From the Introduction by Laura Thompson
The two novels in this volume were published within four years of each other – the first in late 1945, the second in mid-1949 – and they are viewed, with good reason, as companion pieces. They have an overlapping cast of characters, and the same first-person narrator. They inhabit a near-identical social landscape, that of aristocratic England – and, briefly, Paris – in the years leading up to the Second World War. They are both, essentially, comedic. Yet what always strikes me about The Pursuit of Love
and Love in a Cold Climate
is how different they are from each other.
The first was written at high speed: ‘my fingers itch for a pen’, as Nancy Mitford put it to her friend Evelyn Waugh, at the start of a book that she completed in three months. It tells her own story, pretty much – the now famous posh–feral Mitford upbringing with six younger siblings, on Cotswold land owned by her father, the second Lord Redesdale; an unsuccessful marriage to a well-born bore; a rapturous love affair with a sophisticated Frenchman – and her ease with her material, her sense of writerly empowerment, is palpable to the reader. Waugh, who suggested the book’s title, described it as ‘planless’, which is not true; although in terms of plot it is certainly simple. It traces the sentimental education of one character – Nancy’s alter ego
Linda Radlett – from childhood to young womanhood, from the yearning for love to its discovery. A fi ne instinct led Nancy to use a first-person narrator who was not Linda. Her story is told by her cousin Fanny, the insider-observer with the well ordered life and mind, who retains her serene self-possession even as she selflessly casts another woman’s spell. This overview – reasoned, accepting, taut with foreknowledge – upon a tale that exists so powerfully in the present tense, that is all about the upspring of hope, the faith in happiness, is the literary tension at the heart of the novel. It is also, of course, the philosophic tension at the heart of its author. Nancy is Fanny as well as Linda, and in Love in a Cold Climate
, that product of smiling maturity, the voice of sense – rather than sensibility – is dominant. Love is all around, but the novel keeps it at arm’s length. The Pursuit of Love
takes love seriously, and like its heroine it is romantic in its soul. Not blindly so, the dangers are visible, but that is how the scales are weighted. Fanny’s experience – a contented family life – is set alongside that of Linda, who after two dud marriages has a deliriously all-consuming affair in Paris, and in this novel there is no real contest.
‘Alfred and I are happy,’ Fanny says (to herself) of her academic husband, ‘as happy as married people can be. We are in love, we are intellectually and physically suited in every possible way, we rejoice in each other’s company, we have no money troubles and three delightful children. And yet, when I consider my life, day by day, hour by hour, it seems to be composed of a series of pin-pricks . . . These are the components of marriage, the whole-meal bread of life, rough, ordinary, but sustaining; Linda had been feeding upon honey-dew, and that is an incomparable diet.’
The prose is measured, straightforward. Yet at the same time Pursuit
is an effusion, an outbreath of creativity; a continuous poem, studded with descriptions that Nancy is lifting from her mind’s eye, such as the trees, ‘black skeletons against a sky of moleskin’ on a winter’s morning in ‘the beautiful bleak Cotswold uplands’. This was her fifth novel, written when she was forty (she was born in 1904), but it is the first in which she realized to the full her sui generis
talent, and in its autobiographical directness it could be an actual first novel – albeit an unusually accomplished one. It is, in fact, a young book. It spoke directly to me when I first read it aged sixteen; indeed I can still recall the delight of recognition at the passage between Linda and her sister, which expresses with such economy the voluptuous boredom of adolescence. ‘ “What’s the time, darling?” “Guess.” “A quarter to six?” “Better than that.” “Six!” “Not quite so good.” “Five to?” “Yes.” ’ Not only does the novel understand youth – those supple extremes of emotion, that shining solipsism – it also re-experiences it, which is not quite the same as remembering. And novels that addressed our most susceptible selves, in our formative years – Pride and Prejudice
, Jane Eyre
, I Capture the Castle
– are loved, deep into our adulthoods, with a young person’s limitless passion.
When Nancy wrote Pursuit
she had achieved only minor acclaim. Her first two novels, Highland Fling
(1931) and Christmas Pudding
(1932), were modish riffs on the Bright Young Thing theme, a world to which she had half-belonged but never really liked, although friends from that time – Harold Acton, John Betjeman, Waugh – were lifelong. ‘I never had any trouble getting published’, she would later say in a television interview, ‘if I had it would have put me orf completely’, and of course a hugely attractive young woman with connections (her maternal grandfather was the founder of The Lady
magazine, where she began her writing career) is always unlikely to struggle. Her third book, Wigs on the Green
(1935), which she wrote to earn money when married to the feckless Peter Rodd, who would then steal it from her purse, was a satire on the Fascist movement led by her sister Diana’s future husband, Sir Oswald Mosley. Her fourth, Pigeon Pie
(1940) was an absurdist spin on the Phoney War that was over by the time of publication, taking the novel down with it.
And one can trace, through each of these progressively accomplished productions, the gradual journey towards simplicity: casting off excesses of plot, replacing self consciously barbed satire with an irresistible, innate desire to see the joke (‘there is always something to laugh at’, as she wrote when close to death), shedding the ‘too too shame-making’ idiom of her unsatisfactory youth and locating the voice inside herself, the inimitable Mitford voice, with its clear concrete language (a Renoir is a ‘fat tomato-coloured bathing-woman’), its priceless quality of unpredictability and the skewed perceptiveness of a clever child (‘You know, being a Conservative is much more restful’, says Linda, after she has ended her marriage to a rich banker and taken up with a dedicated Communist; ‘. . . it does take place within certain hours, and then finish . . .’).
Moving to the first-person narrative voice, as Nancy did for Pursuit
, was the finishing touch. It enabled her to ‘speak’ to the reader, in a way that is deceptively artless. As a teenager, wedded to the notion that proper literature should be miserable, veering between twin passions for Thomas Hardy and Agatha Christie, I was almost confused by the fact that this novel was so much fun yet so good (it is, one might say, a classic that people want to read, rather than to have read). In an essay of 1951, alluding to the mysterious nature of Nancy’s literary gift, Evelyn Waugh described how she ‘received no education except in horsemanship and French. Liverish critics may sometimes detect traces of this defect in her work. But she wrote and read continually and has in the end achieved a patchy but bright culture and a way of writing so light and personal that it can almost be called a “style”.’ A tease, of course, although it was quite true that Nancy, like all her sisters, was almost completely home-schooled by governesses of variable quality, with university as remote a prospect as the moon. This was not unusual for girls of that class and time. Nevertheless a counter-view is put forward in The Pursuit of Love
, in a debate both highly comedic and somewhat serious. The rumbustious ‘Uncle Matthew’ – a fictionalized version of Lord Redesdale – proclaims his opposition to sending his daughters (he has four in the novel) to some ‘awful middle-class establishment’ where they will get thick calves from playing hockey. In reply Fanny’s aunt cites the benefits of having sent her niece to school – and the novel offers a connection here with the two young women’s very different fates. Linda’s headlong, undisciplined intuitive intelligence sends her off in search of proof that unicorns, in the form of men offering undying love, do exist. Fanny is able to find fulfilment without the need for illusions (the 2021 television adaptation of the novel, which portrayed Fanny as resentful of Linda’s capacity for ecstasy, missed this central point). Again, however, it is Linda’s way that the novel naturally follows. And again, in reality, Nancy had an elegant foot in each camp. She saw life ‘en rose
’, as her sister Diana put it to me, yet also saw it for what it was. She lamented her lack of formal education – perhaps as a weapon against her mother, with whom she had a difficult relationship and sometimes accused of neglect – but she also knew herself to be a richly successful autodidact; one who grew up, moreover, with access to a superb library, collected by her paternal grandfather and housed in a barn adjacent to the family home. For Nancy, who was reading Ivanhoe
at the age of six, this was arguably more useful than any school. As her youngest sister Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, put it, apropos the deficiencies in the Mitford education, ‘I always think once you’ve learned to red then you do the rest yourself ’. And certainly a woman raised to marry at St George’s, Hanover Square and propagate her own kind, who instead used her bright brain to make her own living, validated this robust theory. In her later years, when already suffering from the (as yet undiagnosed) cancer that would kill her in 1973, Nancy tramped the sites of Prussian battlefields in preparation for her final book, a scholarly biography of Frederick the Great. It is quite impossible to imagine Linda Radlett doing any such thing. Nevertheless it is the Linda in her – drifting tantalizingly close to airhead territory, but always saved by her vitality, her quality of enchantment, her instinctive resistance to received opinion – which gives Nancy Mitford her particular nimble genius. Indeed her talent, defined as it is by something that cannot be taught – extreme readability – has always seemed to me connected to her lack of formal education; rather in the way that an untrained actor can have an immediacy that will be reconfigured by a drama school.
Waugh, with whom Nancy created one of the great literary correspondences of the twentieth century, was inclined to correct her use of vocabulary (‘you do not understand the meaning of the word “eke”’) and her punctuation (‘it is clearly not your subject – like theology’). But these are aspects of writing; not of being a writer. At the time of Pursuit
, Waugh did believe that she might have been a ‘better’ novelist had she been better schooled. ‘I am sorry you have not been able to rewrite the unsatisfactory section of your book in time for the first edition’, he wrote in September 1945, having read the manuscript prior to its publication in December. His objection was to the passages relating to the Spanish Civil War, whose refugees Linda goes to help alongside her Communist husband, Christian (Nancy did the same thing with Peter Rodd). ‘Start rewriting it now for the Penguins. It is the difference (one of 1000 differences) between a real writer & a journalist that she cares to go on improving after the reviews are out & her friends have read it & there is nothing whatever to be gained by the extra work.’ She answered: ‘I can’t begin again on Linda so I am a journalist.’ Then, in October 1948, he offered a series of criticisms on Love in a Cold Climate
: ‘Six months hard I am afraid without remission for good conduct.’ Her reply, which appeared devoid of any trace of ill will, was an intriguing mixture of plaintiveness and defiance: ‘What I wonder is whether I can (am capable of) doing better . . . you must remember that I am an uneducated woman
. . .’
Within this is the fact that Nancy did not actually agree with much of what Waugh said. He was justified in seeking improvements to the Perpignan section of Pursuit
, probably the weakest part of the book, but the politicized (anti-Communist) slant of his suggestions was inappropriate to this novel, and Nancy knew it. With regard to Love in a Cold Climate
, he especially disliked the depiction of ‘Boy’ Dougdale, a social-climbing fanboy of the aristocracy, who exudes a kind of feminized, gossipy, deeply lubricious sexuality; he is, wrote Waugh, ‘a mere collection of attributes’, which surely could not be more wrong. Boy is one of the novel’s great triumphs, so brilliantly done that I shudder at every mention of the little curls in his hair, pressed into place with a wet finger, or at his ‘horribly wonderful’ command of the French language. There is no denying, however, that Waugh was sincere in his desire for Nancy to produce the best possible work; like Philip Larkin (with Barbara Pym) and Kingsley Amis (with Elizabeth Taylor), he was a great deal more generous to a female author than might have been expected from his reputation, and impressively unthreatened by a woman’s talent. ‘I’m afraid that what you really criticize are my own inherent limitations’, was Nancy’s conclusion in 1948. Yet by the time of her next novel, the underrated 1951 work The Blessing
dedicated to Waugh, he had come to understand that her defects were entirely bound up with her strengths; that what he called her ‘lightness’ had an absolute value of its own, rather than being merely the obverse of weighty and worthy; and that her way of writing – or ‘style’ – was one of the most recognizable of the twentieth century, not least because it was so confidently untutored and her own. . . .
Copyright © 2022 by Nancy Mitford; Introduction by Laura Thompson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.