Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love Is the Saddest Comic Novel I’ve Ever Read

mitfordWhen I wrote about E. F. Benson’s very funny but also rather nasty Mapp and Lucia, I speculated that one reason I didn’t love it is that “I like my social comedy served up with a hint of conscience, or even of pathos.” “Give me Nancy Mitford any day,” wrote Min in the comments — and that reminded me that Mitford is another writer I keep meaning to read. So I asked for and got The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate for Christmas (thanks, D&J!) and have just finished the first of them. I am still reeling! Because although it certainly made me laugh out loud more than once, The Pursuit of Love is a very sad book. It doesn’t have just a hint of pathos: it is downright riddled with the stuff, right from the melancholy reflection on family photographs on page 1:

There they are, held like flies, in the amber of that moment – click goes the camera and on goes life; the minutes, the days, the years, the decades, taking them further and further from that happiness and promise of youth, from the hopes Aunt Sadie must have had from them, and from the dreams they dreamed for themselves. I often think there is nothing quite so poignantly sad as old family groups.

Sure, in that same paragraph we get introduced to the weirdly hilarious “entrenching tool” hung over the chimney (“with which, in 1915, Uncle Matthew had whacked to death eight Germans one by one as they crawled out of a dug-out. It is still covered with blood and hairs …”), and immediately after we are treated to a catalogue of the family “dramas” recalled by our self-effacing narrator, Fanny, from her Christmases spent with her cousins at Alconleigh, including one at which Linda (who turns out to be, if not the heroine, at least the main focus of the novel) tells the neighbours’ children about the “facts of life” in a version “so gruesome that the children left Alconleigh howling dismally, their nerves permanently impaired, their future chances of a sane and happy sex life much reduced.” (Don’t you long to know just what she told them?) But the mixture of pleasure and pain in the opening tells us clearly that, for all its brilliant comedy, The Pursuit of Love isn’t going to be altogether a lighthearted romp.

And it definitely isn’t. I think that’s because the pursuit of love turns out to be rather a mournful quest. Linda and Fanny dream of it, even before they are “out” and officially allowed to reach for it:

We were, of course, both in love, but with people we had never met; Linda with the Prince of Wales, and I with a fat, red-faced middle-aged farmer, whom I sometimes saw riding through Shenley. These loves were strong, and painfully delicious; they occupied all our thoughts, but I think we half realized that they would be superseded in time by real people. They were to keep the house warm, so to speak, for its eventual occupant.

The real-life models they have are not very encouraging, especially Fanny’s mother, known as ‘the Bolter’ because “she ran away so often, and with so many different people.” Nonetheless, as young girls Fanny and Linda imagine that married love is a beautiful, unwavering ideal.

One way or another, the rest of the novel puts paid to this notion: though written with a much (much!) lighter touch, The Pursuit of Love is as much the opposite of “chick lit” as anything by Elena Ferrante. Don’t be fooled by the hot pink cover — no happily-ever-afters here! In fact, there are hardly even any outright happy moments.”Where now was love that would last to the grave and far beyond?” thinks Linda as she travels, alone and forlorn, away from her second failed marriage:

She had found neither great love nor great happiness, and she had not inspired them in others. Parting with her would have been no death blow to either of her husbands; on the contrary, they would both have turned with relief to a much preferred mistress, who was more suited to them in every way. Whatever quality it is that can hold indefinitely the love and affection of a man she plainly did not possess, and now she was doomed to the lonely, hunted life of a beautiful but unattached woman. . . . What had she done with her youth? Tears for her lost hopes and ideals, tears of self-pity in fact, began to pour down her cheeks. The three fat Frenchmen who shared the carriage with her were in a snoring sleep, she wept alone.

The pathos of that scene is, admittedly, a little too much (we’re pulled back from the maudlin brink by the snoring Frenchmen, bless them), but Linda is right about how her life has gone. So was she wrong to seek love in the first place, to place all her hopes of happiness on it? Or did she just make bad choices? She loved both her husbands ardently — at first. Is love itself to blame, for distorting our vision and interfering with our judgment?

Whether we should blame love, or Linda, or just bad luck, to this point, new hope emerges when she meets Fabrice and realizes that this time it’s the real thing: “she was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love.” And yet … this coup de foudre is the least believable of all the novel’s romantic scenarios. Is that how “true love” works? Like a fantasy? And it’s an equivocal one, at that, as she becomes a “kept woman,” one of a string of Fabrice’s mistresses.

Linda’s fine with that, though, and no severe moral judgment descends on her from her family either. This time it’s war that ruins everything:

This was 1939, and men’s thoughts were not of relaxation but of death, not of bathing-suits but of uniforms, not of dance music, but of trumpets, while beaches for the next few years were to be battle and not pleasure grounds.

War seems like just a shadow on Linda’s love life, not a main event, but for all the insouciance with which she and Fanny discuss it (“he seems to have had a most fascinating time,” Fanny reports of her husband’s experience at Dunkirk; “They all did,” replies Linda, “the boys were here yesterday and you never heard anything like their stories”) there’s no ignoring its menace. The real threat is finally brought home to Linda — literally! —  when a bomb lands directly on the London house where she has been defiantly waiting for Fabrice.

I won’t give away exactly how things end for Linda and her one true love; I’ll just say that it’s not funny at all. As for Fanny, her quiet life (about which we know little, because, as she tells us, “this is Linda’s story, not mine”) seems for a while to be the implicitly better alternative to Linda’s quixotic adventures. But though Fanny did find love that endures in something like the way she and her cousin once dreamed of, it’s still a bit of a disappointment:

Alfred and I are happy, as happy as married people can be. We are in love, we are intellectually and physically suited in every possible way, we rejoice in each other’s company, we have no money troubles and three delightful children. And yet, when I consider my life, day by day, hour by hour, it seems to be composed of a series of pin-pricks. Nannies, cooks, the endless drudgery of housekeeping, the nerve-wracking noise and boring repetitive conversation of small children (boring in the sense that it bores into one’s very brain), their absolute incapacity to amuse themselves, their sudden and terrifying illnesses, Alfred’s not infrequent bouts of moodiness, his invariable complaints at meals about the pudding, the way he will always use my toothpaste and will always squeeze the tube in the middle.

Ha! But also, oh no! “These are the components of marriage,” Fanny says (resignedly? pragmatically?), “the wholemeal bread of life, rough, ordinary, but sustaining.” Maybe so, but what a let-down! If that’s the best we can hope for from love, aren’t we left wondering whether, all in all, it wouldn’t have been better to pursue something else? Or is the pursuit itself what matters? “Don’t pity me,” says Linda; “I’ve had eleven months of perfect and unalloyed happiness, very few people can say that, in the course of long long lives, I imagine.”

One thought on “Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love Is the Saddest Comic Novel I’ve Ever Read

  1. Min February 3, 2015 / 9:44 am

    Hooray for you, Rohan: a terrific review.
    And, yes, that great Hon., Nancy, didn’t shy away from pain and sadness at all. Hence the wit …
    Look to her life, it is all there. And so much more sad in reality. So the laughter is a necessary corrective. Nobody more acutely aware of that than NM, and nobody less given to self-pity. In the end, we know Linda has lived life as fully as possible and had her grand passion. Whereas Fanny gets the ‘deep peace’ – and all the corollary petty irritations.
    I can only think of Bathsheba Everdene who has anything like both. Fanny’s description of her married life is quite close to Gabriel Oak’s far more laconic – and prospect of petty irritation-free! – declaration to Bathsheba at the end of the novel, which is both comforting and chilling at the same time (poor Bathsheba, no more frisking about the life …).


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