Recommended Reads: The Pursuit of Love

“But I think she would have been happy with Fabrice. He was the great love of her life, you know,” I said.

“Oh, dulling,” said my mother sadly. “Everyone thinks that at the time.”

The Pursuit of Love is the first of three stories by Nancy Mitford, and is a social commentary of the lives of aristocrats during the “period between the wars.” I think the reason why I love it so much is that Mitford was clearly writing from experience – she came from a big family, and as a young woman was part of a group of socialites in London nicknamed The Bright Young Things by the tabloid press. The group included some other well known names such as Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton, and some other fantastic sounding aristocrats such as Loelia Ponsonby, Edward Gathorne-Hardy and Sir Sacheverell Reresby Sitwell. Her childhood and the exploits of the Bright Young Things inspired Mitford, as well as other writers and artists who formed part of the set; so much so that it is difficult to know how much of her work is purely fictional.

Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pamela Mitford in 1935

The novels are narrated by an unassuming girl named Fanny, who was abandoned by her mother into the care of her Aunt Emily. Her mother is known as The Bolter, due to her habit of bolting from marriages and relationships. As a youngster, Fanny spends a lot of time with her Uncle Matthew and his family, the Radlett children, who have an unusual and humorous upper class upbringing at their country estate. It is the exploits of her cousins, particularly Linda, which forms the basis of the Pursuit of Love – Linda has an obsession with romantic love and the perfect marriage, and her pursuit of both, along with its tragic consequences, is relayed by Fanny as the two grow up.

The real stars of this novel for me are the anecdotes surrounding some of the more minor characters. Uncle Matthew is probably my favourite, an eccentric aristocrat wandering about in his dressing gown “like Great Agrippa,” his love of hunting (and setting the dogs after his brood of children, appalling the Kentish weekenders on their way to church), his objection to foreigners, and his habit of writing down the names of people he dislikes on slips of paper and storing them in a drawer.

”Uncle Matthew’s four years in France and Italy between 1914 and 1918 had given him no great opinion of foreigners. “Frogs,” he would say, “are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.”‘

And then there is the Bolter, whose real name we never learn, as she is simply referred to as Bolter or Aunty Bolter, who arrives to live with the family on the outbreak of war with her latest lover, the Spaniard Juan (referred to by Matthew as Gewan). Incidentally, Mitford’s inspiration for The Bolter came from a woman called Idina Sackville, who gained the nickname and notoriety after her public divorce, and even more public string of relationships and wild partying in both London and her South African estate.

Idina Sackville, 1922, a year after leaving her second husband

Although a comedy, the novel does have some quite tragic undertones, not least when the family must deal with the outbreak of war in 1939, coupled with the exploits of Linda, who is in danger of becoming a Bolter herself. But, at its heart, The Pursuit of Love is a sharp, witty comedy of manners written by someone who clearly knew what they were talking about, and even if you know little of the historical time period in question, I think most readers would find it difficult not to be amused.

There is a lot of information out there about Nancy and her five sisters, all of whom led interesting lives in one way or another, and the biography of “the woman who scandalised 1920’s society,” Idina Sackville – The Bolter, by her great granddaughter Frances Osborne – paints a wonderful picture of aristocratic life during a time of great change for the British upper class.

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