The Pursuit of Love (1945).
Love in a Cold Climate (1949).
In my reading of English literature I have often come across references to the characters and style of writing in Nancy Mitford’s novels. I finally got around to reading her this week, choosing two of her most famous efforts, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Now I understand the references, should I come across any more. But I have gained nothing else from the experience.
Both novels occur between the wars in the same circle of middle and upper-class English people living in area around Oxford. (Indeed, there were many references to Oxford itself–even the Banbury Road which we know very well.) The narrator of each novel is Fanny, cousin to the Radlett family and witness to their undoubtedly humorous eccentricities. In The Pursuit of Love Fanny chronicles the irregular upbringing and life of her contemporary and cousin, Linda Radlett. Linda makes Love of the romantic sort her life’s aim and her graspings after it fascinate the more traditional Fanny, who calmly marries an Oxford don. Herein the problem lies: unlike Edith Wharton, whose portrayal of Undine Spragg’s immoral life is unflinching but honest, Mitford doesn’t tell the truth. Though Linda’s story ends in what is actually a tangled mess, Fanny (and Mitford) seem to admire it. But it is not beautiful, it is sordid.
Love in a Cold Climate was worse. The nearby Montdore family, though wealthy and privileged beyond comparison, have only one daughter, the lovely Polly. Fanny and Polly grow up together, and Fanny is a front-row spectator to Polly’s eventual decision to marry her elderly uncle by marriage directly after the death of her aunt. Polly’s selfish and scheming mother is against the match and finds comfort by falling in love with Polly’s young cousin Cedric. In the end, Cedric falls in love with the elderly uncle and the ugly mess is concluded. If I understand Fanny’s attitude (and Mitford’s), it seems to be amusement.
I found these novels heavy with the cynicism of many post-war novels and distorted by a hedonistic and humanistic vision. The dialogue is witty and the characters humorously drawn, but for my money they aren’t worth it.