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 went to Uniqlo and bought long johns off the peg. I looked longingly at heels in the windows of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré – the Embassy is well-placed for shopping – and bought snowboots from a warehouse on the Turenne.
When I wasn’t brimming or shopping for thermals, I spent whole afternoons in bed with Alfred, Fabrice and Charles-Édouard de Valhubert. Mitford knew her expat stuff. She lived and wrote in Paris for nearly thirty years. Her Fabrice was Colonel Gaston Palewski, a close ally of Charles de Gaulle. ‘The publishers know they can sell any amount of books about France,’ says Ambassador Alfred. ‘In fact France, like Love, is a certain winner on a title page.’ Nancy Mitford gave the publishers what they wanted. The Pursuit of Love, The Blessing and Don’t Tell Alfred all whisk Linda, Grace and Fanny to Paris.
I started with Don’t Tell Alfred (1960). Here was the Embassy fantasy I was supposed to be living in Andy’s year-long secondment from Whitehall to Paris. ‘Don’t tell Alfred’ is Fanny’s catchphrase when the diplomatic day doesn’t go to plan. When, for instance, Northey, frivolous daughter of Fanny’s sensible cousin Louisa, loads a hamper of lobsters into the Embassy Rolls-Royce, drives them to Rouen and releases them. When Fanny’s bearded eldest son David, now a Zen Buddhist, appears with a Chinese babe-in-arms, evidently not his own. When Basil, her whiskered, wayward middle son, sets up camp with a party of pooped English tourists who sing ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ on the Embassy lawn. When her youngest son Charlie and adopted son Fabrice abscond from Eton to promote a rock star called Yanky Fonzy. When gossip columnist Amyas Mockbar devotes his daily ‘Paris Page’ to scurrilous reports on the failure of Alfred’s mission. ‘Well-informed circles are speculating on Sir Alfred’s future, and rumour has it that he may shortly be posted to Rangoon . . .’ Better, perhaps, not to tell Alfred, former Chair of Pastoral Theology at Oxford. Don’t tell Andy, I said to myself each evening. Don’t let on about another day’s sniffling by the Seine.
‘Mine is intended to be a serious mission,’ Alfred tells Fanny after his surprise appointment. ‘Sobriety, security the keynotes.’ The out-going Ambassador Sir Louis Leone and Ambassadress Lady Leone (if only she would go) had held a ‘glittering court’. Fanny, dowdy wife of a tweedy don, wonders how she will cope. ‘With my absent-mindedness and ghastly food and ghastly clothes I should become the Aunt Sally of diplomatic life, a butt and a joke.’
Fanny gets the hang of it, of course, as all Mitford’s heroines do. They are carried away by the beauty of the city, coffee on the breeze, chocolate profiteroles on Sèvres plates. ‘I was beginning to get used to such meals,’ says Fanny, ‘but they always made me feel rather drunk and stupid for an hour or two afterwards.’
She is smitten with the ‘honey-coloured’ Embassy, the Residence and courtyard entresol, where Lady Leone, refusing to leave, bar-ricades herself in with gramophone and champagne. The house is a haven of delight. The garden opens
to a vista of trees; the only solid edifice in sight is the dome of the Invalides, a purple shadow on the horizon, hardly visible through summer leaves. Except for that and the Eiffel Tower, on the extreme right hand of this prospect, there is nothing to show that the house is situated in the centre of the most prosperous and busy capital on the Continent of Europe.
If you had told me when I first read Don’t Tell Alfred aged 13 that I would one day see that house and garden, I would have rolled my eyes. It was so much the stuff of, well, novels. These things happen to other people. To bolting Lindas, not stay-at-home Lauras. It was wonderful and strange to watch the Royal Wedding on a screen in the Embassy ballroom, like falling into a set-piece chapter in a book. From the garden, where we had Pimms and quiche, you really can’t see any building but the Tour Eiffel. The Embassy roses are the best in the city, all in bloom for the Queen’s Birthday Party in May. The Residence, ‘bought lock, stock and barrel from Napoleon’s sister’, is as perfect, pompous and imperial as Mitford remembers it.
Nancy Mitford was a comfort during those first brimming, homesick weeks and months. To laugh at myself, as she laughs at everyone around her, English or French, made being away more bearable. I was as resistant to the city’s charms as Grace’s dreary Nanny who decries the Tuileries, longs for Hyde Park and will eat only Tiptree’s strawberry jam, bought from the English grocer.
One Friday night, coming back to Paris after a week in London, I sat on my suitcase at the Gare du Nord and howled, as Linda had. Linda, of course, is scooped up by Fabrice, put into a taxi and taken to luncheon. So begins their love affair. After several minutes, no Fabrice presenting himself, I pulled myself together, bought a Carnet Métro and took Ligne 4 towards the flat. Dark Frenchmen in Homburg hats are not to be counted on. Besides, Andy might have minded.
Paris will be perfect in the spring, I was promised as the February snow turned to slush. So it proved. By the time the hollyhocks were out in the Square Georges Cain, I felt less of a misfit, less homesick. On a bright day, I walked, as Fanny and Uncle Davey had, to the Rue de Saintonge. In Davey’s day the Saintonge was lined with workers in morocco, gold and silver, makers of buttons, keys, ribbons, watches and wigs. Today, it is all boutiques for BoBos – the city’s Bourgeois Bohemians. There is a coffee shop called La Di Da and a café, PH7 Equilibre, serving ‘Buddha Bowls’ according to a ‘Concept Acido Basique’. At Finger in the Nose you can buy lamé bikinis for toddlers. Of the old Saintonge, only a bookbinder’s survives. Looking into the windows at the marbled papers I felt for the first time in six months halfway happy and almost at home. I saw the city Mitford fell in
We were in Paris for a year, then it was back to One Victoria Street. I already knew what would happen as we locked the flat for the final time. Inevitable, unstoppable brimming.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 61 © Laura Freeman 2019