Are you old enough to remember the Wayback machine? I mean, before it became the name for an archive of web pages on the internet? The original Wayback machine was a plot device on The Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show; Mr. Peabody, the world’s smartest beagle, and his pet boy, Sherman, would set the machine to a particular time and place in history, walk in, and before you could say “Snidely Whiplash” they were back in time.
I was 10 when I first saw the show, and, like most of my friends, I assumed it was just a matter of time before the Wayback machine, or something like it, would become a reality. In the near future we would all be getting three-course meals out of pill jars and letting robots do the ironing. I was really happy about the ironing.
I mention this because if they ever do get a handle on time travel, I know exactly where I want to go – back to Oxfordshire, England in the early 20th century, and hang out with the Mitfords. I’ve been fascinated with the six Mitford sisters since I bought or was given a copy of Selina Shirley Hastings’ biography of Nancy Mitford in the mid 1980s. At about the same time I read Jonathan Guiness’ The House of Mitford and, quite a bit later, The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, compiled by Charlotte Mosley. By the time I got around to reading the books they wrote themselves, I felt I knew Nancy, Jessica and Deborah quite well. (I’m not sure that Pamela ever wrote anything, and I wasn’t terribly interested in getting to know Diana and Unity, both of whom were ardent fascists. Diana married Sir Oswald Mosely, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, and Unity was so in love with Hitler she tried to kill herself when England declared war on Germany.)
Quite a lot has been written about the Mitfords, both by themselves and others – they must be the most written-about siblings since the Brontës – and most of it can be found on Wikipedia. There’s no point in taking up a lot of space here with details about the family except to say they’ve been described as outrageous, appalling and overprivileged. They were all that. They were also funny, stylish, daring and smart – well, except for poor Unity, who got the wrong end of the stick about just about everything.
My favourite has always been Nancy, the oldest sister, who. like Jessica, made her living as a writer and journalist. And my favourite books of hers are the three novels she wrote inspired by her own unconventional childhood: The Pursuit of Love (1945), Love in a Cold Climate (1949), and Don’t Tell Alfred (1960). She wrote other books before and since, but it’s this trilogy that captures a time and place that seems fragile and distant and it’s these three books that continue to resonate with modern readers.
The fictional narrator of all three books is Fanny Logan, whose mother, the Bolter – they call her that because she’s been married so often – has left her in the care of her Aunt Emily and Uncle David. Fanny divides her time between them and another set of cousins, the Radletts, at their stately home in Oxfordshire. Like the Mitfords, the Radletts have an extensive pedigree, going back to the Norman Conquest. Their mother, Aunt Sadie, is affectionate but ineffectual, and their father, Uncle Matthew, is an eccentric and rather terrifying blowhard who generally notices his children only to bellow at them.
The children have the run of the house. None of the girls go to school, leaving them plenty of time to form secret societies and plot new ways to tease their mother. Not much is expected of them until they’re at an age to “come out”, at which point they’ll attend a series of debutante balls, be presented at Court, and officially enter Society. Again, this seems to be pretty much as things were in the Mitford household. And while the Radlett children are not well educated in a formal way, they have lively, curious minds and grow into lively, curious women. As did Nancy and her sisters.
In Love in a Cold Climate we meet another, more distant cousin: Polly Hampton, the only daughter of Lord and Lady Montdore. Polly is a beautiful girl – as Fanny tells us, her beauty is her outstanding characteristic:
“She was one of those people you cannot think of except in regard to their looks, which in her case were unvarying, independent of clothes, of age, of circumstances, and even of health. When ill or tired she merely looked fragile, but never yellow, withered or diminished; she was born beautiful and never, at any time when I knew her, went off or became less beautiful, but on the contrary her looks always steadily improved.”
The Montdores are one of the wealthiest families in England. When Fanny is invited to come and stay with them she’s torn between her affection for Polly and her dread of doing or saying the wrong thing. Lady Montdore is a formidable creature – ambitious, vain, pompous and outspoken. A list of the food served in the household reminds one that there was a time when people with money regularly ate a seven-course meal. The fact that they weren’t all immensely obese can only be attributed to the fact that much of it was left on their plates. And, of course, this was before fast food turned us into gluttons.
But back to Polly. Given their wealth and her daughter’s beauty, Lady Montdore has high hopes for an important marriage in the future, preferably to someone with a title. Even the new King of England is not beyond reach, she feels. But Polly won’t play along. She shows no interest in any of the eligible men she meets and her coming-out season is a flop. When her father’s sister, Lady Patricia, dies, the truth comes out – Polly has, for most of her life, been pining for her lecherous, much older uncle – her aunt’s husband. With Patricia gone, Polly sees a way to make her dream come true, and, against the advice of every single person she knows, she goes for it. With predictably disastrous consequences.
Fanny, I believe, speaks with Nancy Mitford’s voice. She may not be intended to be Nancy, exactly, but the tone is so what you’d expect of a “bright young thing” of the 1920s. Witty, a little cynical, willing to be amused, but also, as my father used to say, calling a spade a spade. Mitford might not dig deep into the the psychological motivations of her characters – thank goodness! – but she is unafraid to show us the shadows behind the laughter. When Polly’s baby dies shortly after birth, Fanny is prepared to offer heartfelt sympathy, being, by this time, a mother herself. But Polly seems unmoved … the baby’s death is more of a relief, apparently, than anything. We can hear Nancy’s voice in the background, lamenting the coldness of a woman who would give more thought to ordering a new outfit than the death of a child.
Love in a Cold Climate is all about love – pursuing it, discussing it, and, eventually, finding it. In the end, though, love proves unsatisfying. As it was, I believe, for Mitford. She had a long, unrequited love affair with Hamish St. Clair Erskine, who was gay and eventually married someone else. She married Peter Rodd on the rebound, who was irresponsible and unfaithful, frequently with women she knew. And Gaston Palewski, the French general she considered the love of her life, kept her mostly at arms’ length for decades.
At one point Alfred, Fanny’s husband, offers this criticism: “General subjects do not amuse you, only personalities.” I’d stake my life on that being a direct quote by some man Mitford knew – hopefully not someone she loved.