Not a lot to say other than that Nancy Mitford is worth reading. I enjoyed her Madame de Pompadour biography, which showed a certain mastery of the history and culture of France. Come to think of it, that book makes a nice companion for the brief biogrpahy of Napoleon I read: biography as building blocks of history.
In browsing through Mitford’s own bio (wikipedia), learning about her famous aristocratic family, I heard about this book, her best-known novel, which is essentially a portrait of her early life and circumstances. Only it isn’t, not exactly. The first half does contain a view of the great estate, peopled with mannered, slightly wacky eccentrics, and yes, it gives a very good, fairly direct impression of her youth. But it’s all rather oblique, with an interesting, detached narrator who is very much a “Fanny,” perhaps the code name for the unassuming Jane Austen observer of upper class foibles and follies. The second half of the book, we only realize belatedly, has a more specific subject and main character, Fanny’s closest cousin and friend Linda–early on it wasn’t exactly clear that this novel is Linda’s story. Linda’s love story is simple but engaging, perhaps not so substantial as the group portrait of childhood. The primary thrust of the whole thing is what it was like to be born just before the first war, and thus come of age in the 30s, building a life, or starting to, before the second war. Towards the end Mitford suggests that hers is a secondary lost generation, destined to be forgotten because the wars will gradually be scrunched together as time marches on, and the time of youth and love in such circumstances was especially ephemeral. Part of this impression must be caused by writing about an all-but-dead aristocracy during a time of global depression and economic conflict and crisis, none of which is allowed to be mentioned or considered. Linda succumbs to a communist phase and husband as the war gathers itself, but her approach is romantic and fashionable, her character ultimately unsatisfied. For all of the near-specifics of the family portrait in the first half of the book, the second half creates the impression of a symbolic journey of the heart, and the emotional life of a representative woman of a particular generation and class.
There are lots of voices and echoes, staring with the immortal Jane. Mitford no doubt found that Austen’s tone of propriety and detachment was perfectly suited to her sophisticated taste and penchant for light and sparkling comedy. She does a lot of updating, using a quiet first-person narrator, but she’s careful to preserve the stately home and its basic rules of decorum. It’s as if she takes a wayward Emma, marries her to a banker, has her make a second marriage to a communist, and then allows her to find a trancendent, transient love with her French opposite number, a rarified coupling that is too special and fragile to survive such a nasty and brutish war.
The artistry here is equally delicate, but there’s plenty of life to it. Such a book and tone and story is no mean feat. I think I might be more interested in reading and pursuing Winifred Holtby, who comes to mind as an alternative, and I’ll have to try and think of others. I’ve never gotten around to Evelyn Waugh, who is working the same vein, I imagine. Mitford’s narrator Fanny survives to tell more tales in a couple of subsequent books, and that’s certainly intriuing. It’s all a bit like drinking champagne, which ain’t so bad, right?