When Nancy Mitford wrote The Pursuit of Love in 1945, it caused a sensation. Her family and friends were shocked, the public was titillated, and everyone was hugely entertained. Yet at first sight, it’s certainly a good novel, but nothing to cause so much fuss: through the eyes of Cousin Fanny, it follows the pursuits and the loves of Linda Radlett, daughter of Lord Alconleigh, and the wildly eccentric habits of her family. Why the furore? Because Nancy Mitford, as her sister Jessica pointed out, had no imagination whatsoever: the book is so clearly autobiographical as to be almost a memoir, stripping her family, friends, and self bare with her own brand of wicked satire.
The book begins when Linda is fourteen and not yet “out” in society, longing after a romantic love she has no way of understanding. Her father, the explosive but beloved Uncle Matthew, shelters his children in some respects (any girl alone with a man is no better than a harlot) and leaves them utterly vulnerable in others (hunting them with bloodhounds when game is sparse!) Linda, naturally, falls for the first man she encounters, and her pursuit of love has begun. Linda moves from one man to the next, never quite understanding what love is. (Her adventures reflect Nancy Mitford’s own, with a splash of Diana and Deborah Mitford’s as well.) At last, she meets Fabrice de Sauveterre, a playboy Frenchman who serves General de Gaulle during the second World War, and this — this! — is the true love of her life.
Mitford sends up her class endlessly, wickedly, and accurately. From the tiny indicators of speech that separate the Hons from the Counter-Hons (the genuine nobles from the pretenders), to the men with leisure to tease their neighbors or make a hobby of their health, she makes even this middle-class American see every strand in the complicated braid.
However, this book is billed as a comic novel, and that’s what I was expecting — a glorious romp of the Cold Comfort Farm type, or perhaps similar to Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (Mitford and Waugh were good friends.) Instead, I found a book that is at its heart rather sad. Linda is (as Nancy Mitford perhaps was) one of those women who doesn’t like women. She can’t see the point of them, without men. And when she can’t find the right man, one who will concentrate on her alone and love her for what she has to offer, she is hollow — lovable and beautiful, but with little to give the world. I found The Pursuit of Love melancholy at its core, despite the very funny satire it contained. I didn’t mind that — I enjoy sad books — but it did take an adjustment of my expectations.
I read a biography of the Mitford sisters about a year or so ago, and Nancy Mitford started a real industry with this novel — interest in the six sisters that has not died down to this day. Several of the sisters wrote their own memoirs and novels, seeking to say their own piece, set the record straight. But for my money, novels can say things that biographies and memoirs never can. The truth often speaks through lies. You couldn’t do better than to start your acquaintanceship with the Mitfords with The Pursuit of Love.