The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford (1945, 192 pages)
The Pursuit of Love was Nancy Mitford’s first novel in a trilogy about the Radletts, a bonkers upper class family.
“My Uncle Matthew had four magnificent bloodhounds, with which he used to hunt his children. Two of us would go off with a good start to lay the trail, and Uncle Matthew and the rest would follow the hounds on horseback. It was great fun. Once he came to my home and hunted Linda and me all over Shenley Common. This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish weekenders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls.”
The narrator is Fanny, cousin to the Radletts and rather different in temperament. Her mother leads a peripatetic life according to which man she is with, earning her the nickname The Bolter. Fanny is therefore raised by her lovely Aunt Emily, and the two have a placid, ordered existence, but it is the chaotic holidays Fanny spends with the Radletts which occupy the story.
“The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waves of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives.”
It’s thinly disguised biograpy of course. The Radletts are home educated along similar lines to Nancy and her famous sisters: in French and horsewomanship, and not much else.
“They picked up a great deal of heterogeneous information, and gilded it with their own originality, while they bridged gulfs of ignorance with their charm and high spirits, they never acquired any habit of concentration, they were incapable of solid hard work. One result, in later life, was that they could not stand boredom, Storms and difficulties left them unmoved, but day after day of ordinary existence produced an unbearable torture of ennui, because they completely lacked any form of mental discipline.”
Fanny focuses the story on that of Linda, her cousin and best friend. Linda is more like The Bolter than Fanny ever is, and has a disastrous marriage to a Tory followed by a disastrous affair with a communist, before finding a true love. The Pursuit of Love is not romantic though, Mitford’s comic eye is far too sharp for that. If it wasn’t for this, my inverted snobbery may have come to the fore and left me thinking ‘So what? Who wants to read about a bunch of ill-educated, over-privileged idiots?’ Well, as it turns out, I do. I find Mitford truly funny and accomplished in her writing. No-one escapes her wit, least of all the upper-classes and their mores:
“The behaviour of civilised man really has nothing to do with nature … all is artificiality and art more or less perfected.”
She’s not above the downright silly either, such as describing a baby as “the usual horrid sight of a howling orange in a fine black wig”.
The Pursuit of Love does provide some intriguing insights into the mid-twentieth century landowning classes though, such as their attitude to travel in the post-war period:
“it would never have occurred to the Alconleighs to visit the continent for any other purpose than that of fighting”
The Pursuit of Love is very funny but there is a brittleness there; a sense that things easily splinter and true sadness and tragedy are only ever just below the surface. The ending emphasises this element and is truly moving, all the more so as it is something of a jolt given what has gone before.