As I think I mentioned in a previous post, the last few weeks of 2014 were a little harried for me. In such situations, I tend to reread something that has pleased and amused me in the past. True to form, in this instance I returned to my becoming rather battered copy of the Penguin edition of Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, and the two novels didn’t fail to lift my spirits somewhat.
Set in the inter-war period, the novels gently satirize the world of the aristocracy and landed gentry of the time. The Pursuit of Love deals mainly with Linda Radlett and her longing for love, a search that takes her through two husbands—one a banker, the other a communist—before she becomes the mistress of a French Duke. Love in a Cold Climate begins with the return of Lord and Lady Montdore from governing India and their hopes for a magnificent marriage for their beautiful daughter Polly Hampton. The rest of the novel follows the thwarting of those hopes, Polly’s subsequent disinheritance, and the effect on Lady Montdore of the coming of the new heir to Hampton, Cedric, who turns out to be very far from the rough hewn, Canadian backwoodsman everyone was expecting.
Sharing more or less the same time frame, both works are focalized through Fanny, who while herself an heiress and entitled to be addressed as “The Honourable Frances Logan,” feels somewhat on the margins of the world she inhabits. Daughter of a mother known as “The Bolter,” because of the number of times she has “bolted” from one husband to another, and brought up primarily by her Aunt Emily, one of the Bolter’s sisters, Fanny spends vacations with the Radletts , the family of her mother’s other sister, Sadie, and Sadie’s husband Matthew, the terrifying Lord Alconleigh.
Unlike her female Radlett cousins, Fanny is sent to school, and, highly disapproving of formal education for women, her Uncle Matthew is horrified to discover that as a result of attending “some awful middle-class establishment” (Pursuit 38) Fanny now “talks about mirrors and mantlepieces, handbags and perfume, she takes sugar in her coffee has a tassel on her umbrella” (Pursuit 37) all terrible social solecisms for an aristocratic girl of the period. At the time of Uncle Matthew’s outrage, Fanny “let down the side and began to cry” (Pursuit 38), but the narrator, the adult Fanny, now married to an Oxford Don, Alfred Wincham, points out her cousins, lacking in schooling as they were, “never acquired any habit of concentration, they were incapable of solid hard work. One result, in later life, was that they could not stand boredom” (Pursuit 39).
A critique of the boredom enforced upon women is in some ways at the heart of both novels, particularly the boredom of girls restricted by the conventions and values of the aristocracy. Fanny remembers “finding it very dull at home, as young girls do when, for the first time, they have neither lessons nor parties to occupy their minds” (Climate 225). Recalling a conversation with Polly about the whole experience of the Debut and the Season, Fanny admits, “I had never thought about whether I enjoyed it or not . . . . Girls had to come out . . . . It was a stage in their existence just as public school is for boys, which must be passed before life, real life, could begin.” She goes on to say that she always felt she “missed something” and “Each time I used to hope that I should see the point, but I never did” (Climate 239). With a slightly more acid touch, Mitford enters the same territory as Jane Austen in the way she makes very clear the quandary of a woman whose “real life” cannot begin until she is married. Mitford’s world, however, does allow a place for those irrepressible romantics, the bolters, even though their “lives are not so much fun when . . . [they] begin to grow older” (Pursuit 212).
The two novels offer a loving, and therefore comic, critique of the world in which Mitford herself grew up. It is a flawed world: a narrow, sometimes extremely snobbish milieu, but it can also be an elegant, sophisticated world. It is also a world in which it is possible to protect oneself with a kind of naivety. Even the ogreish Lady Montdore is revealed as somewhat naive and is taken advantage of for her own good. Part of the pleasure from the novel comes from the reader’s understanding the situation some of the characters find themselves in better than do those characters themselves.
Mitford presents her world’s foibles and faults but forgives them. Even the Lecherous Lecturer, Boy Dugdale, who “took Linda up on the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her; at least, she could easily see how they would be blissful with anybody except the Lecturer” (Climate 228) is presented as a character ultimately deserving of pity.
Mitford’s strength lies in her creation of endearing, very human characters. Character flaws and character strengths are bound by neither time nor class. Love, too, is an emotion not limited to one social demographic. We recognise our own somewhat ridiculous, conflicted selves in Mitford’s work, and this recognition must explain her continued popularity. It is impossible not to like highly idiosyncratic characters such as Captain Davey Warbeck who marries Fanny’s Aunt Emily in The Pursuit of Love or the highly venal, manipulative, and utterly charming Cedric who arranges things so that Love in a Cold Climate can end with everyone “having . . . [their] lovely cake and eating it too” (Climate 457).
Who among us can admit to never having wanted to do that?
Fanny’s own story continues in Don’t Tell Alfred originally published in 1960.