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Daniel Macklin - Michele Hanson on Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love; Love in a Cold Climate

Shrieks and Floods

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It’s been hard to avoid the Mitfords recently. A collected edition of the letters of Jessica (‘Decca’) was published in 2006. The following year another collection, this time of the letters exchanged between all six sisters, appeared. And this autumn we’ve been treated to the correspondence between the youngest sister, Debo, now Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, and Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor.

What a family the Mitfords were, shooting off in wildly contrasting political directions. Their father, Lord Redesdale, was a Conservative who eventually ran off with the housekeeper, and Lady Redesdale was rather smitten with the fascists. Their brother Tom went off and fought the Japanese because he couldn’t bear to fight the Germans; Diana fell wildly in love with Oswald Mosley; Unity adored Hitler and became a Nazi; Jessica became a communist; and Debo married an aristocrat. Only Pamela seems to have been uninterested in politics, while Nancy, the eldest, captured them all for posterity in two marvellous novels, The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949).

The Pursuit of Love was Nancy Mitford’s first major success. Its narrator is Fanny Logan, a cousin of the Radletts of Alconleigh, who are modelled on Mitford’s own family and childhood home. Of Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie’s seven children, Linda is Fanny’s favourite cousin, and it is Linda’s search for love which forms the backbone of the book. Love in a Cold Climate is also narrated by Fanny, but by now she is older and married and is more concerned with her own life and that of the Radletts’ neighbours, the Montdores, their stunningly beautiful but oddly dull daughter Polly, and their wildly exciting nephew and heir, the vibrant pansy Cedric, who transforms Lady Montdore’s life.

I first read Nancy Mitford years ago but then blotted her work from my memory. In the circles in which I moved it was not done to admire the upper classes,

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It’s been hard to avoid the Mitfords recently. A collected edition of the letters of Jessica (‘Decca’) was published in 2006. The following year another collection, this time of the letters exchanged between all six sisters, appeared. And this autumn we’ve been treated to the correspondence between the youngest sister, Debo, now Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, and Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor.

What a family the Mitfords were, shooting off in wildly contrasting political directions. Their father, Lord Redesdale, was a Conservative who eventually ran off with the housekeeper, and Lady Redesdale was rather smitten with the fascists. Their brother Tom went off and fought the Japanese because he couldn’t bear to fight the Germans; Diana fell wildly in love with Oswald Mosley; Unity adored Hitler and became a Nazi; Jessica became a communist; and Debo married an aristocrat. Only Pamela seems to have been uninterested in politics, while Nancy, the eldest, captured them all for posterity in two marvellous novels, The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949). The Pursuit of Love was Nancy Mitford’s first major success. Its narrator is Fanny Logan, a cousin of the Radletts of Alconleigh, who are modelled on Mitford’s own family and childhood home. Of Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie’s seven children, Linda is Fanny’s favourite cousin, and it is Linda’s search for love which forms the backbone of the book. Love in a Cold Climate is also narrated by Fanny, but by now she is older and married and is more concerned with her own life and that of the Radletts’ neighbours, the Montdores, their stunningly beautiful but oddly dull daughter Polly, and their wildly exciting nephew and heir, the vibrant pansy Cedric, who transforms Lady Montdore’s life. I first read Nancy Mitford years ago but then blotted her work from my memory. In the circles in which I moved it was not done to admire the upper classes, never mind a family like the Mitfords. Mention a Mitford in my house and it was panic stations and the Blackshirts are coming. But a few months ago, even before the end of Blair and the beginning of Boris and the nation’s blossoming love affair with toffs, I read The Pursuit of Love again. Some have called Nancy’s writing spiteful, but on the very first page of The Pursuit of Love there is a sentence of heart-breaking poignancy in which Fanny describes a family photograph of Aunt Sadie with all her children:
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 the happiness and promise of youth, from the hopes Aunt Sadie must have had for them, and from the dreams they dreamed for themselves.
I realized I’d got it all wrong. The upper classes are just like us. Time and life wreck them and they suffer, and probably bleed, just like ordinary people. We can forget Nazis and class and sympathize with them instead. Best of all, we can have a laugh while we do so. Pooh to everyone who says humour trivializes everything. They’re wrong. It does exactly the opposite. It allows you to approach tragedies that you would otherwise never dare go near. Nancy’s books trip along with a merry laugh and then suddenly plunge into tragedy. And the tragedy is extra-tragic because we know that we are seeing Nancy herself and her family. The ‘violent, uncontrolled’ Uncle Matthew, a terrifying roarer with ‘grinding dentures’, who loathes pansies and wops, is partly based on her father. Uncle Matthew hunts his children with bloodhounds and displays in his hall an entrenching tool, still clogged with the blood and hair of eight Germans whom he had hacked to death in the war. In fact practically every character is a part of someone who was close to Nancy and nearly everyone is in some way tormented, neglected, bored almost to death, lost, abandoned, disappointed or fairly barmy. But no one seems to mope. I cannot help but admire them. They just carry on, chin up, even if they are getting ‘further and further from happiness’. You might expect Fanny to feel embittered, but she doesn’t. Her mother, the Bolter, deserted Fanny in her infancy and has been running off with men ever since. Unofficially adopted by her Aunt Emily, Fanny spends her holidays at Alconleigh with her Radlett cousins. There they find the perfect refuge in a difficult world – the Hons’ cupboard, an unused airing cupboard at the top of the house, ‘small, dark and intensely hot . . . always stifling . . . where they would sit . . . and talk for hours about life and death’. And speculate on sex and childbirth – ‘a woman’s stomach swelled up . . . and burst like a ripe pumpkin, shooting out the infant’. Then one day, ‘Aunt Emily is engaged’. Sensation in the Hons’ cupboard. Nancy has caught perfectly the overheated, dramatic world of girls. In a stifling, intimate, private place, everyone tells everything – the cupboard is a nerve centre for secrets, suspicions, spying, revelations, feelings, fears, horrors, crushes and romances. When the older girls grow up, move out and marry, the Hons’ cupboard is carried on by the younger girls, who beg, in Love in a Cold Climate, to be told what doing IT is like. But Fanny, now a married grown-up, won’t tell. ‘Very well then,’ say the younger Radlett girls. ‘We shall go to our marriage beds in ignorance, like Victorian ladies, and in the morning we shall be found stark staring mad with horror and live sixty more years in an expensive bin, and then perhaps you’ll wish you’d been more helpful.’ This heavenly Hons’ cupboard is a physical and emotional hothouse, reflecting the Alconleigh household, which is all ‘shrieks and floods’, a place of extremes, either laughter or tears. Just what life should be. Never dull. And everyone needs an Hons’ cupboard to help them cope with it. But although the Radlett son also ‘tells’ in the cupboard, it is the girls who are the star tellers. Telling, Nancy demonstrates, is really a girls’ thing. A friend of mine tells me (he is a good teller, for a bloke) that the girls in his village – Chalfont St Peter – in his Fifties childhood, had a tree rather than a cupboard. They would climb up it and stay there for hours, telling like mad. Polly, the only Mitford protagonist who tells nothing, ‘surely had a glass splinter in her heart’, whereas Fanny and her Radlett cousins, who all tell, ‘poured love on each other’. Telling is the Radlett girls’ life, and it is mine. Being a girl and a columnist, I know how important telling is. I live in a sort of extended Hons’ cupboard and spend my life telling and egging people on to tell. If I can’t dredge up anything myself to tell, then I beg my friends to tell something tasty. But I don’t want them to just tell in a flat, reporting sort of way. Not just the story of what everyone does – although in Nancy’s world that is fairly thrilling: the marriages, tragedies, romances, births and deaths – but the Mitford brand of vivid telling, with jokes and a bit of throwaway viciousness and loads of shrieking and flooding to spice things up. Linda tells of Lord Fort William, only 39, but whose ‘hair seemed to be slipping off backwards, like an eiderdown in the night’. Fanny tells about Linda’s baby: ‘Deep down among the frills and lace, there was the usual sight of a howling orange in a fine black wig.’ Lady Montdore tells, about the Kroesigs’ unattractive daughter, who plans to be a vet: ‘First sensible thing I’ve heard about any of them. No point in cluttering up the ballrooms with girls who look like that, it’s simply not fair on anybody.’ And here is Lady Montdore curtseying before a Royal: ‘She scrambled down like a camel, rising again backside foremost like a cow . . . Her knees cracked like revolver shots but her smile was heavenly.’ What brilliant telling. To me Nancy is the Queen of Tellers, and all in exquisite prose. Some people think that she tells of a lost world, but anyone desperate for relevance should know that it isn’t really lost. The debutantes and coming-out balls may have gone, but we still have some of Nancy’s strange creatures around: the ‘swarm of chatterers’, the ‘boring old left wing parties’, the comrades who ‘never do chat’. We now understand that awful time in later life when one’s peers start to ‘drop off their perches’. We also know what it is to have dreams shattered. Fanny marries an Oxford don and expects culture. Instead she gets dinner at the Cozens’ house ‘with its hard little sofa . . . upholstered in a cretonne of so dim and dismal a pattern’ and staggeringly terrible food served in a gaunt dining-room. Over the coffee, the guests sit round ‘the pleated paper in the fireplace’ and talk critically of the Montdores, whom they barely know, and find them wanting. The world is still full of people like this, who are consumed by general loathing. But there is another treat in Nancy’s writing which is no more – her absolute freedom from the constraints of political correctness. I experience a thrilling frisson of shame as Uncle Matthew speaks fiercely of pansies, sewers, foreigners, Frogs and wops, because despite his mammoth faults, Nancy has made me love him. I have been sickened by Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Greene and Conrad, have disapproved like mad whenever I detected a smidgin of anti-Semitism and racism in their works, but not Nancy. These are not her own distasteful sentiments. They belong to her characters, and because they are so dreadful and bizarre, they are marvellously entertaining. Anyway, who wants to read about a right-on, happy, well-adjusted family? No one. Nancy provides us with a feast of right-off, dysfunctional and fabulous creatures. She never disapproves but instead reports the madness and sadness which tug at the heartstrings and make the reader shriek and flood. Here is Fanny’s mother, the Bolter, commenting on Linda’s death in childbirth, just as she had at last found ‘the great love of her life’.
‘Oh, dulling,’ said my mother sadly. ‘One always thinks that. Every, every time.’
The Bolter may have been a disgracefully neglectful mother, but Nancy shows us that she has a flawed soft centre. As an author she observes pitilessly, but then she forgives. If only more of us could do that, the world would be a better place.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 20 © Michele Hanson 2008


About the contributor

Michele Hanson has been a teacher and street trader and now writes a newspaper column. She has only a small family left and lives with her two dogs, near her daughter in North London.

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