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There are two, and only two, good Nancy Mitford novels: The Pursuit of Love, and Love in a Cold Climate. All other Mitford works may be discounted. Don’t Tell Alfred has some quite good moments, but is too enamoured of its Parisian diplomat setting to be a really effective comedy of manners. Wigs on the Green is inexperienced satire, if not actually propaganda, of the fascist movement. Her other novels I do not mention except to compare them briefly to those sad little remarks with which, in Mitford’s universe, hapless debutantes are always left hovering in mid-air.

But The Pursuit of Love, and Love in a Cold Climate achieve near-perfection. And – I argue – only by reading them autobiographically, can we read and enjoy them thoroughly. Reading literary work autobiographically often gets a bad rap. At its worst, it’s a condescending denial of – often female – authors’ craft, reductive and uninspiring. With Nancy Mitford, though, I’d argue that reading her work with close attention to the social and political context in which she wrote affords new opportunities for an appreciation of her craft, and her jokes. The jokes get even better when they’re about real people, if more cruel (as Mitford was wont to be).

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Let’s start with The Pursuit of Love, which is the most famous one anyway. It’s famous for being so autobiographical as to really be ‘about’ the Mitfords, and by extension for the protagonist, Linda, to be read as an extension of Nancy Mitford. (I would argue that there are really two authorial surrogates: romantic Linda is one, and her sensible cousin Fanny, the narrator of all Mitford’s novels about the Radletts, is the other.) The Pursuit of Love is the novel most readers think of when they praise Mitford’s country-house atmosphere, her evocation of an aristocratic world which has long since faded, and for her crisp, cheeky dialogue between the Hons, who were obviously fictional avatars of the Mitford sisters. Jassy, who ran away to the United States (to marry a film star), is an easy anaologue of Jessica Mitford, the coolest Mitford sister who ran away to the United States (to better realise her dreams of Communism). Of course, that’s where the comparisons break down a little, since what made the Mitfords so notorious – their extreme political views, ranging from Communism to Fascism to Nazism – has been ruthlessly expurgated from their novelised versions.

In The Pursuit of Love, politics is never treated more as an extended tease (“Just at the moment he’s writing a book on famine – goodness! it’s sad – and there’s a dear little Chinese comrade who comes and tells him what famine is like, you never saw such a fat man in your life.”), or at the very most, a game in which all the Alconleigh siblings, if they must play, pick the right side. We are told that Matt, aged sixteen, runs away to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, in stark contrast to Thomas Mitford, who supported British fascism and was stationed in Burma after refusing to fight WWII in Europe. Linda’s first husband is a conservative with fascist sympathies, but she dislikes him because of that, telling him, ‘I love them [the lower classes], anyway I was brought up with them. The trouble with you is you don’t know the lower classes and you don’t belong to the upper classes, you’re just a rich foreigner who happens to live here.’ Her second husband is a devoted Communist, and this Mitford depicts sardonically while acknowledging the inherent good-heartedness of the ‘comrades’. Importantly, Fanny herself – Mitford’s authorial surrogate – is keen to assure us that her own political views fall on the side of the right and good, with her and her husband best described as ‘intellectual pinks… enthusiastic agreers with the New Statesman’. It’s hard not to read this as Mitford’s attempt to repress the trauma that the political conflict of the first half of the 20th century had wrought on her family.

There is some comic value in understanding that Nancy Mitford wrote Linda as a surrogate of herself, and her last lover Fabrice as an analogue of Gaston Palewski, her real-life lover. A whiff of self-indulgence and ‘Nancy, you bastard’ then surrounds the end where Linda dies: ‘for us at Alconleigh… a light went out, a great deal of joy that never could be replaced.’ Yet most of it is overshadowed by the incredible sadness that Mitford intended to convey, and the incredible sadness that, arguably, she didn’t: again, understanding the notoriety of the Mitfords, and Nancy’s status as a half-hearted socialist, fervent snob, and mostly apolitical witness of the political rifts between her own siblings, it’s hard not to read Linda’s death and the prior remarks she makes about her generation being a forgotten one as a sort of paean to Mitford’s inter-war milieu.

‘It’s rather sad,’ she said one day, ‘to belong, as we do, to a lost generation. I’m sure in history the two wars will count as one war and that we shall be squashed out of it altogether, and people will forget that we ever existed. We might just as well never have lived at all, I do think it’s a shame.’

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Love In A Cold Climate has fewer such passages, imbued with the shades of light and sadness that prevent The Pursuit of Love from being classed quite comfortably as an entirely comic novel. In comparison, Cold Climate is populated by archetypes who more than ever are kept ‘at a coldly amused distance.’ It is a purely comic novel that has clearly benefited from a Mitford who’s since learnt a firmer hand with plot and structure. Which isn’t to say that the parallels between fictional characters and real-life Mitfords aren’t there – this is still a novel featuring the Radletts, after all, and anecdotes from the Mitfords’ family life are still very much a part of the joke. But that is the main point: their appearances work purely as jokes. Here is probably my favourite one in the entire novel:

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 with their tongues or blinking with their eyelids, and all the time in fits of naughty giggles. I could see that Alfred thought them terribly silly, and he could hardly contain his indignation when he found out that they did no lessons of any sort.

& a little while later–

‘Poor Patricia, and I fear she had a sad life with that boring old Lecturer.’

This was so like Aunt Sadie. Having protested for years against the name Lecturer for Boy Dougdale she was now using it herself, it always happened; very soon no doubt we should hear her chanting ‘Man’s long agony.’

Some of the parallels are less obvious, and for that reason they’re more satisfying when you spot them. Take for example Norma Cozens, the wife of the Waynflete Professor of Pastoral Theology at Oxford, and one of Fanny’s new friends after she marries an Oxford don. Norma is in her fifties, a cross, complaining old country-woman who cares about horses and little else. Her company, to Fanny, is something to be tolerated rather than enjoyed, although naïve Fanny meekly supposes that ‘when people liked me I ought to like them back as much.’ She works well enough as a stock character and foil to the more outrageous characters in the book, but her influence on the plot is minimal enough to make you wonder why she exists as a character at all. Yet all is resolved by this earnest obituary of Pamela Jackson, nee Mitford, one of the least well-known Mitford sisters:

Looking back in old age, she said that the picture of the sunlit stable-yard with its companionable horses and dogs remained her idea of heaven. Her sister Jessica wrote in Hons and Rebels (1960) that the child Pam actually wanted to be a horse, and grew up to marry a jockey called Derek Jackson. Her husband was indeed an expert horseman who won many steeplechases and rode in the Grand National. He was also an airman of legendary courage, pioneer of radar defence systems, a distinguished physicist and Professor of Spectroscopy at Oxford University, where I have no doubt that Pam was an excellent don’s wife.

Compare that, please, to this quote from Love in a Cold Climate:

My next caller was Norma Cozens, who came in for a glass of sherry, but her conversation was so dull that I have not the heart to record it. It was a compound of an abscess between the toes of the mother Border terrier, the things the laundry does to sheets, how it looked to her as if the slut had been at her store cupboard so she was planning to replace her by an Austrian at 2s a week cheaper wages, and how lucky I was to have Mrs Heathery, but I must look out because new brooms sweep clean and Mrs Heathery was sure not to be nearly as nice as she seemed.

Nancy: rude! And that’s nothing, even, to Mitford’s scathing portrait of the inimitable Lady Montdore. Something of a terror, Sonia Montdore is so rude and so rich that she steamrolls over everyone, at one point offering to ring up to the editor of the Times to retract Fanny’s engagement announcement for her, as it is ‘quite ridiculous’ for Fanny to make such a match, and ‘we must think how we can get you out of it’. She is incapable of noticing others’ rudeness, and is simultaneously villain and idol. Words can’t express how much I love Lady Montdore, except, perhaps, Mitford’s words herself:

‘I’m afraid I haven’t much influence with him,’ I said uneasily.

‘Oh, well, develop it dear, quick. No use marrying a man you can’t influence. Just look what I’ve done for Montdore, always seen that he takes an interest, made him accept things (jobs, I mean), and kept him up to the mark, never let him slide back. A wife must always be on the look-out, men are so lazy by nature, for example, Montdore is for ever trying to have a little nap in the afternoon, but I won’t hear of it, once you begin that, I tell him, you are old, and people who are old find themselves losing interest, dropping out of things and then they might as well be dead. Montdore’s only got me to thank if he’s not in the same condition as most of his contemporaries, creeping about the Marlborough Club like dying flies and hardly able to drag themselves as far as the House of Lords. I make Montdore walk down there every day.’

Misandrist hero! It should be noted, of course, that she doesn’t like women much either, at one point referring to her own daughter as the ‘dried-up, sour kind of old maid’, but that makes up the ‘awful’ part of ‘awful and amazing’. Lady Montdore is said to be based on Nancy Mitford’s own mother-in-law, though mothers-in-law make up a decidedly marginal part of the Mitford mythology. The sheer glory of seeing the bossy, condescending older woman type we’ve probably all encountered, being relentlessly skewered, is the backbone around which the entire novel is structured. At the very start Mitford lays out her thesis statement on Lady Montdore:

[Lord Montdore was] A scholar, a Christian, a gentleman, finest shot in the British Isles, best-looking Viceroy we ever sent to India, a popular landlord, a pillar of the Conservative party, a wonderful old man, in short, who nothing common ever did or mean. My cousin Linda and I, two irreverent little girls whose opinion makes no odds, used to think that he was a wonderful old fraud, and it seemed to us that in that house it was Lady Montdore who really counted. Now Lady Montdore was for ever doing common things and mean and she was intensely unpopular, quite as much disliked as her husband was loved, so that anything he might do that was considered not quite worthy of him, or which did not quite fit in with his reputation, was immediately laid at her door. ‘Of course she made him do it.’

The riotous atmosphere of Alconleigh, where the Radletts live, is depicted with sheer comedy in Love in a Cold Climate and with more than a tinge of sadness and nostalgia in The Pursuit of Love. In contrast, Hampton, where the Montdores live, is the battleground of increasingly icy battles between Lady Montdore and her young, beautiful daughter, Polly Hampton. And here is where Lady Montdore is lifted into the category of truly great characters. In addition to your basic caricature of a rich, powerful older woman who is unspeakably rude and stupid, and gets away with it, there is an element of the truly terrifying in the social atmosphere she creates:

But that rumbustious ogre [Uncle Matthew], that eater of little girls, was by no means confined to one part of his house. He raged and roared about the whole of it, and indeed, the safest place to be in as far as he was concerned was downstairs in Aunt Sadie’s drawing-room, since she alone had any control over him. The terror at Hampton was of a different quality, icy and dispassionate, and it reigned downstairs. You were forced down into it after tea, frilled up, washed and curled, when quite little, or in a tidy frock when older, into the Long Gallery, where there would seem to be dozens of grown-ups, all usually playing bridge.

Lady Montdore pours all her effort into making a social success of exquisite debutante Polly, who gives the cold shoulder to all prospective suitors (‘They took one look, said, ‘Oh yes, isn’t she beautiful?’ and went off with some chinless little creature from Cadogan Square.’). This is understandably frustrating to Lady Montdore and inexplicable to the reader, until Polly runs off with her recently-widowed uncle by marriage, claiming that she’s always been in love with him. After a series of entertaining events and the introduction of possibly the campest gay man in literary history, all is satisfactorily resolved in a vaguely polyamorous triad between Cedric Hampton, Lady Montdore, and Boy Dougdale, Polly’s hopeless, perverted uncle-husband.

Perhaps this is the crux of the difference between The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. In the former protagonist Linda does, in the family parlance, bolt after bolt from unsatisfactory lover to unsatisfactory lover, no small thing in those days when you actually had to be married to your lovers – at least, the ones you take seriously, and it is impressed upon us repeatedly that Linda, a hopeless romantic, takes her lovers extremely seriously. The relentless cycle is supposed to have ended with the appearance of the deliciously wicked Fabrice, but we only know that for sure when Linda dies in childbirth at the end of the novel. In the emotional universe of The Pursuit of Love, the dogged pursuit of real love – romantic love, not resignment, or the passionless companionship that ensues after several years of committed marriage, is at once the only true prize of the world and a Pyrrhic victory.

‘Oh, dulling,’ said my mother, sadly. ‘One always thinks that. Every, every time.’

– The Pursuit of Love

‘Yes, I know,’ I said, ‘the Boreleys think it’s simply terrible.’

– Love in a Cold Climate

The overlapping timelines of both novels and their distinctive Mitford voice makes it that both novels are almost always adapted together, one of the only choices of book-to-screen adaptations that I will ever be enthusiastic about. (For the record, the 2001 adaptation starring Rosamund Pike is better directed, but the 1980 one retains more of the original jokes.) But I would argue that the novels themselves have very different feels and take very different tones, when one digs deeper beyond the overwhelming Nancy-ness. The Pursuit of Love arguably tackles more ambitious – read serious – themes, but Love in a Cold Climate is technical perfection. Love in a Cold Climate is lighter and brighter, which is a big claim to make of a novel that has the sexual assault of a minor as one of its (comic) plot points. Yet even this obvious indication that Nancy Mitford’s moral compass is set firmly off-course is of a kind with the implication of the entire novel: no one gets hurt, no one is ever changed in serious or impactful ways. Of course, the casual paedophilia is still a huge sticking point in the narrative, and I don’t mean to underplay that. The moral of Mitford’s novel nevertheless is that happy endings for all are possible if you’re willing to suspend your sense of morality and the conventional sense of what is and isn’t emotionally possible. In a neat parallel to the end of The Pursuit of Love, at the end of Cold Climate there is a death, but only a minor one: Polly’s baby dies quickly after its birth, but none of the characters are very much affected, least of all Polly. Lady Montdore and Cedric’s visits to Polly’s sickbed are only the catalyst for the last, entirely amoral, yet satisfying plot twist.  And where the last line in The Pursuit of Love persists in sadly dwelling on the impossibility of saying if love can be real or no, the last line in Love in a Cold Climate points out, with the kind of amusement only Mitford can accomplish, the chasm between a behaviour and the social attitudes that mark it out as appalling.

‘Mind the gap’ Mitford suggests, but it is in that gap where true satire is to be mined. And the technical perfection with which Mitford mines it makes Love in a Cold Climate a perfect comedy.

Li Sian lives in Singapore, where she works at an NGO and teaches part-time. You can find her on Twitter here.

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