Is it time to end our Mitford obsession?

As Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love appears on BBC One, two writers consider the legacy of the original novel – and the family that produced it.

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Hailed as a work of comic genius, The Pursuit of Love scarcely makes me smile. What’s wrong with me? – Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Not being interested by the Mitfords is such an unpopular opinion that I almost declined to write this piece. Perhaps five years ago, when I had less confidence in my own opinions, I would have been too wary of condemnation by the countless Mitford minions to do so. There is an endless fascination with these sisters and a whole industry surrounding them, and, try as I might to engage, I just cannot summon enthusiasm for any of it. I have tried to enjoy Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate several times, and always find myself bored and mildly irritated. These are hailed as works of comic genius and I scarcely raise a smile. What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I get the hype?

Maybe it’s that these novels reached me far too late. Perhaps, had I read them at 13, I’d now have a deep, enduring affection for them. Maybe it’s because my first encounter with the Mitfords was during a history class about extremism in the 1930s, and so the first sister I met was Unity, who stalked Hitler and then shot herself in the head when war broke out with the gun he had given her. Then there was Diana, another odious anti-Semite who married the British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley. I didn’t taint Nancy unfairly with that brush, however: I read up on her and her communist sister Decca, was moderately interested by the political gulf that emerged in the family, then moved on with my life.

Is it that I’m allergic to posh people? Sometimes I have wondered. But it can’t be that. Given half a chance I’d abolish the aristocracy, but I’m not such an ardent lefty that I can’t recognise how hilariously funny they can be. I love Evelyn Waugh; I grew up on a diet of PG Wodehouse. During lockdown last year, I almost considered reading all 12 volumes of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, which as far as I can tell from the TV series mainly consists of people from Eton bumping into one another. English country house narratives are my literary comfort blankets, even if, in real life, I’d requisition them all and turn them into social housing. I find myself wondering, what can it be? What is it that I am missing?

As ever with books that everyone seems to love, I can’t help feeling the problem must be me. I’m always complaining about how few genuinely great comic novels exist. Perhaps all I need is a week with the flu to give Nancy another chance and become an honorary Hon, though no doubt she’d find me terribly non-U (read that sentence back and reflect on just how ridiculous the English class system is). Then again, not buying into Mitford madness does have its benefits: my loyalty to the novel was zero, so I quite enjoyed Emily Mortimer’s adaptation. Perhaps I’ll read the book (again) alongside it, and will develop strong views on the matter, though what usually happens is I get bored and decide to read Vile Bodies or The Loved One again instead, while everyone tells me what I’m missing.

[see also: Emily Mortimer’s The Pursuit of Love is bold, barmy and never boring]

Why The Pursuit of Love really is one of the greatest 20th-century British novels – Charlotte Lydia Riley

The Pursuit of Love is a novel I first encountered through my mother, who had two identical copies of a yellow-covered Penguin edition from 1980 that included both The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. She pressed it on me to read, and I took one of the copies to London when I went to university. It is the most battered book I own: the cover is criss-crossed with fine creases, there is a lot of felt tip scribbling on the first page (whether by me or one of my siblings, I’m not sure), the spine is coming away and the corners are dog-eared and torn.

It’s partly so battered because it’s older than I am, but more because it is the book I turn to most often when I'm in need of comfort. It was often part of the teenage detritus on my bedroom floor at home, and it’s been slept with when I was ill, and dipped in the bath when I was moping. It’s a comforting book for many reasons, perhaps most of all in its attention to sibling dynamics among the Hons, the name the Radletts give to their secret society, and the way that Fanny works as an outsider to draw the reader into their lives. It’s a book about love, of course, although many of the love affairs end dramatically or horribly or sadly; but there is a particular comfort, especially as a teenage girl, in frustrated love affairs. Watching Linda careen from boring Tony to awful Christian to blissful Fabrice – only briefly – never becomes less sad. The moment she receives a much-desired letter from Fabrice but cannot read his handwriting is so exquisitely, heartbreakingly cruel. But the novel is also dazzlingly funny, not just in the comedic characters – Uncle Matthew and his awful roaring, Aunt Sadie and her vague loveliness – but also in the dialogue, which is some of the best in any novel.

To call The Pursuit of Love comforting perhaps sounds belittling, not an adjective befitting of a work of great literature. But there is an argument that it really is one of the greatest 20th-century British novels. It captures a particular type of British upper-class identity that was already fading when the book was published in 1945, but it also places Linda and Fanny at the centre of an interwar and wartime moment that has defined a lot of British society and culture since. When Nancy Mitford has Linda sadly lament that she belongs to a “lost generation”, which will be squashed out of memory by the two World Wars, Davey (lovely Davey) remarks that they might become a sort of literary curiosity. But the book is much more than that: it’s a living, breathing piece of historical writing that transports the modern reader to these unusual, alien lives, and makes Linda and Fanny feel not only like real people, but beloved friends.

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