"Well, you know, they did," says boorish peer Lady Montdore, when another character surmises that the Indian "Rajahs" must have worshiped her and Lord Montdore during the English couples' sojourn on the subcontinent,
"Well, you know, they did...They really worshipped us. It was quite touching. And, of course, we deserved it. We did a very great deal for them. I think I may say we put India on the map. Hardly any of one's friends in England had ever even heard of India before we went there, you know."
And so go Nancy Mitford's wry yet sparkling satires The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate: always affectionate, always amused fun-poking at the ridiculous self-importance and insularity of moneyed upper classes in Britain between the Wars. I've been using this lovely pink omnibus edition as a kind of amuse-bouche between the disfigured babies, socialist screeds, and delicate alienation of my other reading choices, and I must say it fulfills that function admirably. Lovers of Wodehouse, or Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm, will feel quite at home with the mix of lightly barbed observation, one-liners and situational humor that builds on itself until the reader is chuckling aloud. The characters, including narrator Fanny Wincham and her vast brood of Radlett cousins, their vague matriarch Sadie ("I shouldn't care for one of my girls to look like that," Aunt Sadie said, "You'd think she had something on her mind") and bombastic patriarch Matthew, who hunts his children with hounds, might seem outlandish were they not all very lightly fictionalized portraits of the members of Mitford's own family. The cousins are the particular life of the books, wild, uneducated girls bursting with energy and oddly-expressed creativity:
There was always some joke being run to death at Alconleigh, and just now it was headlines from the Daily Express which the children had made into a chant and intoned to each other all day.
Jassy: "Man's long agony in a lift-shaft."
Victoria: "Slowly crushed to death in a lift."
Aunt Sadie became very cross about this, said they were really too old to be so heartless, that it wasn't a bit funny, only dull and disgusting and absolutely forbade them to sing it any more. After this they tapped it out to each other, on doors, under the dining-room table, clicking their tongues or blinking with their eyelids, and all the time in fits of naughty giggles.
Needless to say, "Man's long agony in a lift-shaft" follows us around for the rest of the novel; Mitford is skilled at building up her comic elements and bringing them back into the narrative at just the right moment so that the reader feels enveloped in the loud, boisterous, inside-joking Radlett clan just like Fanny does. While the purported "plots" of these novels involve the happy and unhappy love-affairs of two different members of the Radlett circle, it's really the portraits of family, neighbors, and country-house life that are their chief joy; as Fanny says at one point about her cousins, she is thankful to be different from them, but they make her laugh so much and she loves them so much that she can't wish them much different. The same holds true, I think, for most of the characters depicted, and it makes Mitford's satire a relatively affectionate, gentle affair, much more so than that of, for example, Jane Austen, who often seems actually to hate certain of her characters. In Mitford, on the other hand, everyone is ridiculous but nobody is despicable. On Fanny's hypochondriac uncle Davey:
I hope I am not giving the impression that Davey's whole life was centred around his health. He was fully occupied with his work, writing, and editing a literary review, but his health was his hobby, and, as such, more in evidence during his spare time, when I saw most of him. How he enjoyed it! He seemed to regard his body with the affectionate preoccupation of a farmer towards a pig—not a good doer, the small one of the litter, which must somehow be made to be a credit to the farm. He weighed it, sunned it, aired it, exercised it, and gave it special diets, new kinds of patent food and medicine, but all in vain. It never put on so much as a single ounce of weight, it never became a credit to the farm, but somehow it lived, enjoyed good things, enjoying its life, though falling victim to the ills that flesh is heir to, and other imaginary ills as well, through which it was nursed with unfailing care, with concentrated attention, by the good farmer and his wife.
So the books sparkle and bubble along, it's true. They are delightful pieces of fluff. And yet, there is also the surprising fact of some of their subject matter: for the latter half of The Pursuit of Love centers around the Nazi invasion of France and bombing of England, and Love in a Cold Climate takes an oddly complaisant view toward borderline pedophilia, and between the two books, three characters do die either while very young or in the prime of their lives—important characters, ones who, in a normal comedy, would feature in weddings toward the end. In The Pursuit of Love, Mitford jokes that English politics in the 1920s were quite dull "before Hitler came along to liven them up." In short, as amazing as it is that a book like Irene Némirovsky's Suite Française, a serious, poetic novel about the war, could have been written contemporaneously with the events depicted, it strikes me as even stranger that a novel like The Pursuit of Love should sport a 1945 publication date. One would think that a light, satirical tone would be the last thing people would tend towards when thinking about the wartime trauma they had just been through.
One might assume, from her glibness, that Nancy MItford's life was not personally affected by the events she describes, but nothing could be further from the truth: a moderate socialist herself, her sister Jessica was a staunch Communist and two of her other sisters, Diana and Unity, were termed "more Nazi than the Nazis." Diana was married in the home of Goebbels, with Hitler in attendance, and Unity may have been Hitler's mistress; she was certainly in his inner circle. When Hitler announced plans to invade Britain, Unity shot herself in the head, later returning to England via Switzerland in order to recover. Meanwhile, Mitford's parents drew apart over the politics of the war, leading to an eventual separation. Given this personal history I am even more taken aback by Mitford's ability to treat the war as a backdrop for an amusing series of character portraits. I can only imagine it was, to some degree, a survival strategy: Mitford's Wikipedia page claims that she "somehow kept on good terms most of the time with her sisters, despite the extreme political views of Diana, Jessica and Unity, mainly by deploying her acerbic wit," which casts an illuminating light on the way in which Nancy chose to transfer her sisters into novelistic form.
All in all, I chuckled and snickered my way through these books, and highly recommend them for a light reading break. I'll leave you with another short taste of Mitford's prose:
"She's a tactless person, but she is perfectly right you know. Polly needs a life of her own, babies, occupations and interests—an establishment, in fact—and for all that she must have a husband."
"Or a lady of Llangollen," said Victoria.
"Time you went to bed, miss, now off you go, both of you."
"Not me, it's not nearly my bedtime yet."
"I said both of you, now begone."
They dragged themselves out of the room as slowly as they dared and went upstairs, stamping out "Man's long agony" on the bare boards of the nursery passage so that nobody in the whole house could fail to hear them.
"Those children read too much," said Aunt Sadie. "But I can't stop them. I honestly believe they'd rather read the label on a medicine bottle than nothing at all."
"Oh, but I love reading the labels on medicine bottles," said Davey. "They're madly enjoyable, you know."