Friday, June 19, 2009

Reading Journal: "The Pursuit of Love"

Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love. Originally published in 1945.

"I don't want to be a literary curiosity," says Linda Radlett, the heroine of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, near the end of the novel. "I should like to have been a living part of a really great generation. I think it's too dismal to have been born in 1911." She says this as bombs are falling on London and the Radlett family crowds into their frigid country home in the Cotswolds, calculating how long they can hold out against a German invasion.

The Radletts are Nancy Mitford's own family in thin disguise, and Linda appears to be a composite of all the Mitford sisters. Nancy wrote to her sister Jessica in April 1945: "I'm writing a book about us when we were little..." That book was The Pursuit of Love, and from reading Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels and the letters between the sisters collected in The Mitfords, it's clear how much of the novel is drawn directly from life. The Radletts, like the Mitfords, are insulated from the crumbling world around them by their aristocratic snobbery and eccentricity. The patriarch of the family is Matthew—an irritable, anti-intellectual, xenophobic, fox-hunting titled Archie Bunker. Mitford describes his reaction to his one exposure to Shakespeare, a production of Romeo and Juliet:
He cried copiously, and went into a furious rage because it ended badly. "All the fault of that damned padre," he kept saying on the way home, still wiping his eyes. "That fella, what's 'is name, Romeo, might have known a blasted papist would mess up the whole thing. Silly old fool of a nurse, too, I bet she was an R.C., dismal old bitch."
But Mitford's satire is more affectionate and sympathetic than biting. She's writing about herself, her own family, her own social milieu; she recognizes the snobbery and silliness, and she humorously embraces it.

("I know you hate foreigners specially Americans," Jessica writes to Nancy from America in 1945, hoping in vain for a visit from her older sister.)

Mitford's world is the insouciant aristocratic world of P.G.Wodehouse thrown into the tumbler of history. The novel begins with a comic reference to Matthew's exploits in World War I, and ends in the midst of the Second World War, which brings with it the possibility of real tragedy. But even when she walks onto the stage of history, Linda Radlett—like the Mitford sisters—is still the eccentric peer's daughter from the Cotswolds. While in southern France helping arrange transport for refugees from the Spanish Civil War, she's given the job of assigning ship's cabins to the refugee families:
"Did you work on any special plan when you were arranging the cabins, or how did you do it?"

"Why? Wasn't it all right?"

"Perfect. Everybody had a place, and made for it. But I just wondered what you went by when you allocated the good cabins, that's all."

"Well, I simply," said Linda, "gave the best cabins to the people who had Labrador on their card, because I used to have one when I was little and he was such a sweet, you know."

"Ah," said Robert, gravely, "all is now explained. Labrador in Spanish happens to mean labourer. So you see under your scheme (excellent by the way, most democratic) the farm hands all found themselves in luxury while the intellectuals were battened. That'll teach them not to be so clever. You did very well, Linda, we were all most grateful."

"He was such a sweet Labrador," said Linda, dreamily. "I wish you could have seen him. I do miss not having pets."
Reading the letters of the real Mitford sisters, one finds a bizarre juxtaposition of passion for political ideologies and passion for dogs and horses and fashion. It's oddly all of a piece.

In The Pursuit of Love, Linda spends a blissful eleven months in Paris in 1939, where, as War looms, she spends her days nude sunbathing on the roof of her flat. Another detail lifted from the real lives of the Mitford sisters. Here's Unity writing to Jessica in 1937:
I have seen the F├╝hrer a lot lately which has been heaven, only now he has gone back to his mountain for a bit.

I do hope you are having lovely weather for your motor tour. We have been having a heat wave here for a week, but today alas it's raining. The other day when it was boiling hot I found a secluded spot in the Englischer Garten where I took off all my clothes & sunbathed, luckily no-one came along. While I was lying in the sun I suddenly wondered whether Muv [Mother] knew I was sun-bathing naked, like when she knew that you were bathing naked, & I laughed till I ached, if anyone had come along they would have thought me mad as well as indecent.
Her hero-worship of Hitler—she sees him as a god-like being—does strike the reader as "mad as well as indecent." Unity delights in being naughty and shocking. As she lies naked in the public park, she imagines that her mother knows. Even naked and alone, she imagines a kind of telepathic audience of family. Is her naughtiness an attempt to compete for attention? It must have been difficult, as one of six beautiful daughters, to be uniquely herself. But sunbathing in the Englischer Garten, Unity was able to laugh—as her sister Nancy did, at herself and at her dear, despised, inescapable background.

Two years later, when England declared war on Germany, Unity would sit in the same park and put a gun to her head in a failed suicide attempt that would leave her brain-damaged.

"It's not a farce this time, it's serious," Nancy writes to Jessica about the book she was working on in 1945.

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