“The Pursuit of Love” by Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford, famous society author between 1930 and 1960, is sometimes hailed as the inventor of chick-lit. This book, though fiction, draws heavily on her own childhood between World Wars I and II. As a writer of women’s fiction myself I was delighted to be given “The Pursuit of Love”. I could both knock a book off the 501 List and satisfy my curiosity at the same time.

I can state though, this is not chick-lit in the normal sense of the word. It hard for a post-feminist reader to identify with women who depend so entirely on their husbands and fathers for their livelihoods. Add in the fact that money is never an issue for those swanning around leaky country houses, and happily hunting for foxes between debutant balls, and you’ve got a world that the average modern working girl can’t see as “normal”.

In fact, I think this book is a tragedy, albeit with some very funny moments. It opens with a nostalgic, beautifully written, description of an old family photograph depicting the family the narrator, Fanny, often stays with. The family, modelled on Mitford’s own, is eccentric to a fault, but we mainly follow the loves and trials of Linda, Fanny’s cousin, as she swerves from one awful relationship to the next. First she marries a soul-less conservative MP, then adores an idealistic communist who is barely aware of her existance, and finds real love, with compromises, as a mistress to a French duke and resistance fighter in war-torn Paris, but even then she lacks the happy ending which is a hallmark of modern chick-lit.

Fanny meanwhile lives a more ordinary life, rears children, deals with the “pinpicks” of daily life and its irritations and is easier to empathise with. Particularly as Linda avoids contact with her daughter, Moira, to avoid being tied down to the father. This is her one really heartless action in the book and it’s hard to forgive.

Mitford’s dialogue is brilliantly observed and even the smaller characters are vividly painted. Uncle Matthew is a hilarious lunatic lord playing classical music loudly to wake the house at dawn. The other cousins elope to America or run off to fight in the Spanish civil war. The family in the black and white portrait at the start of the novel is far from boring, and the story of their lives is equally entertaining, even if their world no longer exists.

(read Spring 2011)

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