25 January 2013

The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford

Titles: Highland Fling, Christmas Pudding, Wigs on the Green, Pigeon Pie, The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing, Don't Tell Alfred
Author: Nancy Mitford
Years published: 1931, 1932, 1935, 1940, 1945, 1949, 1951, 1960
Pages: 975
Time It Took To Read: 10 days, approx 6 hours per book

I was about 14 when I first heard of Nancy Mitford in any meaningful way. As a youth, I would prowl the house looking for books I hadn't read yet, to quench my uncontrollable thirst for tasty reading matter. In this way, I read hopelessly unsuitable books like the biography of Fred West. I also read The Pursuit of Love and Love In A Cold Climate. This sparked a fascination that has led to me buying most of the books on the family, but this is the first time I've sat and read all of Nancy's fiction IN ONE GREAT TOME!

The first two of her books are flimsy love stories, based on people she knew as one of society's Bright Young Things of the 1920s. They are rather wispy and unsatisfying.
The next book, Wigs on the Green, was a satire of fascism. This was in the days before the war, and before the extent of the evil of Adolf Hitler was known. After the war, the book remained out of print until a few years ago. It is another flimsy love story. The one thing that stands out is the character of Eugenia Malmains. Nancy's sister Unity was a Hitler-worshipping eccentric Nazi. She had a personal friendship with Hitler and was in Germany when war broke out. She shot herself in the head, which caused irreversible brain damage and eventually led to her death of meningitis after the war. Due to her extremely unpopular political views, she was vilified by the popular press and it is difficult to get any idea of what she was really like from her letters or biographies, because she seems like Nazi Miranda Hart on crack. In Eugenia Malmains, it is possible to see what Unity may have been like as a person. Both Unity and Nancy's other sister Diana, later wife of Oswald Mosley, were deeply offended by the book. The story behind the book is more interesting than the story it tells.
Pigeon Pie is a spy-comedy, set in the early days of WWII. Its light hearted tone is rather jarring considering the subject matter, but this was before the Blitz had begun. It's silly, though manages to go beyond the simplistic love stories of the first three novels.

I think the reason I fell in love with all thing Mitford is primarily because I am reminded of my own family when reading about theirs. Nancy was the eldest of seven siblings, one boy and six girls. I am the second eldest of seven, with two brothers and four sisters. When you have a large family, moreso I think than with a smaller family, you develop your own language and in jokes that are incomprehensible to other people. You only have to say 'string' to one of my sisters for us all to die laughing, and nobody on the outside has a clue why. When my brother was younger, he would say to my (then youngest) sister "Bay-bee....cake" and make her scream with rage. And if I wanted to annoy him, I would talk to him of clots. I only had to tell my sister Jess that I was going to make her laugh and then pronounce earlobe in an exaggerated manner, and she'd crack up. I see that close-knit, family in-joking come to life in The Pursuit of Love and Love In A Cold Climate.
The stories of the two books are fictional, but the anecdotes and the situations are adapted from Mitford family legend, and it gives them such a delicious reality. The characters are a blend of the Mitford sisters, the parents modelled on their parents. If you read Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley, many of the scenes in the book are referenced as having happened in reality. Both books are narrated by Fanny, the single, abandoned daughter of 'the Bolter', who marries repeatedly. Fanny is raised by her spinster aunt Emily, the Bolter's sister, and goes to stay with her other maternal aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew. Their family - the Radletts - is based on the Mitfords and The Pursuit of Love is the story of Fanny's cousin Linda. Linda's story is one of unhappy marriages and one great true love. Nancy's own one great love is reflected throughout the story. I don't want to give away Linda's ending, but Nancy's own was unhappy. She suffered a deep, unrequited love for one man for thirty years, following him to France, hoping for his company. He saw her as at first a lover, then a great friend, and was fully aware of her feelings but couldn't reciprocate. I believe Linda's ending is the one that Nancy wished she'd had.
In Love In A Cold Climate, the story moves away from the Radletts (though they feature frequently) to Polly Montdore, their neighbour. Polly is typical of teenagers everywhere, moody and hating her mother, though her reason are not what everyone thinks. They believe she is ripe for marriage and needs to fall in love, yet Polly resolutely fails to do so. The reason why becomes the backbone of the story. Meanwhile, Fanny is establishing a home and social life with her new husband.

There is a third book concerning Fanny and her family, and that is Don't Tell Alfred. Fanny and Alfred, now in middle age, become part of high French society, and the story largely concerns their attempts to control the antics of their four sons. There's a lot of information about early yoof culture, with references to teddy boys and slang from the late 50s. This is the first book where Fanny is front and centre, and she just isn't as glittering as the Radletts in the earlier two books. In fact, the Radlett family is rarely mentioned.

Finally, there is The Blessing. This was published between Love in a Cold Climate and Don't Tell Alfred, and concerns the story of Grace and Charles-Edouard, who married in haste, had a child, then were separated by war. The story largely concerns the attempts of their son to keep them split up, in order to reap the benefits of divorced parents. The family appear in Don't Tell Alfred, with their son being a central character in one of the story elements

I do wish that the compilers of this edition had translated the multiple French paragraphs into English. Nancy was writing at a time when her projected audience were expected to be conversant in French. Alas, even though I read French fairly well, most of it is colloquial and difficult to translate. Footnotes wouldn't go amiss. It also helps if you're aware of debutante culture - where aristocratic girls of 18 were presented at court to find a husband, over a 'season' of balls. This custom died out in the 1950s, though there has been some attempt at a revival in London.
Otherwise, it is a very readable collection of light fiction, from a very witty writer. If you only read one, make it The Pursuit of Love. It is such a rich, beautifully told story, with believable, rounded characters and I love it. But I'll be honest, I think it's the only one I'll be re-reading. The reality of the Mitford family, as told through autobiographies and letters, is a far more fascinating story.

And so my book count total for the year reaches 11. And it's only January. Hurrah!

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