It was one of my mother’s favourite books. She’d read it often. But after her death I wondered? Would the Radletts of Alconleigh; parents, Sadie and Matthew, the beautiful Linda and cousin Fanny, the clear-eyed chronicler of their story, still be as vivid and wonderful? Tears of laughter rolled down my cheeks as I devoured the book in one sitting. Nancy Mitford’s creation, loosely based on her own aristocratic family, including sisters, communist Jessica and fascist Unity, lives on.
England between the wars. The horrors of the first are vividly recalled. The entrenching tool with which “Uncle Matthew had whacked to death eight Germans.” hangs on the wall. England is what we’d now call a Brexiteer’s heaven. “Frogs. . . are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.”
These are the upper classes. Girls are presented at court. They are chaperoned. Fanny's mother, the "Bolter" who "bolted" from her husband into a series of disastrous love affairs, must not be emulated. But the pursuit of love cannot be thwarted. Linda, possessed of the "blue of two steady Radlett eyes", has those eyes firmly fixed on romance. She marries first the Boris Johnson look-alike, Tony Kroesig. A banker, blonde and boring, Tony doesn't last. Next up is Christian, confusingly a communist, who rushes off to the Spanish civil war, with Linda, "the Tatler under her arm" following.
Usurped by Lavender Davis, “dowdy, healthy and plain”, Linda escapes to Paris where Fabrice, the archetypal Frenchman, somewhat Francois Holland-ish, rescues her. At last, she experiences “a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew this was love”. But war intervenes. Fabrice goes to fight with de Gaulle; Linda returns to London. Tragedy ensues. The tears on my cheeks are now of grief.
The Millennial faint-hearted will be appalled by Mitford’s depiction of class and gender. But Mitford’s triumph is that, as the Radletts live and laugh and cry, so do we, like my mother. With them.