Fanny, the narrator of this 1945 novel by Nancy Mitford, was abandoned by her parents at an early age and raised by her Aunt Emily, who proved to be an excellent mother. Her childhood involved Alconleigh, home of her Uncle Matthew, Aunt Sadie, and their many children. The second daughter, Linda, becomes Fanny’s closest friend, and her story is the focus of The Pursuit of Love.
The book begins as a childhood romp, with a wacky family being wacky. For example, one favorite ritual was the child hunt, in which a couple of the children were sent out to be chased by Uncle Matthew and his four bloodhounds:
This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish week-enders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls. My uncle seemed to them like a wicked lord of fiction, and I became more than ever surrounded with an aura of madness, badness, and dangerousness for their children to know.
As is the case with lots of novels from this period, a lot of the behavior is appalling once you stop and think about it, but Mitford treats it with a light touch, not denying the times when their childhood was difficult, but also not being accusatory. She sticks to the child’s perspective in those early chapters.
Eventually, Fanny moves to the story of Linda’s adulthood, which begins with a whirlwind romance and marriage, and another whirlwind romance and marriage, and finally another whirlwind romance. With each romance comes a personal transformation, from conservative German socialite, to Communist crusader, to French fashionista. Mostly, she just looks to be swept away with feeling, just as, when a child, she was swept away with passion for the various animals she encountered.
Fanny writes of Linda with affection, not pretending that all her choices were right, but always with sympathy for who Linda is. She is, as it happens, not unlike Fanny’s own mother, known in the family as The Bolter. This affectionate lens is one of the things I liked about the book. It’s also often quite funny, even in the face of war and tragedy. The turn toward seriousness is handled well, with plenty of levity included, but not so much that it takes away from the seriousness. There were a few uncomfortable political moments here are there, but they were never so uncomfortable as to take away from my overall pleasure in the book. And it was a pleasure. I’m looking forward to reading Love in a Cold Climate very soon.