in the care of her Aunt Emily. Fanny spends her holidays at Alconleigh, a stately home in Oxfordshire with her sociopathic Uncle Matthew Ratlett, the kindly but absent-minded Aunt Sadie and her many female cousins, including Linda, who is Fanny’s closest friend. Unlike Fanny, who is sent to school, the Ratlett cousins grow up largely uneducated, developing a secret society, “the Hons”, who meet in an airing cupboard to talk about the adult world of love and sex. The Ratletts are simultaneously attracted to and repelled by hunting, and are regularly chased by Uncle Matthew with bloodhounds through the countryside. As the girls become teenagers, Louisa, the eldest daughter, makes her society debut and quickly marries a Scottish peer twenty years her senior. A bored and jealous Linda waits impatiently for her own debut, and makes friends with their neighbour, Lord Merlin, a wealthy aesthete with many fashionable friends. Through Lord Merlin, Linda meets Tony Kroesig, the eldest son of a prosperous banking family. Despite the objections of both families, Linda and Tony are married. Linda soon realises that the marriage is a failure – Tony spends little time with her, and the Kroesigs view her as an impediment to Tony’s political ambitions. Linda has a daughter, Moira, nearly dying in childbirth, and is told not to have any more children, further angering the Kroesigs who expect her to provide Tony with a male heir. Linda shows little interest in motherhood, and Moira is left to be raised by the Kroesigs. Meanwhile, Fanny marries an Oxford don and starts a family, seeing Linda less frequently.
After ten years of marriage, Linda leaves Tony for Christian Talbot, a charismatic Socialist, and somewhat unsuccessfully attempts to take up the cause of the working classes. Linda divorces Tony and marries Christian, to the horror of the Ratletts but the relief of the Kroesigs, and Tony quickly marries his long-term mistress. Linda travels to southern France where Christian is helping refugees from the Spanish Civil War. After a few weeks, she realises that Christian is in love with her old friend Lavender Davis. Realising that they would both be happier apart, she prepares to leave Christian and return to England. She becomes stranded in Paris, and is rescued by Fabrice de Sauveterre, a wealthy and charming French duke. Linda becomes Fabrice’s mistress, moving into a luxurious apartment that he finances, and buying clothes with his money and encouragement. Uncle Davey and Lord Merlin visit Linda in Paris, urging her to be cautious in light of Fabrice’s reputation as a womaniser, but Linda is convinced that he is the love of her life. World War II breaks out and Fabrice insists that Linda returns to England. Linda returns to her London flat, resisting her family’s calls for her to take shelter in the country, in case Fabrice should return for her. Finally, Fabrice visits Linda in London and tells her that he loves her, and she becomes pregnant. After her flat is bombed, she is finally persuaded to return to Alconleigh, where she, Fanny and Louisa all await the birth of their babies. They are joined by The Bolter and her young Spanish lover Juan, enraging Uncle Matthew. The Bolter views Linda as a younger version of herself, which Linda resents, certain that she has found lasting happiness with Fabrice. After several weeks of dreadful English cooking, Juan manages to communicate to Davey that he is a chef, and takes over the kitchens at Alconleigh, dramatically improving the quality of their meals. Fanny and Linda give birth to sons on the same day. Linda dies in childbirth, and news comes soon after that Fabrice has been executed by the Nazis. Fanny adopts Linda’s little boy, naming him Fabrice, and raises him with her own children.
Why it’s a classic: Published at the end of World War II when Britain was grim and grey and still on rations, The Pursuit of Love became an immediate bestseller, selling 200,000 copies within its first year of publication. Mitford’s biographer Selina Hastings writes that it was “the perfect antidote to the long war years of hardship and austerity, providing the undernourished public with its favourite ingredients: love, childhood and the English upper classes.” In writing about the eccentric upper-classes, who are held up both as figures of fun and as embodiments of a Jazz Age-ideal of glamour and sophistication, Mitford was following in the well-established tradition of English comic writing popularised by P G Wodehouse, E F Benson, and her good friend Evelyn Waugh, who encouraged her to become a novelist. Like those writers, Mitford was thoroughly part of the Establishment, and so was ideally placed to give readers an insider’s view of the aristocratic life. Even if we making allowances for a degree of comic exaggeration, there’s a specificity to her descriptions of upper-class life that feels deeply satisfying. The glittering worlds of country house parties, London society balls, tulle gowns, acres of mink coats and whippets with diamond collars, are contrasted with the strange deprivations of the Radletts’ upbringing – poorly heated country houses, terrible food and an ever-constricting social circle, defending itself from the encroachments of middle-class parvenus.
For Mitford, The Pursuit of Love meant commercial success, a flush of literary celebrity, and a stable income for the first time in her life. It was also the apotheosis of her complex and ambivalent relationship with her very strange upper-class family and upbringing. The eldest daughter of the second Baron Reedsdale, on whom the tyrannical Uncle Matthew is based, Mitford plundered her memories of childhood at Asthall Manor to create Alconleigh. Linda’s complicated love life draws heavily from Mitford’s own romantic history: Tony can be read as an unflattering portrait of her first husband Peter Rodd, and Fabrice is modelled on Gaston Palewski, the French diplomat and politician with whom she lived for many years in Paris. Mitford also embraced Socialism, though rather more intelligently than her feckless heroine, and her work with aid organisations during the Spanish Civil War also finds its way into Linda’s story. There’s also something of Mitford in Linda’s rootlessness and restlessness, and her see-sawing between idealism and hopelessness in the face of absent or disinterested lovers. In some ways, Linda is a form of wish-fulfilment, living in luxury in Paris with a suave Frenchie who foots the bills and eventually admits his love for her; in other ways, Linda is a cautionary tale of who Nancy might have become – a pretty but directionless debutante, only fit for marriage – had she not put her foot down and insisted on an education and later forged a career for herself as a writer.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A big bouquet, though as the Radletts seem more fond of jewellery than gardens, it may need to be a diamond collar like Lord Merlin’s whippets. The Pursuit of Love is the literary equivalent of a well-constructed souffle, coasting along effortlessly in a comic bubble, always witty and entertaining, and even carrying its tragic final notes with a grace and lightness that doesn’t weigh the reader down. Mitford’s deft comic touch means that she gets to have it both ways: the Radletts and Alconleigh are both absurdist and objects of satire, and strangely plausible and even, at times, loveable. The sight of Linda at Victoria Station, on her way to join the refugee effort, “looking intensely English in her long blond mink coat, the Tatler under her arm, and Lord Merlin’s morocco dressing-case, with a canvas cover, in her hand” is both appalling and strangely endearing. Mitford’s portrait of Linda, told through the more knowledgeable viewpoint of Fanny, is of a woman ill-equipped to live in the world and who never really left off being a child. “What we really need,” the adult Linda tells Fanny at one stage, “is hours and hours in the Hons’ cupboard“. The great charm, and the great sadness of The Pursuit of Love is that Linda’s search for love never brings her anything like the same pleasure that she had as a child, undoing the gamekeepers’ animal traps and being hunted by Uncle Matthew and his bloodhounds. There’s also a remarkable lack of sentiment about motherhood that feels bracingly modern. Just as The Bolter shows little interest in Fanny, Linda waves away any interest in her own daughter. “Poor soul,” she says, viewing the crying newborn Moira. “I think it must have caught sight of itself in a glass. Do take it away, Sister.”
That said, the passage of time hasn’t been entirely kind to Mitford’s portrayal of the upper-classes. When Uncle Matthew curses Emily for allowing Fanny to say “note paper” instead of “writing-paper”, we’re reminded, uncomfortably, of Nancy’s infamous discussion of “U and Non-U” language, in which she laid out the linguistic separation between the aristocracy and the middle-classes. Though Nancy meant this as an ironic commentary on snobbery, her article was picked up by middle-class readers who were anxious to “improve themselves” by using the language of their “betters”. Similarly, Linda’s attempts to defend the patriotic values of the English ruling class, especially when pitted against the greed, ambition and pro-Fascist tendencies of the Kroesigs, jars for modern readers. We now know too much about the pro-Nazi leanings of the English aristocracy – Edward VIII, who appears briefly in the novel as the then Prince of Wales, Mitford’s sister Diana who married British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley, and Unity Mitford who hit the Fascist jackpot and had an affair with Hitler – to believe that the Radletts are as harmless as they seem. Britain is still, somewhat depressingly, too much in the grip of the type of power structures that Nancy satirises to be entirely comfortable with the joke of books like this. Toffs like Uncle Matthew still hold hereditary peerages and stalk the House of Lords, though in fewer numbers these days. Our Prime Ministers and leading politicians are still drawn from the same prep schools and universities that Mitford’s brothers attended. And we still flock, in our hundreds of thousands, to the stately homes where Mitford and her kind lived and played in, salivating over their lives of unchecked privilege.
The Pursuit of Love is the type of book that po-faced Socialists like Christian would condemn from his speaker’s box at Hyde Park Corner, as the kind of posh-worshipping fantasy that prevents true social equality from being realised – if he’d ever bothered to make time to read it. Fortunately for us, it’s still around, and at its best is something of a masterclass in comic writing. Like an expert cartoonist, Mitford can sketch vivid characters (and demolish them) in just a few carefully chosen words. Of Lord Fort William, Louisa’s husband, we learn only that “his hair seemed to be slipping off backwards, like an eiderdown in the night“. Lavender, Christian’s mistress, is witheringly dismissed as “epitomiz[ing] everything that the Radletts considered most unromantic: a keen girl guide hockey player, tree climber, head girl at her school, rider astride.” I’m especially fond of Uncle Matthew, perhaps Mitford’s greatest comic creation, who calls anyone he doesn’t like a “sewer”, cracks stock whips on the lawn at 5am “with a greater noise than gunfire“, and says in response to Lady Kroesig offering to lend him a book: “I have only ever read one book in my life, and that is White Fang. It’s so frightfully good I’ve never bothered to read another.” Whether read purely for pleasure or as a diagnostic text about the rottenness of the English class system, The Pursuit of Love is also “frightfully good”, and well worth a re-read.
“She was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love. Twice in her life she had mistaken something else for it; it was like seeing somebody in the street who you think is a friend, you whistle and wave and run after him, but it is not only not the friend, but not even very like him. A few minutes later the real friend appears in view, and then you can’t imagine how you ever mistook that other person for him.”
“He was the great love of her life you know”.
“Oh, dulling,” said my mother, sadly, “One always thinks that. Every, every time.”