#100WomenNovelists: Nancy Mitford

Blog Post 18: The Pursuit of Love (1945)

There is a photograph in existence of Aunt Sadie and her six children sitting round the tea-table at Alconleigh. The table is situated, as it was, is now, and ever shall be, in the hall, in front of a huge open fire of logs…There they are, held like flies, in the amber of that moment – click goes the camera and on goes life; the minutes, the days, the years, the decades, taking them further and further from that happiness and promise of youth, from the hopes Aunt Sadie must have had for them, and from the dreams they dreamed for themselves. I often think there is nothing quite so poignantly sad as old family groups.

‘The Pursuit of Love’ is narrated by Fanny, the cousin of the children in the photograph, the daughter of Aunt Sadie’s sister, otherwise known as ‘the Bolter’ who abandoned Fanny as a child and has lived her life bolting from one disastrous lover to another. Fanny is brought up by another of the sisters, Aunt Emily, but spends her holidays at the ancestral home of the Radlett family. Her closest friend and confidante is the beautiful, outrageous Linda who dreams of nothing but love and the story revolves around her. Will she be another bolter?

This is classic Mitford: Her cutting wit, her appalling but loveable characters, her portrayal of the interwar years in upper class society with its debs, distrust of foreigners, and hunting (lots of hunting). The backdrop of a country recovering from the first world war and the possibility of anther war to come, the education of girls, the peerage, marital dowries, the coming out season, all these issues are taken for granted. It is the individuals that matter, their hopes and dreams and their pursuit of love.

The fictional Radlett family are clearly related to the real life Mitford family and Alconleigh is surely based on Asthall Manor, the childhood home of the Mitfords. In fact the freezing cold pile of a house is a character in itself, just as Brideshead is in Evelyn Waugh’s novel of the same year, ‘Brideshead Revisited’. The tone of ‘The Pursuit of Love’ is perhaps more like Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’ but with more wit to soften the brittle edges. For this is not just a comedy of manners; there is a much darker undercurrent, highlighted with Linda’s attitude to baby Moira. But like Waugh, Mitford doesn’t comment or pass judgement on the behaviour of her characters; she leaves that for the reader to do.

My Uncle Matthew had four magnificent bloodhounds, with which he used to hunt his children. Two of us would go off with a good start to lay the trail, and Uncle Matthew and the rest would follow the hounds on horseback. It was great fun. Once he came to my home and hunted Linda and me over Shenley Common. This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish week-enders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls. My uncle seemed to them like a wicked lord of fiction, and I became more than ever surrounded with an aura of madness, badness, and dangerousness for their children to know.

To try and reach an understanding of the complicated Mitford sisters, you’d do well to read this novel and then follow it up with ‘Love in Cold Climate’. (Though it is very hard to understand Unity Mitford’s friendship with Adolf Hitler. That is quite another story.)

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