“It’s rather sad,’ she said one day, ‘to belong, as we do, to a lost generation. I’m sure in history the two wars will count as one war and that we shall be squashed out of it altogether, and people will forget that we ever existed. We might just as well never had lived at all, I do think it’s a shame.’
‘It may become a sort of literary curiosity,’ Davey said … ‘People will be interested in it for all the wrong reasons, and collect Lalique dressing-table sets and shagreen boxes and cocktail cabinets lined with looking-glass and find them very amusing.”
This dialogue comes near the end of Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love (precursor to the more famous Love in a Cold Climate.) This foresight of the aesthetification (just pretend it’s a word) of the 1930s and early 1940s seems, in isolation, terribly discerning. Art Deco, the prohibition, and even somehow the Depression have been packaged up and resold to the 21st Century as a glamorous world of elongated vowels and dropped hemlines. But perceptive although this conversation is, it’s complicated by the fact that the novel itself is a style-led and narrow look at an eccentric slice of interwar high-society quite as glittering and collectible as any Lalique dressing-table set.
So, in producing this stylish, glittering world, does Mitford collude in this reduction of the human reality of the inter-war generation? Does she bring these people to life, or merely burnish a gilt frame surrounding this life as a fiction? The novel is heavily inspired by the eccentric and notorious Mitford family, who could barely be called representative of this or any generation. We’re offered no interpretation or deep analysis of characters’ actions, leaving you with a brittle but gleaming surface with glancing allusions to the inner tragedy of the protagonist, serial monogamist Linda. No – message, mission and ideas are not the strengths of this novel.
What you’re left with is the setting, the characters, the dialogue, the writing. And it’s here that Mitford excels. These elements are an aesthetic triumph – perfectly weighted and finely honed. Critics have observed that despite the apparent breezy simplicity of the writing, losing just one word would throw off the unique and devastatingly funny rhythm. The fact that I want to transcribe great tracts of the text for your comedic pleasure is a sure sign where the strengths of this book lie- but I’ve singled out the dastardly, rampaging, bluff Uncle Matthew as the brilliant example of her characterisation:
‘It was an accepted fact at Alconleigh that Uncle Matthew loathed me. This violent, uncontrolled man, like his children, knew no middle course, he either loved or he hated, and generally, it must be said, he hated … When it became obvious, and obvious it was from the hour of my conception, that my parents intended to doorstep me, Aunt Sadie had wanted to bring me up with Linda … Uncle Matthew had categorically refused. He hated my father, he said, he hated me, but, above all, he hated children, it was bad enough to have two of his own. (He evidently had not envisaged so soon having seven…)’
‘The men on the estate, the old ones that is, who were not in the army, had no time to chop up logs for the fires; they were occupied from morning till night, under the leadership of Uncle Matthew, in drilling, constructing barricades and blockhouses, and otherwise preparing to make themselves a nuisance to the German army before ending up as cannon-fodder. ‘I reckon,’ Uncle Matthew would say proudly, ‘that we shall be able to stop them for two hours – possibly three – before we are all killed. Not bad for such a little place.”
Mitford nudges farce in these joyful descriptions and the even better dialogue, but it’s in excelling in these areas that she pushes the story into the realm of the aesthetic and excessive, rather than forming any sort of generational portrait. Perhaps in choosing a semi-outsider, Fanny the cousin, as her narrator, Mitford was trying to chose a viewpoint more similar to that of the reader. Like Fanny, the reader is kept at arm’s length with our comparatively boring lives, but is irresistibly drawn in regardless (mirroring the public fascination with the Mitford family to this day.) Ultimately, Mitford is hardly social documentary writer, but to blame her for this would be to miss the point. Hers is a unique, hilarious, distant world which may be hard to associate with – but it’s joyful to read about.