Rating: 3 stars
Read for the Shelfari 1001 group Group on Goodreads – an April BOTM
This was my first encounter with Nancy Mitford. I’ve meant to read this novel for years. A radio presenter whose work I enjoy is a huge fan (possibly an obsessive?) of the Mitford sisters, and the things he has broadcast and written about them intrigued me. When I was training to become an archivist, I worked at the County Record Office for Oxfordshire. One of my jobs involved acquiring a collection from the radio producer Madeau Stewart. She was related to the Mitford sisters, and her papers included correspondence and diaries with them, by them, about them. The collection also has illustrated letters and poems from Stevie Smith. It was a dream experience for a literary soul like me.
But anyway, as so often happens with me, I digress. I’m part of a 1001 Group on Goodreads – a bunch of refugees from the defunct Shelfari site who have set up a new home on Goodreads. Every month, members vote on an alphabetical selection of authors from Boxall’s list. One of the April Books of the Month was Love in a Cold Climate, so I thought why not take the plunge?
I’ve done something different while reading the book. The Group mods set up questions to think about and respond to for the BOTMs. I don’t usually like doing things like that. It reminds me too much of school, and makes me feel like I’m being led to think about a book in a particular way, rather than just experiencing it. It was an interesting experiment. There were 9 questions in total. I’m not going to include them in this post, but my jottings are in response to the questions. Let’s see if I can wrangle a book review from my answers!
I had to prepare myself before starting the book. I’d just finished Sons and Lovers, so wasn’t in the correct arch upper-class British frame of mind! I channelled the character of Sarah Raworth from Channel 4’s Indian Summers to get myself in the zone. Surprisingly, as I started to read, I heard Kiera Knightley’s voice, and started thinking about Jane Austen. The book seemed like a 20th century version of Austen’s pithy commentary on Society and social climbing. Particularly the obsession with marrying well, held by Lady Montdore. The wry humour delighted me, and I laughed out loud a few times. Mitford has a lovely light style that is still intelligent. She mocks her own class, but is affectionate as she does so. From time to time she reminds me of why I despise privilege and the high handedness that comes with it, the lack of sympathy for the situations of others. The people in the book are bumbling and self centred. They don’t really have to think about anything because the world is handed to them on a plate. I did find a poignancy in the book, though, an undercurrent of sadness that arises from people not living the life they want but having to meet the expectations of others. At times, Mitford seems scathing about the way some families live their lives and raise their children. I felt sorry for both Fanny, abandoned by her parents and no longer in contact with her father, and Polly, whose mother is controlling and whose father is distant and ineffectual. Both young women have been affected by their upbringings and are trying to make the best of their unhappy situations. I was surprised by the nuggets of wisdom buried within the comedy. I was expecting a knowing romp in the mode of Oscar Wilde or P G Wodehouse and nothing more. Mitford’s insights reminded me of Evelyn Waugh, which makes sense, because they were friends.
I liked Fanny as a narrator. She is naïve but not too naïve, understanding more than she lets on, and using her reputation for innocence to extract tasty gossip from her elders. She provides a certain detachment as a narrator, which gives breathing space to her observations. Her supposed innocence and naïveté create a space in which the people she observes feel secure enough to be indiscreet, and Fanny can deliver to the reader an uncluttered view of life within her class.
Uncle Davey was one of my favourite characters. He is wry and laconic, and has his life arranged just how he likes it, as evidenced by his starvation diet of four square meals. He has something of Mr Bennett about him. The dynamic between Uncle Davey and Aunt Emily, an eccentric couple who fit the mould of the landed gentry on a country estate, particularly Emily with her enthusiasm for fresh air and exercise, is my favourite thing about the book.
‘…Oh what a pity it happens to be Davey’s day for getting drunk. I long to tell him, he’ll be so much interested.’ … My uncle’s lapses into insobriety had no vice about them, they were purely therapeutic.
I love the idea of having therapeutic lapses into insobriety. Uncle Davey seems to have developed an excellent system for preventing his own boredom, under the guise of prolonging his life by periodically subjecting his body to periods of over-indulgence.
It must have been rather sad for Lady Montdore (though with her talent for ignoring disagreeable subjects she probably never even realised the fact) that friendship with royal personages only ever began for her when their days of glory were finished.
This for me sums up the character of Lady Montdore. She needs to feel that she is significant and even minor or disgraced aristocrats will serve her purpose. And yet she doesn’t seem to realise that she is being used by them, or she ignores that fact as she bulldozes her way through life, bullying her husband into being someone, bullying her child into marrying someone, in order to make herself feel like someone.
I found Lady Montdore monstrous. She is calculating and cunning, with nothing carried out without good reason. She observes everyone around her constantly, making comments that seem innocuous but which barely hide her true feelings. She is a frightful snob, sneering at people who live suburban rather than country lives, who don’t possess ancient family silver or other heirlooms. Her transformation into a bejewelled doll by the dazzling Cedric is divine, though. And Cedric, by the way, is amazing: camp, flamboyant, charming, hilarious, a flash of light in the gloom of Hampton. My second favourite character.
Aunt Sadie gave a profound sigh. ‘I wonder why it is that all girls suppose the married state to be one of perfect happiness? Is it just clever old Dame Nature’s way of hurrying them into the trap?’
Although I didn’t feel very much for Aunt Sadie, she shows occasional profound insight, such as in this quote. Why do people, men as well as women, think marriage is going to be a bed of rose petals and not require any effort? It’s hard work sharing your life with someone, finding compromises, keeping romance and intrigue alive when you share everything! Fanny later has insight into the intricate nature of relationships and the need for both parties to be aware of how their behaviour and attitude affects the other:
The success or failure of all human relationships lies in the atmosphere each person is aware of creating for the other…
The book explores notions of class, particularly the friction between old money and new typified by the resistance of the upper classes to the elevation of banking families to Society, and the jealousies between the aristocracy and the upper middle classes represented by the academics Fanny goes to live among. There is also a focus on the expectations that Society places on its members – to be interesting, to behave as the rules say they should, to marry well and appropriately – which goes hand in hand with the excitement but also the boredom of forbidden love, people hopping in and out of relationships, beneath a veneer of respectability.
Mitford puts across the simultaneously repressed and fascinated British attitude to sex well. Everybody in the book gossips about sex, and who is doing what to whom and how, while at the same time being reluctant to really talk about it. Jassy and Victoria quiz their married sisters and the newly married Fanny about IT, but the older women are vague in their descriptions. I don’t think Mitford thought much about the attitudes held in her society towards sex, they were what they were (still are, which is why our tabloid newspapers are still full of who did what to whom and how) and she incorporates them into the novel as part of the overarching attitudes of the British upper class.
The book is often described as satire, with exaggerated characters the basis of Mitford’s critique of the British aristocracy. I felt that, rather than exaggerating the characters, Mitford exaggerated their social setting and their actions. The kitsch imported French chateau that is Hampton, filled with lesser treasures because it will pass out of the immediate family, with the things of most value kept in the London house that will pass to Polly. The bewildering conversations at the first dinner party Fanny attends at Hampton, which are meaningless in content but designed to set off their participants in a certain light.
There is less in the way of heightened mannerisms than appears, say, in the comedic works of Oscar Wilde. There is nobody truly overblown. Mitford knows her class very well and makes fun of the paths trodden and words spoken more than she does individual characters. I thought that the book was as much chronicle of the country lives of the upper classes in between the world wars as it was a satire. Mitford wrote the book after the war, at a time when society was changing, becoming marginally more equal, moving towards being a meritocracy, albeit one powered by access to money, and was perhaps looking back fondly and humorously to a time that had passed.