” I love children, especially when they cry, for then someone takes them away.”
Nancy Mitford died today in 1973; such was her personality, probably for the hell of it. She loved to say outrageous things, just to seek a reaction; it quite possibly wasn`t deliberately nasty or malicious, she simply came from an age when your position in high society was reckoned in how acidic, cutting and double edged your tongue could be. And Nancy`s tongue could cut deeper with acute surgical precision than most: she was queen of all she surveyed.
“I think housework is far more tiring and frightening than hunting is, no comparison, and yet after hunting we had eggs for tea and were made to rest for hours, but after housework people expect one to go on just as if nothing special had happened.”
What a trooper and martyr to her indolent lifestyle: it took her four books before her true genius with language finally shone through in all it`s Olympian like glory. The Pursuit of Love, published in 1945, captures the spiky, highly intelligent and odd family wildlife she lived with; it is a comedy treasure with dark, melancholic undertones, which continues to yield up it`s wonders long after other serious novels in the same vein have proven to be disappointingly shallow and transparent.
The book emanates the Mitford trill of hard to shock and easy to bore siren call on every page; the narrator, Fanny, is stupendously laid back and casual with her barrage of witty locutions, it is effortless chatter almost without any perceptible drawing of breath. The verbal style of the English 30`s chattering classes has been transposed effortlessly onto the page; it is encapsulated, as if hardened in cement, as a product of it`s place and time. There is great care and art involved in writing her thoughts for the page, but done in a seemingly artless way. Linda describes to Fanny about the earnest young man she dotes on, but finds his left wing idiosyncrasies rather beyond the pale; she wants to love what he loves, but really, she detects something absurd in his, and his comrades deadly seriousness.
“He`s a frightfully serious man…..They are terrific Hons…..But Christian likes this one because he threw a bomb at the King of Spain.”
Like so many of Mitford`s characters, she sounds rather ingenuous and wide-eyed, but is actually making a satirical comment. Mitford`s English joke is always one of seeming naivete, when it`s actually razor sharp in it`s penetration. Those who don`t fully understand English humour, may read the book as a comedic farce, but there is an entirely different agenda going on under the surface. Her characters are endlessly amused by anyone who is involved in earnest and grave causes: they must be indulged of course, it wouldn`t be the done thing to openly knock them into touch; only England`s ancien regime is given a dreamy defence. Linda has been hitched to a Tory with Nazi sympathies, and secondly to an aristocratic Marxist; the dullness and absurdity of political ideology is self evident to the writer.
“The worst thing about being a Communist is the parties you may go to are – well – awfully funny and touching but not very gay…..I don`t see the point of sad parties, do you? And Left-wing people are always sad because they mind dreadfully about their causes, and the causes are always going so badly.”
Ultimately, Nancy Mitford enjoys making fun of everything; she seems to have an allergy towards seriousness, she is gleefully cruel in her preference for sinners over earnest dullards. There is a complacency towards social injustice and inequalities, which may seem cynically hard hearted, but she is a product of her age. She does write about the horrors of war and being in a toxic relationship, but these are under currents in her prose which are not given the front page prominence they would be given by a modern author. Nancy`s prose teases us with the unpleasantness of life, rather than hitting us with a head on verbal car crash……….
“Click goes the camera and on goes life; the minutes, the days, the years, the decades, taking them further and further away from the happiness and promise of youth.”
The Pursuit of Love begins with the perusal of an old Radlett family photograph; seriousness is not denied to us, but is given succinctly, discreetly and elegantly, without emotional elaboration, such is the gift of genius. Unlike Fanny, who has found marriage to be an oasis of calm, Linda has steered away from passionate, romantic wastelands, and finds her heart buffeted this way and that by the prevailing winds of her heart; if she falls for an idiot, well, “Don`t pity me,” she tells Fanny, having returned from abroad, still married to Christian, but with another man`s bun firmly in the oven. Linda has the seeming glamour of a free and easy lifestyle, but Fanny has settled for the plain, doughty serenity of marital contentment, pulled towards the ephemeral pleasures Linda indulges in, but appalled by the uncertain life it gives.
” There they are, held like flies, in the amber of that moment……”
Linda lives in the moment, lonely, aside from a passing moment of pleasure to sustain her; she has rejected her family for this life at the head of a one woman caravanserai, while Fanny has arrived at the destination of her choosing, settling for blissful domesticity. Despite all this, Mitford shows that to pursue one`s inclinations and passions has beauty and value even if nothing tangible comes from it; although perhaps, it is better to travel in hope, than to arrive.
Nancy Mitford, 28th November 1904 – 30th June 1973.