Sunday, January 22, 2006

BOOK: Nancy Mitford, "The Blessing"

Nancy Mitford: Love in a Cold Climate and other novels. Penguin Books, 2000. 0141181494. xii + 487 pp.

This book contains three novels by Nancy Mitford: The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, and The Blessing. I read the first two several years ago (in 2002, I believe), so I don't remember very much and this post is mostly going to be about The Blessing, which I read a few weeks ago.

I think the first time I'd heard of Nancy Mitford was probably in David Cannadine's splendid book The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. Nancy and her sisters were from a declining aristocratic family, and are mentioned by Cannadine as examples of the various responses that people made to those circumstances. Nancy ended up becoming quite a successful writer; it's true that her works are not masterpieces of highbrow literature, but they are enjoyable, humorous, and generally great fun to read. She drew inspiration from the upper-class milieu with which she had been familiar, and often modeled characters and events in her stories upon real people and anecdotes.

<spoiler warning> Briefly, the story of The Blessing is this: an upper-class Englishwoman named Grace gets married to an even more upper-class Frenchman named Charles-Edouard and goes to live with him in France. This is a bit of a culture shock for her, and the differences between English and French customs and culture are the subject of much of the novel. Eventually, it transpires that Charles-Edouard is seeing one or two mistresses, which in his (French) view seems like a fairly harmless and above all perfectly natural thing to do, but in her (English) view this sort of thing makes further married life impossible, and she returns to England and starts contemplating divorce. The couple, however, have a son, a boy named Sigismond, who has felt somewhat neglected and bored until now — much of the time he seems to be told to ‘run along’ and keep out of the way of his parents' active and exciting social life. But now, after his parents' separation, he gets to live partly with his father and partly with his mother, and is spoiled in a major way on both sides. He therefore resolves that if this happy arrangement is to be preserved, he must at all costs prevent his parents from getting together again. Both parents actually want to resume their marriage, and a single honest conversation would suffice to bring this about, but for a while Sigismond manages to sabotage all efforts in that direction. Eventually his machinations come to light, however, and Grace and Charles-Edouard are happily reunited. </spoiler warning>

The book, as I mentioned above, is more or less light-hearted fun, full of amusing anecdotes and little jokes, and almost all of the story takes place among upper-class people that haven't got the slightest serious trouble or worry in the world; but nevertheless the book also touches upon some slightly more serious subjects, and gives us a few glimpses at the state of the world at the time it was written. Opinions that different nations have on each other are a prominent topic. We see instances of Francophilia among the English (ch. 1.2, p. 328), as well as Francophobia, the chief example of which is Nanny, with her deep-seated distrust of everything French (there are numerous instances throughout the book; see e.g. ch. 1.11, p. 394; and after returning to England, she tells her friends about France: “ ‘Say what you choose, France is a wonderful country [. . .] But there is one drawback, nobody there can cook. They've got all the materials in the world but they cannot serve up a decent meal—funny, isn't it?’ ”, ch. 2.1, p. 421). There are some French opinions on the English (“very eccentric [. . .] all half mad, a country of enormous, fair, mad atheists”, ch. 1.5, p. 348); how a Frenchwoman would react to a cheating husband (p. 349); French prejudice against Freemasons (ch. 1.6, pp. 357–8); Grace's feelings on the difficulty of fitting into the French high society (ch. 2.4, p. 435–6); there are a few glimpses on the subject of decline of the landed aristocracy in England (ch. 2.9, p. 471); indeed France seems better off than England, where “ ‘even the nouveaux riches are poor’ ” (p. 470).

There are also some signs of uneasiness between Europe (declining, war-torn, worn-out, etc., especially France) and America (rising superpower, appropriately brash and arrogant, etc; see e.g. ch. 2.4, pp. 438–9). The latter is present in the form of a curious side character, Hector Dexter, a ridiculously self-important and long-winded American politician (see e.g. ch. 1.13, p. 404). His opinion on homosexuals: “ ‘[. . .] they are dangerous because politically contaminated, a political contamination that can, in every traceable case, be traced to Moscow.’/ “I say, hold on, Heck,’ said Hughie. ‘All the old queens I know are terrific old Tories.’ ” (P. 405.) “ ‘And I am very very glad to say that this very unpleasant problem does not exist in the States. We have no pederasts.’/ ‘How funny,’ said Grace, ‘all the Americans here are.’ ” (P. 406.)

An interesting contrast is also shown in the attitude towards youth: on p. 454 (ch. 2.6), Dexter asks a Frenchwoman how come that there aren't any young people on any parties and entertainments that he's been invited to: “ ‘How do your French teen-agers amuse themselves, Madame Innouïs?’/ ‘They are young, surely that is enough,’ she said indignantly. ‘Surely they don't need to amuse themselves as well.’/ ‘But in the States, Madame Innouïs, we think it our duty to make sure that precisely what while they are young they are having the best years of their lives. [. . .]’ ” He continues on p. 456: “ ‘In the States we just worship youth, Madame Innouïs, it seems to us that human beings were put on this earth to be young; youth seems to us the most desirable of all human attributes.’ ” And compare these observations by two English nannies on p. 442 (ch. 2.5): “‘I don't care for these youths on the wireless much, do you?’/ ‘Not at all. There seems to be nothing else nowadays, youth this and youth that. Nobody thought of it when I was young.’ ” And although Dexter is overall an unlikeable character, I cannot help agreeing with him here: I think it's preferable that a society tries to ensure that its young people are having a good time, rather than pushing them aside and making them wait until they are ‘old enough’ to join the ‘mature’ ‘adult’ world. But anyway, these different opinions cited here suggest that the ‘cult of youth’ that we can observe in all pores of our contemporary culture is really a relatively recent thing, something that largely started only in the middle of the 20th century (which is not to say that it doesn't have earlier precursors, e.g. in literary romanticism), a bit earlier perhaps in the U.S. and a bit later in other countries, where it has been perhaps partly spread under U.S. influence. And it has to be admitted that the cult of youth is by no means without its undesirable aspects; just think of the immense amounts of time, money, and effort expended by people in a vain struggle against the external aspects of aging. Is it not more difficult to come to terms with aging nowadays than it was in the past? How is one to face the fact that one is growing older, when all the popular culture and the media are overwhelmingly dominated by almost nothing but the images of youth? The cult of youth would be a perfect thing as long as the people could be finished off at the age of thirty or so (like in some science-fiction dystopia that I vaguely remember having heard about; it was the film Logan's Run, I think; but anyway, why wait until thirty? twenty-five would do the trick even better, I say; that way I'd already have been put out of my misery), but it certainly leads to some difficulties in a world where people actually grow old (and indeed spend an increasingly large proportion of their lives as old people, thanks to increasing life expectancy). Nevertheless, I think the cult of youth is overall a good thing. Undoubtedly the only reason why it has not existed formerly (if indeed it has not existed) was because of wide-scale repression of the young on part of the drab, dowdy, ‘respectable’ middle-aged and old parts of society.

Incidentally, in the end it turns out that Dexter and his wife were really communists and actually spies in Soviet employ (ch. 2.12, pp. 488–9: “ ‘He's supposed to have gone straight off for a conference with Beria. Well, I feel awfully sory for Beria.’ ”); so perhaps we aren't intended to generalize too easily and hastily from our opinion of the Dexters to an opinion of America as a whole.

Another little detail that cannot help attracting notice nowadays are the mentions of strict customs controls at Dover (ch. 2.3, p. 434; ch. 2.12, p. 490–1). Nowadays we are so used to the free flow of goods across borders that customs officers are hardly ever seen by a typical traveller. Apparently smuggling pound notes out of England was a serious offense at the time.

Here's a hilarious passage from ch. 1.8, p. 374. “Grace [. . ] was wondering desperately what she could talk about to M. de la Ferté when, greatly to her relief, he turned to her and said that he had just read Les Hauts de Hurlevent by a talented young English writer./ ‘I wondered if you knew her,’ he said. ‘Mademoiselle Emilie Brontë.’ ” Incidentally, this reminds me of an anecdote mentioned by Bertrand Russell in his autobiography (ch. 6, letter from February 18, 1906): a French matematician told him “he had read an English poem called ‘le vieux matelot’; I couldn't think who had written anything called ‘the old sailor’ and began to think there might be something by Hood of that name, when the truth flashed upon me.”

Some other notable passages: Charles-Edouard's aunt spreads hilarious sex-related rumours about people living in the vicinity (p. 351); a visit to a White Russian night club (p. 407); the scene when Grace finds her husband in bed with a mistress is marvellously funny (ch. 1.14, p. 413); Sigismond becomes friendly with a burglar, even offering to help him (ch. 2.2, p. 425). We get a rather bleak picture of Eton in ch. 2.9 (“Miles, looking with disfavour at the seat of his chair, asked if he could have a cushion. The waitress quite understood, and went off to get him one”, p. 469).

Charles-Edouard fought in the Free French forces during the war, and this is what he has to say about collaborators: “ ‘So perhaps we'll visit my lawyer. I've had to make a change, such a nuisance, but hte old one of all my life was a terrible collaborator and you don't realize what that means. Two hours of self-justification before one can get down to any business. There's no bore like a collabo in all the wide world.’ ” (ch. 2.3, p. 429).

Another interesting episode involves the ‘captain’ and crew of a very highbrow theatre, which gives the author plenty of opportunities to poke fun at their pretentious intellectualism, unwatchable performances, and the extreme cosmopolitanism of their intellectual world, which must have seemed rather caricatured and ridiculous to many of the more old-fashioned readers at the time. “Neither he nor the Crew were every likely to forget the first night of Factory 46 when Jiři Mucha, Nanos Valaoritis, Umbro Apollonio, Chun Chan Yeh, and Odysseus Sikelberg had all graciously announced their intention of being present” (ch. 2.8, p. 461; I can't find anything about Sikelberg, but the other four are all real authors; Mucha was in fact the son of the art nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha). Or in ch. 2.10, p. 475: “The Crew pushed their hair out of their eyes and read quantities of manuscripts, many of them in the original Catalan, Finnish, or Bantu”. This is still funny nowadays if one isn't too uptight about these things; but at the same time I can't help feeling this sort of humour to be just a bit offensive: surely the implication hidden underneath is that reading manuscripts in these languages is quite absurd, probably because nothing worth performing could possibly ever be written in them. (There's the old spectre of cultural chauvinism, which humankind is only now slowly managing to lay to rest.) In a similar vein, Eastern Europe provides some opportunities for jokes as well: “a certain member of the Crew had been teasing the Captain for quite a long time to put on a play she had translated from some Bratislavian dialect [. . .] In English it seemed rather dreary. But now this play was being very much discussed on the Continent. [. . .] and was said to have run clandestinely for several months in Lvov.” (P. 475.)

Incidentally, I cannot resist adding a small-minded pedantic complaint against the publisher. The book begins with an introduction, which is new to this edition from the year 2000. However, the rest of the book is plainly a photographic reprint of some earlier edition. Like in many books, the pages in the introduction are numbered by Roman numerals. There's nothing wrong with that. However, once the Roman-numbered pages come to an end, and Arabic numbering beings, you should begin with page 1. However, in this book, Arabic numbering begins at page 7 (actually there are three unnumbered pages and then page 10). Apparently, the older edition that they were reprinting didn't have an introduction or anything else of that sort, and started numbering pages with Arabic numbers from the beginning of the book, so that by the time you get past the title page and the table of contents, the first novel begins at page 7 rather than page 1. So the publisher was not only too lazy (or too cheap) to typeset the novels anew, they didn't even bother to correct the page numbers (which should surely not be too difficult in this age of computerized image manipulation). Shame on them.


  • Nancy Mitford wrote several other novels; I guess they are all in the same vein as these three: light-hearted and pleasant to read. I wouldn't mind reading some more of them. In particular, I hope to eventually read her 1935 novel Wigs on the Green, in which Nancy is poking fun at the British fascist movement (her sister Diana was the lover, and later the wife, of the British fascist leader, Oswald Mosley), as well as at her sister Unity's silly infatuation with nazism. (See e.g. Anne de Courcy's biography, Diana Mosley, ch. XV, p. 139.) Nancy also wrote a few works of nonfiction, biographies of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XIV, etc., which I don't think I particularly want to read.


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