Old Favourites: The Pursuit of Love (1945) by Nancy Mitford

A thinly veiled portrait of the author’s greatly eccentric British family

Novelist Nancy Mitford. Photograph: Hulton Archive

Novelist Nancy Mitford. Photograph: Hulton Archive

 

A “rich vein of lunacy” ran in the Mitford family, according to Jessica, one of the six aristocratic Mitford daughters, who had an isolated and eccentric upbringing before embarking on their headline-grabbing careers, which were grist to the British gossip-column and tabloid mills.

Nancy, the eldest daughter, wrote fast-paced, quick-witted comic novels satirising the interwar English upper class. The early ones, amusing but slight, contained hints of her future literary success: witty dialogue, plenty of exaggeration and multiple characters.

The Pursuit of Love, her most successful novel, is a thinly veiled portrait of her own greatly eccentric family, disguised as the Radletts, living on the rural Alconleigh estate. The blustering father and vague but loving mother exercise little control or direction over their seven children and niece Fanny; the latter, who narrates, is being raised by her aunt and uncle because her own extravagant parents find child-rearing too unglamorous.

Her mother, Fanny says, “having felt herself too beautiful and too gay to be burdened with a child at the age of 19… left my father when I was a month old, and subsequently ran away so often, and with so many people, that she became known to her family and friends as The Bolter”.

The self-effacing Fanny adores her cousins. The Radlett girls wait impatiently for life to become interesting but, because of their station, only marriage awaits them. So, they throw themselves at love like crusaders, with varied and always comical results. Mitford’s humorous prose follows the sisters through misguided marriages and love affairs, as the shadow of the second World War gradually closes in on their vanishing world.

My favourite character is the father, known to Fanny as Uncle Matthew. He has read only one novel, Jack London’s White Fang – the reason he hasn’t read any others is because he found one so good that he believes no other could be as good. He calls his daughters’ boyfriends “sewers”, still has his first World War trenching tool with blood and hairs on it from a German he killed, and hunts his children with blood hounds.

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