They Live in a House, a Very Big House in the Country

It was probably not the best time to read Nancy Mitford’s ‘The Pursuit of Love‘. The novel, which is on The Guardian‘s 100 greatest novels list, is based on her own experiences growing up, and gives a vivid picture of the childhood, lives and loves of the landed gentry between the First and Second World Wars. After the recent alleged sordid behaviour and casual brutality of David Cameron and his Bullingdon Club and Piers Gaveston Society pals, I can’t say I was feeling much enthusiasm to read about the day to day struggles of the entitled. In fact, those Old Etonians of the Bullingdon Club were already causing trouble during the period in which Mitford’s novel is set. Evelyn Waugh satirised it, or the Bollinger Club as he called it in his 1928 novel, ‘Decline And Fall‘.

Despite my misgivings, I found Mitford’s prose to be wonderfully dry and witty throughout, and I especially enjoyed the descriptions of childhood of the earlier part of the book before the rather more tedious antics of air-headed adulthood began. Granted, an aristocratic upbringing would have afforded manifold opportunites and financial security, but there are some painfully poignant moments when Fanny talks quite matter-of-factly about her mother, otherwise known as ‘the bolter’, abandoning her. She reflects on being bundled off to stay with relatives during the holidays after the aunt with whom she lived, got married.

Aunt Emily probably felt that, if she had to choose between her husband’s wishes and my nervous system, the former should win the day. In spite of her being forty they were, I believe, very much in love; it must have been a perfect bore having me about at all, and it speaks volumes for their characters that never, for one moment, did they allow me to be aware of this.

Stately pile or not, Alconleigh was an unforgiving place, bitterly cold, brutally bare, and running dangerously low on affection.

Alconleigh was a large, ugly, north-facing, Georgian house, built with only one intention, that of sheltering, when the weather was too bad to be out of doors…. There was no attempt at decoration, at softening the lines, no apology for a facade, it was all as grim and as bare as a barracks, stuck upon the high hillside. Within, the keynote, the theme, was death. Not death of maidens, not death romantically accoutred with urns and weeping willows, cypresses and valedictory odes, but the death of warriors and of animals, stark, real.

In this environment,outdoor pursuits are as essential as breathing, and people show far more concern for their animals’ welfare than that of their humans. It’s no wonder that such a harsh place should breed hard inhabitants.

It was an accepted fact at Alconleigh that Uncle Matthew loathed me. This violent, uncontrolled man, like his children, knew no middle course, he either loved or he hated, and generally, it must be said, he hated. His reason for hating me was that he hated my father; they were old Eton enemies…. He hated my father, he said, he hated me, but, above all, he hated children.

Despite his brutality, the children accepted him in their own way, even seeing him as a kind of role model.

Much as we feared, much as we disapproved of passionately as we sometimes hated Uncle Matthew, he still remained for us a sort of criterion of English manhood; there seemed something not quite right about any man who greatly differed from him.

As the children grow up, their social circle widens and we are introduced to other wealthy families, and particularly those of a different breed, those whose money is new. When Linda marries Tony Kroesig, the son of a successful banker, both families are outraged.

Sir Leicester grubs up his money in London, goodness knows how, but Fa [Uncle Mathew] gets it from his land, and he puts a great deal back into the land, not only money, but work.

The marriage didn’t last long

Linda took no interest in politics, but was instinctively and unreasonably English. She knew that one Englishman was worth a hundred foreigners, whereas Tony thought that one capitalist was worth a hundred workers. Their outlook upon this, as upon most subjects, differed fundamentally.

After leaving Tony and her daughter, Linda takes up with a communist before realising his passion is more for the cause than for her, then she becomes the mistress of a rich Frenchman. It doesn’t end well.  While Mitford writes with a sharp wit that’s dazzlingly caustic at times, I found so many of the characters despicable that I just didn’t care what happened to them.

In the introduction, Zoe Heller champions Mitford’s writing, and makes the point that like many other authors – Jane Austen, most notably – Mitford wrote about what she knew. I think that’s fair comment, and certainly the chapters on childhood vividly capture the home life of the rural upper classes during the period between the wars, even if the latter part of the novel held less interest for me, at least.

the Mitford family

From the left: Unity (great friend of Hitler), Tom, Debo (Duchess of Devonshire), Diana (wife of Oswald Mosely), Jessica, Nancy and Pamela. 1935.