The Paris Effect

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Brimming. That was how I spent my first weeks in Paris. Brimming with tears at the smallest setback. For Nancy Mitford’s Northey in Don’t Tell Alfred, dispatched to Paris to be secretary to Fanny Wincham, the new Madame l’Ambassadrice at the British Embassy, it is the ‘cruel food’ of France that sets her off. Beef consommé. Brimming. Lobster. Brimming. Foie gras. Brimming. ‘A Frenchman on board told me what they do to sweet geese for pâté de foie gras,’ says Northey at dinner on her first night at the Ambassador’s Residence. ‘Very wrong and stupid of him,’ says Fanny.

I, meanwhile, brimmed at everything. Dropped Métro ticket? Wind howling down the Tuileries? (‘The draughtiest place in Paris,’ says Grace de Valhubert’s Nanny in Mitford’s The Blessing.) Not a Times or a Telegraph to be had in three arrondissements? (‘I say – I’ve thought of something else – the papers are better at home,’ insists Fanny).

‘One’s emotions are intensified in Paris,’ Fabrice de Sauveterre tells Linda in The Pursuit of Love, ‘one can be more happy and also more unhappy here than in any other place.’ In those first two months of the year, I was very unhappy. Installed in a Foreign Office flat in the Marais with my diplomat fiancé Andy, I was white with homesickness. Each morning, as he left for the Embassy, I would look around our borrowed flat and it would begin. Le brimming.

Paris wasn’t how I’d imagined it. I knew my Mitford. I would arrive, an English ugly duckling in ill-fitting clothes, speaking schoolgirl French (‘Je suis la fille d’un très important lord anglais,’ Linda tells Fabrice when he picks her up at the Gare du Nord), and reappear several weeks later a fluent, soignée swan. I would, by some Mitford miracle, become coiffée and maquillée and parfumée and manicurée and pedicurée. I would not stand on the Pont Neuf during the wettest January for fifty years, umbrella blown inside out, brimming tears into the Seine.

Northey, Fanny, Linda and Grace arrive in Paris and, having been fitted by Monsieur Dior and Madame Lanvin, find themselves better able to face la vie Parisienne. Mais, quelle domage (‘quelle horrible surprise’, as Northey would say), neither freelance journalism nor a Civil Service salary will buy you couture. In February five inches of snow fell on the Tuileries. I w

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About the contributor

Laura Freeman, like Linda Radlett, hopes one day to become ‘une femme sérieuse’. If only she would read a bit less Madame de Pompadour and a bit more Proust.

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