In which I review The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford’s beloved 1945 comedy of two upper-class girls pursuing love while being pursued by their father’s bloodhounds, and their journey into adulthood and romance in the shadow of World War II.
What it’s about: England, the 1920s. Fanny is 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, her kindly but absent-minded Aunt Sadie and her many female cousins, including Linda, Fanny’s closest friend. The Ratlett cousins grow up largely uneducated, discussing the adult world of love and sex in their secret society “the Hons”, and being chased by Uncle Matthew’s bloodhounds through the countryside. As the girls become teenagers, 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 and Tony Kroesig, the eldest son of a prosperous banking family, while Fanny marries an Oxford don. Linda’s marriage fails, and she leaves Tony and her young daughter to live with Christian Talbot, a charismatic Socialist. She travels to 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, and returns to England. She becomes stranded in Paris, and is rescued by Fabrice de Sauveterre, a wealthy and charming French aristocrat. Linda becomes Fabrice’s mistress and moves into a luxurious apartment that he finances. World War II breaks out and Fabrice insists that Linda returns to England. 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 and Fanny await the birth of their babies. They are joined by The Bolter and her young Spanish lover Juan. 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 that he is a chef, and takes over the kitchens at Alconleigh, dramatically improving mealtimes. 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 1920s 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 friend Evelyn Waugh, As part of the Establishment, she was ideally placed to give readers an insider’s view of aristocratic life, and there’s a specificity to her narrative 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.
Part of the salacious fun of The Pursuit of Love is its status as a roman-a-clef. The tyrannical Uncle Matthew is based on her father, Baron Reesdale, and 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, she 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 cut flowers, 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 never sinks. Mitford’s deft comic touch means that she gets to have it both ways: the Radletts and Alconleigh are both absurd objects of satire and strangely plausible, and even strangely 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 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 had an affair with Hitler – to believe that the Radletts are as harmless eccentrics. Depressingly, Britain is still ruled by madmen like Uncle Matthew, and we still flock in our hundreds of thousands to the stately homes where Mitford and her set 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.
Read on its own terms, of course, The Pursuit of Love is 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 “frightfully good”, and well worth a read.
Quotable Quotes: “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.”