The Pursuit of Love

pursuit of loveWhen 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.

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8 Responses to The Pursuit of Love

  1. Kristen M. says:

    This sounds fascinating and I love your sentence about her sister saying that she had no imagination! Hah! I hadn’t heard of the Mitfords yet but now I’m quite curious.

  2. maggie says:

    I can’t wait to read the biography especially. I am a dope for a great biography.

  3. Nicola says:

    Yes, I’ve always thought Linda’s life was sad. Have you read Love in a Cold Climate which features the same characters? I was in Waterstone’s the other week and noticed that one or two new chicklit novels were described as being in the style of Nancy Mitford. They wish!

  4. Jenny says:

    Kristen — I’m surprised you hadn’t heard of the Mitfords yet, as they seem to be as much of an industry as the Brontes or Daphne du Maurier right now (though never as much as Austen!) Very enjoyable scandalous family.

    Maggie — Definitely try the biography. I liked it a lot.

    Nicola — I haven’t tried Love in a Cold Climate yet, though I plan to. And I agree that not much chicklit of today would stand up to Mitford’s style!

  5. Maeve says:

    I agree that the Pursuit of Love, while howlingly funny throughout has very melancholy and poignant moments. Even the opening paragraph about the photograph of Aunt Sadie surrounded by her seven children makes my eyes sting, and at the end I bawl my eyes out. It is this perfect combination of humor and pathos that has made The Pursuit of Love my all-time favourite novel since I was a teen-ager. I cringe when other, clearly inferior books, are described as being in the “Mitford” style, as Nicola points out.

    In contrast, Love in a Cold Climate is just hilarious, non-stop riotous laughter, with very little of the sadness of The Pursuit of L.

  6. ed baxter says:

    The BBC did a quite delightful mini-series based around this book in around 2001.

  7. MaryRC says:

    Nancy is supposed to have based the character of Linda on a composite of herself and her sister Diana. Nancy’s love life was enough to make anyone melancholy. Her first love was gay and kept her dangling for years before finally backing out of their engagement. She married on the rebound to a man she didn’t love, a bore and a serial cheater who seems to have been the inspiration for Linda’s first husband Tony Kroesig. She left him and moved to Paris to be with the love of her life, a Frenchman who had many other mistresses and eventually married one of them, a duchess.

    Although Nancy adored him to the end, she kept up a stoic pretense that her heart wasn’t broken and that she was happy to be just friends. Knowing that,it’s impossible not to read the scene where Linda is alone in Fabrice’s apartment and realises that she is not the most important thing in his life without thinking that it had a sad reality in Nancy’s life.

    Her sisters’ lives followed similar patterns. Diana left her first husband for Sir Oswald Mosley who, despite being in love with her, always had a couple of mistresses on the side (one of whom was his first wife’s sister). She maintained that it didn’t matter — men were like that, it wasn’t important to a marriage for the husband to be faithful. Their sister the Duchess of Devonshire has always stood by her man as well, despite his well-known penchant for call girls.

    So it seems that to a Mitford, being in love meant keeping a stiff upper lip while the love of your life is a hound dog. No wonder Nancy was melancholy.

    By the way, don’t you think that Nancy overdoes it a bit in Fanny’s constant eulogising of Linda? She’s apparently the favourite person in the world of her parents (who openly prefer her over their other children), Lord Merlin, Davey, Fanny herself and just about everyone with the exception of Linda’s two husbands and her little daughter. As a comic character and a romantic heroine, Linda is terrific. But there’s just nothing about her that makes you believe that so many people would be so devoted to her. So it’s a bit grating when Fanny keeps telling you that Linda is the great light of so many people’s lives.

    In Love in a Cold Climate everyone, including the heroine, comes under Nancy’s satiric eye and the book is much funnier for it.

  8. Dina says:

    Sorry, but where I can reed it?

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