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Blessings and disguises…a review of Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing

bookcase2I guess first and foremost, I have to express no small degree of embarrassment about the length of time which has passed since my last post. Secondly, I have a further confession to make…I have, since I last posted, fallen into that ever-enchanting trap of re-reading. Whilst I have spent my time reading The Blessing, I have also luxuriated in the pages of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and been captivated by a less fictional offering…David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words.

There you have it, confession confided.

tolkienBefore I write about The Blessing, I do want to make some attempt at justifying my falling from grace and head-over-heels into the trap of re-reading. As I have already mentioned since I began blogging, I have always had a huge tendency to submit to my obsession with re-reading my favourite books…they sit there on the bookshelf like old friends calling to me across a crowded room. Old friends who I love dearly. Old friends who have comforted me during hard times. Old friends who have inspired and succoured me over many years. It is hard to resist them; and while In my good books… has helped to loosen my dependency upon re-reading, I’m not sure I ever wish to be entirely cured of it. I love re-reading, others have asked me many times what I get from it and the answer is fairly obvious…I get something different from every book each time I read it.

Take The Lord of the Rings books, for example, I must have read them every year since I was about fifteen. So (without divulging my exact year of birth), it’s safe to say I have been turning the pages of these lovely books for well over a decade. This summer, my parents made a big change in their lives – moving from the suburban house in the Midlands (centre of the UK) where I spent my childhood, to a rambling Victorian sea-front house on the Welsh coast. Naturally, I was there alongside them to enjoy the highs (and lows!) of such a big change. During the downtime from unpacking boxes, I felt my fingers itch; without thinking, I plucked their battered copy of Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring from the bookcase and was instantly enthralled. Wales always makes me want to read Tolkien, you look out of the window and the landscape on the page simply continues across the vista. wales 2Craggy mountains of stone, lush green woodland, and, to the West, the waves lap against the shore…for me, Middle Earth will always be Wales. So, where was I? I think I was hoping to explain and justify this year’s dalliance with Mr Tolkien. As has happened many times in my life, his words carried me through huge change and into new possibilities. Plus, I found a new pun – I’m a sucker for a good pun – Mum and Dad’s house being situated on the extreme West coast of the UK, I figure they now live in one of the ‘last homely house[s] east of the sea’.

Well, perhaps, it’s time I returned to my pre-destined course of reading and Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing. This, as frequent visitors may recall, is the third of Mitford’s books that I have reviewed. Possessing, as I do, a compilation text of Love in a Cold Climate that also contains The Pursuit of Love and The Blessing, I thought it was about time I got around to reviewing the final book.

book coverWhen I finally begun reading, I wholeheartedly enjoyed The Blessing. As I expected and hoped it is another enchanting novel about the upper echelons of British society, although, this time, it largely takes place in France. The novel centres principally around its heroine, Grace, and her relationship with her husband, the captivating Charles-Edouard. Like Mitford’s other books this novel is, ostensibly, laced with somewhat frivolous concerns in terms of the world-view, but in terms of the internal view of Grace’s relationships it does ask some weighty questions. I don’t want to give away too much of the novel’s main plot points for prospective readers, but suffice to say Mitford’s story brings to the fore the differences to be found, not only in upper class marriages, but also in French marriages compared to English ones. The story commences during the Second World War, although the bulk of the narrative takes place in later peace-time years. I think of the three Mitford novels I have read, this is perhaps the most light-hearted and (not to diminish the book in any way) trivial. However, I think it is one of my favourites. Despite Love in a Cold Climate’s being the most well-known of the books, I think, with consideration, I prefer both The Pursuit of Love and The Blessing. The characters in both of these two books are more endearing, I cared more about their journey. In some ways, this story reminded me of the plot of Madame Bovaryalbeit on a slightly more moneyed level. Thankfully, though, The Blessing‘s heroine is infinity more palatable and appealing.

Chevaux_de_MarlyAs for the book’s title, which refers to the nickname Grace and Charles-Edouard give their young son, well, let me say the old idiom ‘a blessing in disguise’ comes to mind – although, in his case, the disguise is sugary sweet. Siggy (as they call him) is by no means entirely worthy of his pet name.

The Blessing is engagingly written with an experienced hand. Humour and satire are penned with expert precision and Mitford’s descriptions are vivid. I have yet to be disappointed with one of Mitford’s novels, they are saturated with fleshy comical characters who you cannot help but love, despite their many faults and excessive vices. I think the message of The Blessing is one of pragmatism and acceptance. The novel is littered with disguise and deception, from the candy-clean American politician who turns out to be a Bolshevist to the evening when all of the characters attend an elaborate costume ball. However, the over-arching morality of the book seems to suggest that we should accept our loved ones for what and who they really are, warts and all. Be understanding of their faults and forgiving of their mistakes, but alongside this, do not become a doormat, forgive so that you can forget…show understanding in order to understand your loved ones better. Oh, and never spoil an already precocious child.

crystalAs I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have also been reading David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words. Having only ever studied English Literature, and not English language, at school and university I had never encountered one of Crystal’s books before. The book was recommended to me by the course director of a phonics-based reading programme I recently trained to teach. I ordered it on something of a whim and was thoroughly rewarded. Crystal, who is traditionally more of an academic writer, has penned an entertaining, easy-read. The Story of English in 100 Words is very fun to read and educational but interesting. A hard balance to strike. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, so I won’t say anything more now, but I have already bought it as a gift and recommended it to others.

Unsurprisingly then, I will (hopefully sooner than last time) shortly be reviewing David Crytal’s The Story of English in 100 Words.

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A mad hatter’s tea party of Dons and Dukes…reading Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford.

I have been intending to read Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate for some time, way back last November I read The Pursuit of Love  – the first of Mitford’s three ‘companion novels’ – Love in a Cold Climate is the second of the three. The three novels are by no means sequels and are not written chronologically. In fact, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate run almost concurrently. Although the narrator is the same, Love in a Cold Climate tells a different story to The Pursuit of Love. Fanny Logan remains our constant, our narrator. In The Pursuit of Love Fanny tells the story of her cousin, Linda, and her quest to find love; whereas in Love in a Cold Climate Fanny tells the story of her friend Polly and Polly’s mother, Lady Montdore.

Love, as ever, remains Mitford’s central theme…whether or not her characters find it is, indeed, another matter. In fact, Mitford’s novels are ostensibly about romantic love and the search for a spouse or lover, but it is her depiction of love in its other forms that is perhaps more insightful. Mitford has a real knack for capturing families, in particular the wealthy upper-class families that inhabit her stories. Even for someone far removed from such a society, the relationships Mitford draws are recognisable and parallels are easily drawn. Families, whatever their wealth or social status, are…families. There will always be disagreements, idiosyncracies, disappointments and love. It is these aspects of love that Mitford so lovingly portrays.

Love in a Cold Climate is a story about the difference between infatuation and love. Time, as ever, proves to be the test. The loves and longings we carry through adolescence are not the loves of the real world and Love in a Cold Climate shows this. It also shows that as we become older we learn to love in many different ways. Love, in Mitford’s novels, does not come in one simple form, but rather layers itself through the lives of her characters. Each of Mitford’s characters is touched by love, whether they are the object of it or not.

As with The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate holds many gems amongst its characters. The inimitable Uncle Matthew is still present, but I’ll spare you my ravings this time. Indeed, Love in a Cold Climate introduces us to other well-drawn, witty and comical characters. Cedric is a new addition, and an amusing one at that. His peculiar mix of pomposity and sincerity is initially confusing, but as you come to understand him better, and as he stands the test of loyalty and of time you come to appreciate Cedric. Reading Love in Cold Climate is certainly akin to  immersing oneself in a pool of gentrified eccentricity… a mad hatter’s tea party of Dons and Dukes… but to read it is also to bathe in the comforting world of family and its lifelong loves.

Nancy Mitford

I’ve enjoyed reading Love in a Cold Climate, although I would urge you to  read The Pursuit of Love first. The landscape of Love in a Cold Climate is much richer for having read The Pursuit of Love  and I think I would have found the novel far less enjoyable had I not done so. There is a final novel to complete the trio, The Blessing is Mitford’s end to the three ‘companion novels’ and I hold a secret (well, not-so-secret now) hope that it might tell the story of Fanny herself and that Mitford’s readers will be treated to the complete story of Fanny’s life and not just the tit-bits we scrabble to pick up through our reading of the first two novels. I intend to read it, although perhaps, not immediately. I’ll save it and indulge myself in the not too far distant future.

I’ve grown fond of Nancy Mitford and her characters. They allow a snapshot into another world, a world of aristocracy and wealth. It’s easy to imagine that Mitford’s readers could come to resent the characters they find on her pages, but no, there is something so endearing and loveable about the way Mitford depicts them that it’d be hard not to love them. In particular, Fanny, and  her cousins the Radletts, whose wacky way of life and quirky wit quickly cause you to develop a fond attachment to them. You don’t forget them in a hurry and returning to read about them again after months apart was very much like stepping into a room of extended family who you have not seen for a while…faults and foibles abound, but it is these very things which you soon come to love.

“You’ve no idea how long life goes on and how many, many changes it brings. Young people seem to imagine that it’s over in a flash, that they do this thing, or that thing, and then die, but I can assure you they are quite wrong.”

Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate

I read Love in a Cold Climate as part of the ‘Back to the Classics Challenge’ in the category of ‘Classic Romance’. I move on to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller  by Italo Calvino

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Loveable eccentricity…a review of The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford.

“Life is sometimes sad and often dull, but there are currants in the cake, and here is one of them.”

Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love.

Well, I have stormed my way through The Pursuit of Love in order to return it to the library in time – someone has reserved it, the cheek!

I really enjoyed this book, it’s witty, funny, touching and engaging. Though written in the 20th century, it has all the ingredients to be the perfect Victorian gothic novel: young unwanted narrator abandoned by her parents; brought up largely by a spinster aunt; intermittently forced to spend time at the country estate of her bad-tempered Uncle and timid (other) aunt. Then her guardian, Aunt Emily, marries an unknown army Captain. Things could have been rather grim for our heroine…she could have become the next Fanny Price or Cinderella forced to live as a servant amongst her own family, she could have been subjected to the vicious temper of an angry Uncle and the ravagings of an unwilling stepfather, but no, the Fanny of Mitford’s story does not have to undergo the trials of the typical abandoned child-heroine. Oh no, when she is deserted by her parents the rest of her family – in particular, her aunt Emily and cousin Linda – wrap themselves around her and endeavour to give her, if not a typical childhood, certainly a loving and fun-filled one. As for her ‘stepfather’ he turns out, rather happily, to be an intelligent, humourous, kind man…even if he is an insatiable hypochondriac.

Nancy Mitford

This is a story about growing up, childhood friendships, childish love and becoming an adult. Although Fanny acts as our narrator and we see the world largely from her perspective, The Pursuit of Love tells the story of her cousin, Linda, and her search for love and happiness. It’s an endearing tale about love and families, the Radlett family in particular, and the lives of the Radlett children and their cousin Fanny. Its characters are not the black and white, good and bad, characters of gothic novels but loveable, laughable real people with idiosyncracies, faults and charm.

Uncle Matthew, especially, never failed to make me laugh. At the start of the story – when Fanny is just a young girl – he is presented of something of an angry, gruff father figure, but even then his outbursts are easily dampened by the persuasions of his wife and the punishments (or should that be threats) he doles out to his children are never fully realised. He’s a kitten in tiger’s clothing. He is the archetypal English gentleman living on inherited wealth at his country estate, intent on keeping the world at bay – although, he is a generous landlord and gives lots of his time to the community around Alconleigh.

Mitford’s childhood home and her inspiration for Alconleigh.

He’s a real character. He shouts, he rails, he refuses to dine anywhere but his own home, loves to profess an ardent hatred of foreigners (despite letting them into his house and his family time and time again) and has some highly amusing old-fashioned ideas…I loved him. Take this quotation, for example, upon the expectation of an imminent German invasion Uncle Matthew gathers his family together and doles out their roles should invasion occur…here are his plans for the family’s larder (stocked diligently by the Spanish chef he’d previously tried to eject from his home, but allowed to stay on account of his being fed up of the endless sausage meat the cook produced in war-time England):

“Make them [the invading Germans] bring in the food and muck up their

transport, that’s what we want, to be a perfect nuisance so the store

cupboard will have to go, and Davey must blow it up.”

The unhappy Davey inherits this task as Uncle Matthew will, naturally, by this time have died killing as many invading forces as possible with the ammunition he, as head of the Home Guard, has been stock piling for months. Mitford is an artful writer, portraying the comic nuances of her characters well and succeeding in injecting humour even at the very saddest parts of her story.

The Pursuit of Love really is a perfect title for Mitford’s novel; throughout the narrative we see each of the characters going out into the world (some having to search farther and longer than others) and seeking real love. I’ll not spoil the story by telling you if they find it, but suffice to say that where Linda (the character whose love life we follow most closely) is concerned she seems to have more success at hunting foxes than lovers.

I would wholeheartedly recommend The Pursuit of Love. It really is the 20th century equivalent of Mansfield Park crossed with Wuthering Heights crossed with Little Women…all that, and a little humour thrown in for good measure, what more could you ask? My edition informs me that I should now read Nancy Mitford’s next book Love in a Cold Climate as it is a companion novel for The Pursuit of Love and has the same narrator. So expect to see it cropping up soon.

For the time being I move away from Mitford and on to When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman – having seen some positive reviews on other blogs, I thought I’d give it a go.

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