This is my review of Love in a Cold Climate (Penguin Modern Classics) by Nancy Mitford.
Nancy Mitford applied a sharp wit and first-hand experience of eccentric aristocrats to this well-known parody of upper class life. Palmed off on upper class aunts and uncles who have “relieved” her “divorced parents of the boredom and the burden of bringing up a child”, narrator Fanny recalls the quirky conversations and unperceived bubble of inter-war privilege in which they float She is preoccupied with the lovely Polly, daughter of the caricature of an earl, Lord Montdore, who, in his ageing ineffectiveness “might just as well have been made of wonderful old cardboard, and his wife, whose “worldly greed and snobbishness, her terrible relentless rudeness..formed the subject of many a legendary tale”. Expected to make a great marriage, Polly’s total lack of interest in any eligible suitors puzzles Fanny and drives Lady Montdore to despair which turns to rage when she discovers the true object of her daughter’s affection.
Many readers still appear to find this book highly entertaining, a harmless piece of escapism, although it is likely to seem dated to younger readers. Opinions will differ as to what is most amusing in Fanny’s inexhaustible gushing flow. I laughed over the ludicrous digression into “the Chubb Fuddler”. “He came. He walked along the river bank, and sowed upon its waters some magic seed, which soon bore magic fruit, for up to the surface, flapping swooning, fainting, choking, thoroughly and undoubtedly fuddled, came hundreds upon hundreds of chubb, The entire male population of the village… fell upon the fish….and the contents were taken off to be used as manure for cottage gardens or chubb pie, according to taste”.
There is a gossipy bitchiness which I disliked, such as the description of Lady Montdore’s curtsies which “owing to the solid quality of her frame, did not recall the graceful movement of wheat before the wind” as she “scrambled down like a camel, rising again backside foremost like a cow, a strange performance….her knees crackled like revolver shots but her smile was heavenly”. Descriptions of the formal socialising are quite tedious as it may well have been in reality, as when, for instance, everyone waits for the guests of honour at a dinner party, “a very grand Sir and Ma’am indeed” ,which can only be trite code for royalty.
In the current climate of concern over sexual harassment, some passages may reflect Nancy Mitford’s times, but arouse a sense of unease: it seems to be common knowledge that Polly’s uncle, “the Lecherous Lecturer” preys on his young female relatives, but everyone turns a blind eye. Nancy’s precocious cousin Jassy says, “The fascinating thing was that after the lecture he gave us a foretaste of sex, think what a thrill. He took Linda up on to the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her, at least, she could easily see how it would be blissful with anybody except the lecturer. And I got some great sexy pinches as he passed the nursery landing.”
Many of the characters seem to be caricatures of the author’s relatives and acquaintances, living in a world of froth, with no real emotion beneath brittle, articulate facades as they drift to an abrupt, contrived and somewhat unsatisfactory ending.. The most extreme example of this is the male heir to Lord Montdore’s Hampton property, the Canadian Cedric, who hales from Nova Scotia –clearly Nancy Mitford’s idea of the back of beyond, who turns out to be a highly manipulative, flamboyant gay, apparently modelled on the famously decadent socialite Stephen Tennant, one of the “Bright Young Things” along with the Mitford sisters.
Obliged to finish this for a book group, I was resentful over the time diverted from a more worthwhile read. In yet another case of truth being better than fiction, I would have preferred an intriguing biography of the Mitfords and their circle.