Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford
Okay, so there are three super-famous sets of sisters that everyone knows about. The first needs no introduction, they’re the bad-ass Brontes. The second are China’s Soong Sisters. And third are England’s Mitford sisters. The Mitfords are the least accomplished sisters, but in some ways they’re the most colorful. Diana Mitford married British fascist Oswald Mosely and suffered for her beliefs by being imprisoned during WWII. But before the war, her sister Unity fell in love with Hitler and went to Berlin and hung around in coffee shops until the Fuhrer saw her and introduced her to everyone in the jack-booted gang. Then Unity and Diana introduced their parents Lord and Lady Redesdale to Hitler and turned them into Nazi sympathizers as well. But meanwhile, sister Jessica was becoming a communist rabble-rouser in America and sister Deborah was marrying a Duke and becoming a famous socialite. And, finally, sister Nancy was writing novels that satirized all of the above shenanigans.
And those novels are pretty excellent. Before I write about the Pursuit of Love, though, I just want to call attention to its cover. As you can see, this novel–originally published in 1945–has been given a totally standard chick-lit cover. It could easily pass for a Helen Fielding or Sophie Kinsella novel. It’s a masterpiece of rebranding and I applaud the publisher for it.
The novel is narrated by Fanny, a cousin and frequent guest of the “Radlett” family–a thinly disguised stand-in for the Mitfords. It’s a comedic novel: one devoted to the various shenanigans and peculiarities of this large noble family. But the novel focuses primarily upon the various love affairs of Linda Radlett.
The book is densely written, and at times it’s possible to get rather lost amongst the various characters and details, but the language also provides the novel’s primary joy. This one of the very few novels that has ever made me laugh out loud. The way that some of the characters laugh is simply too funny. The best is Fanny’s long-estranged mother, who shows up about 85% of the way into the book and totally steals the scene. Every word that comes out of her mouth is hilarious. For days, I was able to elicit a laugh from myself by repeating some of her lines. I won’t quote any here, since I think that showing them to you out of context would ruin them.
I wonder: Do ruling-class novelists like Nancy Mitford still exist? They were rather common back in the day. If you do the math and figure out how large the competency of someone like Mr. Darcy would have to be, you’ll find that Jane Austen pretty much only wrote about millionaires. And in America, we had Edith Wharton and Louis Auchincloss. Nowadays there are more inheritors of great wealth in America than ever before. It would be interesting for a novelist to show us how they live. Certainly it would be a change from reading about another middle-class upbringing on Long Island.