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The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
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's review
Feb 27, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: 20th-century-early-to-mid, brit-lit, fiction, wits-and-fools, grande-dames, woundedsoulsandfragileflowers
Read in May, 2011

Dulling, dulling! You must! Simply must read this! It’s just too unfair the way Nancy could write this! We do not all have such an excellent family for material. Did you know my dear that Nancy’s sister herself said she had no imagination? It’s too true, darling! Pursuit of Love was how she found out Nancy was sleeping with a Frenchman. The story is all rather sad you know, almost the ‘saddest story ever told’ by whats his name who has the name like an American car? No dear, nobody is named Chrysler. Because it is a horrid name- how could one saddle anyone- in any case! But one doesn’t speak of how horrid it is, you know it is darling. You fall in love with three different men who are completely wrong for you in completely different ways, but who have in common disrespecting you, ignoring you, treating you as a convenience, and not caring two pins for who you are, but all you can say is, ‘Oh they are simply awful’- which is also what one says about someone’s dress at a ball. Oh speaking of which my love did you see Sadie’s dress the other night? Head to toe lace and a train as if King Edward were going to appear with her hair dressed just to there- I pointed her out to Lady Corbett and she could only stare and no wonder what a dowd- Oh I am sorry darling, one must return to the plot...

How does one express the pain and the shock that come with these moments in life that are truly traumatic in a childlike society where everything is deemed superlatively horrible or wonderful, with no shades of grey or graduating scales to make what is really horrible or wonderful seem that way? Is it really all the same? What does one say about a man who has groped an entire generation of aristocratic little girls, but who is firmly installed in that society, a friend to one of the most powerful ladies in England? One calls them “schtooopid,” if one has been groped, and if one is the mother of a girl who has and finds out about this (probably in gossipy conversation years later with a male family member), one treats it as any other piece of gossip, exclaims, “How awful he is!” and then one does precisely nothing. Men presented as charming and otherwise wonderful can sympathize with the man after one of the girls he lavished his “attention” on gets him to marry her for her money and connections. This world and the people in it, particularly the women, are not equipped to handle real life. Once these girls marry, probably unwisely at the age of 19 in order to prove their “spirit” against disapproving parents, they are expected to figure it out on their own. Unsurprisingly, most do not. In the Pursuit of Love Nancy Mitford romanticizes this, tying it into a lament for the fall of the aristocracy. The failure of these sheltered women to adjust to real life simply proves the superiority of a class that does not care for money as the bourgeoisie does. Linda represents an old style of politics as well, one which is “personal”- rather than the impersonal politics of the “masses” that communism represents. She critiques a coming world that cares for the fate of millions, but could not care less for the one person in front of them that they are behaving badly to every day because it is only the “mass” which matters. One of the ‘working’ men of the story says scornfully of his wife that, “you only care for personalities,” but this is obviously a virtue in Mitford’s eyes. She believes that through the loss of a ruling aristocracy one loses a sense of community, of the personal that used to give politics a grounding in reality that it gradually lost after the 1930s. This is a common refrain of aristocrats bemoaning the lingering death of their purpose and status across the first half of the 20th century. I am more in sympathy now, after the financial crash, than I would have been before for the idea of a society that should be grounded in things that are tangible, but it was a bit of a thin societal critique to carry me through an entire novella. I was much more interested in the one offered in Love in a Cold Climate where more of the ugly side of what happens to women as they age is discussed, and there’s a fascinating portrait of a societal ‘parasite’ who clearly makes a place for himself by being the lover of rich men and by acting as the original founding member of Queer Eye while around women. It’s a thin sheen of constant performance underpinned by a bitter, fragile, sad little person who can’t stand what one has to do to be surrounded by beauty. It is of course a type that has been endlessly repeated in media these days, but this is done in such a way that the wounds from the slings and arrows of fortune only show in the most indirect of ways until there are finally so many of them that the biggest wound is that they all become visible, if only for a moment.

However, I really have to say that there’s much more to this than the ‘serious’ bits underlying the structure. All of the above is hardly the point- well, it is, but it isn’t why you read this. You read this because of the captivating voice behind it. Mitford tells a story well, and underpins her critique of the loss of individuality by creating memorable characters who are fully fleshed out and who, what’s more, seem to work on being characters themselves. Matthew, the narrator’s bombastic, tempestuous, grumpy, racist, eccentric, homebody uncle is the most famous example of this. The escapades resulting from him or his reaction to each situation going on is almost invariably the funniest part of any point of the book, and I really would have preferred an entire book entitled the Adventures of Uncle Matthew. I cringed hearing Lady Montdore scolding and shrieking, I wanted to write Davey’s medical woes for fun by halfway through, and even the minor secondary characters’ lines just begged to be spoken out loud by actors versed in Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, and, if at all possible, teenage romantic comedies. The dialogue was excellent, the descriptions made me gleeful, and the narrator’s timid little place on the sidelines of it all allowed me a window through which I could watch it all in companionable, smiling silence (except when I wanted to shake her, which was a few times, but in a friendly sort of way). Mitford is an excellent example of why writers are advised to “write what you know,” because the depth of what she is able to deploy as a tossed off joke makes this book wonderfully rich, and makes it flow so naturally that there is very seldom a point that feels like a ‘natural’ place to stop, chapters or not. Or perhaps that was just what I told myself in order to have an excuse to spend another hour reading rather than rejoining the real world. I did not expect to like this, necessarily- it seemed like the sort of book that older rich ladies who have never worked a day in their lives read in order to relive their glamorous youth, or their daughters read in order to seem interesting or intellectual, or provide an opportunity to talk about how they are related to the Mitfords or know this delicious tidbit about them. But while I still believe it is all that, I did not feel as though I should not be reading this book, or as though I was alienated from the characters in any way. No, that’s not true, I was a bit alienated. But I enjoyed it, rather. It wasn’t in an off putting sort of way. I enjoyed my perch. Read it. You will too.
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Reading Progress

05/26/2011 page 134
29.0% ""Here you are," he said heartily. (One could almost see, as in the strip advertisements, a bubble coming out of his head-thinks-"You are a most unsatisfactory daughter in law, but nobody can say its our fault, we always have a welcome and a kind smile for you")" 5 comments
05/27/2011 page 311
66.0% "I've just started Love in a Cold Climate. Is it just me or would anyone else like a book about our narrator's inner world? She plays it close to the vest."
05/28/2011 page 400
85.0% ""There was a terrible scene on the Oxford platform one day. Cedric went to buy Vogue, and Uncle Matthew happened to notice that the seams of his coat were piped in a contrasting shade. This was too much for his self-control. He fell upon Cedric and shook him like a rat. "You'd never think," said Cedric afterwards, "That buying Vogue magazine could be so dangerous. It was well worth it though, lovely Spring modes.""
09/28/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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Kelly I totally recommend you get to it. I'll say more in the review, but I enjoyed both. The first is more conventional, second is more twisted, but I do recommend reading them as a pair.

Kelly Ah. Yeah, I got my edition from the library. People wrote all over it trying to sort out the family tree in the story and their equivalents in the Mitford family. Rather amusing.

Kelly Yeah, apparently very much so. I don't want to take away from her talent, though. She put this all together very well.

message 4: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I read one of these years ago, but am not sure which. In my memory it was narrated by the better-behaved cousin who marries the Oxford don. Does that sound familiar?

Kelly Yeah, both these books are narrated by that better-behaved cousin. She finally gets a book of her own with Don't Tell Alfred (the don), but I haven't read that one yet.

Jesse So glad you liked it! I only read The Pursuit of Love, but maybe this summer I'll (finally) get to Love in a Cold Climate!

They were a fascinating family. Once you know who they are, it's amazing how often their names pop up, and in a stunning variety of contexts.

Kelly Yeah, the British aristocracy seems to have been like that in general. I've been fascinated with one particular family for a long time, and the more you follow out the family branches the more entangled they become, especially if the family's in the foreign service. That's a class of semi-incestuous marriages for you, I guess. :)

You really should read Love in a Cold Climate. I think you'd love it, and its the more mature, more interesting book.

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