Monday, 27 April 2015

The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford, in two very old Penguin editions (1949 and 1954), feel brittle up at the pond in this nearly harsh sunlight. Handle with care. Do not leave out in the sun. Cover with socks when unattended.

Nancy Mitford is a soufflé after the sorbet (lemon) of Fay Weldon; her creatures think of themselves as the lost generation, islanded in wealth and wilfulness between the wars. Fay Weldon's middle class women after the war have au pairs instead of nannies and accept being put upon as a second career. Plus ça change.

Nancy Mitford's narrator Fanny confesses that she never thought about whether she enjoyed coming out, it was just what you had to do.
Girls had to come out, I knew. It is a stage in their existence just as the public school is for boys, which must be passed before life, real life, could begin.
It was like going to a play in a foreign language, she said, going to dances. She hoped one day she'd see the point but she never did.

She could see the point of meeting in the airing cupboard at the top of the house (the only warm place) where the young Hons confide and explicate the day's main stories, shrieking and exclaiming in the half-light. Imagine. No one is solitary, unless seriously grumpy or so Counter-Hon as to be without substance.

The boys are barely visible (sent to the wrong House at Eton), and the men without speech, only assets, abilities and quiet charm. Or noisy effete charm, in the case of Cedric the confounding relative from Nova Scotia who saves the day in Love in a cold climate.

Defiant yet compliant women chatter on in their own language without let or hindrance, as did Madame de Sévigné in letters to her daughter. (Nancy Mitford must have read Madame de Sévigné; her education was restricted to french and riding and reading). In the lives they tell there's plenty of let and not a little hindrance. Their triumphs are in their intimacies with their female friends, or, failing that, with dogs, horses, bats, voles and chubb, which, chez Nancy Mitford, in deep winter are fuddled by a Chubb Fuddler.

Love is mostly longed-for and unsuitable, then later transmutes soundlessly into something even less likely; babies die conveniently, or are brought up by someone else; wives die conveniently too; men are more often ill than women but they live long enough to change their will and even their opinion of sewers and foreigners. In a closed society, the structure is always there, an aunt or a nanny will do instead of a mother, and a dog or a horse instead of a lover. If you can't say it in English you can say it in eggy-peggy.

Something strange happens when you read about the time before you were born and when you were young. Nella Last's diary for Mass Observation during and after World War 2 made me feel almost present at my own birth. The upper class Nancy Mitford, and the middle class Fay Weldon define my own experience by having nothing to do with it.

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