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Nancy Mitford's Delightful Novels, The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate
Nancy Mitford’s two novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, describe the lives, and love affairs, of three beautiful aristocrats during the time-between-the-wars: the “lost” and anxt-ridden years, between World War I and World War II, in England and the European Continent.
The story’s narrator, Francis Logan, affectionately known as Fanny, relates the terrifying, hilarious, flamboyant and tremendously fun adventures at Alconleigh, and in particular the love-lives of her favorite cousin, Linda and their cousin, Polly, as well as Fanny’s own pursuit of love, followed by her more sensible marriage.
The stories center around the Radlett family, whose lord and master called “Fa”, by his six children, or “Uncle Matthew”, by his niece, Fanny, thunders around the house like the war general that he once was, preparing for the inevitability of air-raids and imminent attack.
More than a house, Alconleigh is a grand, old estate of the English countryside, which Matthew lords over with a whip. He can be found pacing the great drive and courtyard at Alconleigh, snapping this whip with the violence of a homicidal polo player and the grace of a fly-fisherman, marching in his high boots. The children play ball nearby, inured to their father’s mania. Uncle Matthew is possibly Mitford’s strongest character. His dialog makes this so, as he bellows angry epithets that echo through the halls. He is particularly fond of calling people “hogs”, “sewers” and “hons”.
Fanny is in a distinctly neutral position as the story’s narrator. She herself was abandoned as an infant by her mother, who was then forever deemed, “The Bolter”. Thus, Fanny was adopted by her aunt, Emily, but also spent much time under the care of Aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew, at Alconleigh. Hence, Fanny is nearly like a sister to her cousin Linda and the other Alconleigh children.
Despite her obvious doe-eyed fright of the bristling Matthew, Fanny seems to love her uncle. An extremely blustery character, Uncle Matthew will not stand for frivolity, even at a seasonal ball given at his own estate. He is caught “gazing furiously into space” every time someone he despises dances by. Fanny, a somewhat introspective and shy young lady by nature describes a certain pivotal moment at one of these balls, which turns out to be the moment she falls in love with Alfred:
“The back of a head, seen at a ball, can have a most agitating effect upon a young girl, so different from the backs of other heads that it might be surrounded by a halo. There is the question, will he turn round, will he see her, and, if so, will he merely give a polite good-evening or invite her to dance? Oh, how I wished I could have been whirling gaily round in the arms of some fascinator instead of sitting with my aunts and uncles, too obviously a wall-flower. Not that it mattered. There were a few moments of horrible suspense before the head turned round, but when it did he saw me, came straight over, said good evening more than politely and danced me away…
“Who is that brute?”, said Uncle Matthew, grinding his teeth ….”Why does he keep coming over here?”
The dialog is exquisitely English, clever and genuine. That is the allure of the Mitford tales. She wrote several novels, the first three of which were not well-received, but, The Pursuit of Love, (1945), won wide popularity. Love In A Cold Climate, (1949), was the equally popular sequel, picking up with the adventures of the Alconleigh’s and their aristocratic friends and neighbors. The family is loosely based on Mitford’s own family, with Uncle Matthew being a portrayal of the author’s eccentric father, the second Lord Redesdale.
Lady Montdore, the wealthiest and most controversial of characters in Nancy Mitford’s novels, offers, always, entertaining dialog:
“Ah! The girls” she said. “Talking balls, I suppose, as usual. Going to the Gravesend’s tonight Fanny? Give me some tea, I’m quite dead, such an afternoon with the Grand Duchess, I’ve just dropped her at Kensington Palace. You’d never believe that woman was nearly eighty. She could run us all off our feet, you know, and such a dear, so human, one doesn’t mind what one says to her. We went to Woollands to get some woollens – she does feel the cold. Misses the double windows, so she tells me.”
Fanny has a sort of devoted, if reluctant, love for Lady Montdore. But, our modest narrator states, “this is really Linda’s story”, even though it becomes quite evident that this can just as easily be Fanny’s story about her life with the Alconleighs and her love for her cousin, Linda. Their great fun in romping through the woods playing fox to Uncle Matthew’s hounds in the legendary “children hunts”, would always remain the fondest of Fanny’s memories.
She describes, with tenderness, the passionate curiosity that her cousin Linda demonstrates all throughout her life, as when Fanny and Linda and the other children just have to know what all of the scandal is over Oscar Wilde:
“Linda and I were very much preoccupied with sin, and our great hero was Oscar Wilde.
‘But what did he do?’
‘I asked Fa once and he roared at me – goodness, it was terrifying. He said: ‘If you mention that sewer’s name again in this house I’ll thrash you, do you hear, damn you?’ So I asked Sadie and she looked awfully vague and said: ‘Oh, duck, I never really quite knew, but whatever it was worse than murder, fearfully bad. And, darling, don’t talk about him at meals, will you?’”
So, Linda organizes a secret campaign to discover Wilde’s alleged crime. Fanny describes her cousin Linda as a great beauty, yet, altogether “different” from the Bolter, even though Linda herself also abandons her only child in the pursuit of greater love.
These females are strong women, despite the era and the strictures of, not just Uncle Matthew, but the war era. The soul aim of these ladies seems to be in finding the right man and falling in love. And while it is true that this pursuit has not changed completely over time, the Mitford women struggle with societal boundaries that have, largely, vanished.
Indeed, Fanny’s beloved and gorgeous, aristocratic cousin, Polly, states to her mother, Lady Montdore: “You haven’t prepared me for a career.” To which Lady Montdore replies, “I have prepared you for a husband!”
Still, one must admit; these girls pursue their loves with the focus and resolve of Julia, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, or Rosalind, in As You Like It. Crossing oceans and cross-dressing, to meet their purpose.
Mitford’s novels may not have been considered quite the caliber of the great, English literary cannon; but, more than anything, these two combined novels and the subsequent BBC film are thoroughly enjoyable and a pleasure and a delight to both read and see.
The BBC Film, Love In A Cold Climate, (2001), stars a cast of highly revered English actors, including; Alan Bates, as Uncle Matthew; Celia Imrie, as Aunt Sadie; Sheila Gish, as Lady Montdore; John wood, as Lord Merlin; Anthony Andrews, as “Boy”, Elisabeth Dermon-Walsh, as Linda; Megan Dodds, as Polly; and Rosamund Pike, as Fanny.
Alan Bates is almost unrecognizable underneath the glowering, pugnacious face of Uncle Matthew. But he is fantastic as the eccentric, paranoiac, furiously ebullient English lord of Alconleigh.
The lovely Rosamund Pike, as Fanny, narrates elegantly, her velvet, whispery voice echoing the rich undercurrents of England itself: its history, its ethos and its beauty.