Why Nancy Mitford’s “genius” novel left me underwhelmed

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate is supposed to be the novel that best displays her reputed “genius” for sharp and provocative wit.

Naturally, I was expecting to encounter writing that fizzed, crackled and sparkled as Mitford pricked the bubble of complacency surrounding rich, aristocratic families.

What I got instead was a slightly funny book parading the absurdities of a bunch of people who are supremely confident in many things, but particularly their superiority above all other mortals.

I felt cheated. Much like you do when you pull the Christmas cracker but end up with nothing more than a feeble pop and an empty roll of coloured cardboard. Not even a tiny packet of playing cards or a giant paper clip to make the effort worthwhile. 

An Unsuitable Match

Love In a Cold Climate brings us the tale of Polly Hampton, more properly known as Lady Leopoldina. She’s the only child of an immensely rich and very aristocratic  Earl of Montdore and his wife, Sonia.

Polly shines amid the debutants who have flocked to London for the ‘season’; the annual series of glittering balls and big social occasions whose real purpose is to find a marriage partner.  Much to her mother’s frustration, however, Polly shows little interest in the London season and the men she meets consider her cold and aloof.

The cause of Polly’s indifference is revealed to her shocked family: she’s been in love with  her uncle, “Boy” Dougdale since she was fourteen. She’s hell bent on marriage to a man considered by all and sundry to be eminently unsuitable as a husband; he’s a serial womaniser and known for his lecherous behaviour towards young girls.

Polly is determined to have her own way. Her punishment is banishment and disinheritance.

Mitford’s characters 

You won’t find a lot of humour in the plot.  The wit resides instead in Mitford’s characterisation, in particular the figures of Lady Montdore and Uncle Matthew.

Matthew is great fun as a character. because he’s so over the top.  He plays the role of a conventional English Lord very well, with his love of hunting, fishing, shooting and his firm belief in the importance of lineage. He has little tolerance for silly, ignorant women and even less for the business of bringing girls out into society (expensive nonsense in his eyes).

The most fascinating character is however Lady Montdore.

A portrait of egotism

She’s a woman who is so easy to dislike with her  “worldly greed and snobbishness, her terrible relentless rudeness.”  The forcefulness of her personality  generally ensures that she gets her own way, whatever the situation though she can also exploit the social status conferred by her husband’s title and wealth.

So wrapped up in her desires to be the hostess with the mostest and to secure a brilliant marriage for her daughter, Lady Montdore has no idea how condescending she can appear. Marriages of acquaintances and relatives are dismissed as inferior and inappropriate unless they involve solid assets like “acres, coal mines, real estate, jewels, silver, pictures..”  All of the things in fact that her husband has in vast quantitites.

She’s not afraid to use her influence to prevent such a social calamity. Upon discovering  that her daughter’s friend Fanny has made a  “quite ridiculous” engagement to a professor, she offers to call the editor of the Times on the girl’s behalf, to retract the announcement.

Masterclass in how to patronise

One of the funniest scenes in the novel is when Her Ladyship makes an unplanned afternoon visit to  the – now married – Fanny.  It’s a master class in how to be patronising.

I suppose your husband is a clever man , at least so Montdore tells me. Of course it’s a thousand pities he is so dreadfully poor –  I hate to see you  living in this horrid little hovel, so unsuitable.

And with that she wrinkles her nose at the weak tea and broken digestive biscuits served without the nicety of a plate or napkin.

But worse is to follow when Lady Montdore puts on her “we’re hard done by” act:

It’s all very well for funny little people like you to read the books the whole time, you only have yourselves to consider, whereas Montdore and I are public servants in a way, we have something to live up to, tradition and so on, duties to perform, you know, it’s a very different matter. A great deal is expected of us, I think and I hope it’s not in vain. It’s a hard life, make no mistake about that, hard and tiring but occasionally we have our reward  – when people get a chance to show how they worship us, for instance when we came back from India and the dear villages pulled our motor car up the drive, Really touching!

If only all of the novel could have been as delicious as this episode.

The saga of this odd romance and its consequences are related by Fanny Wincham, a distant cousin of Polly and a frequent visitor to the family’s home.

And therein lay my biggest issue with this novel: Fanny is a very dull girl. Fanny is the sensible one, the friend who longs for a stable life (understandable perhaps when you’re mother is known as ‘The Bolter’ because she left so many men in the dust)

I suppose Fanny had to be rather ordinary, in order to make a sharp contrast with the larger than life characters of her Uncle Matthew and Polly’s mother, Lady Montdore. But I would have appreciated a narrator with a little more to her than this ‘nice’ but tepid individual. Perhaps then her observations would have helped the book live up to its much vaunted status as the work of a genius.


Footnotes

About the author

Nancy Mitford was one of six daughters of a British aristocratic family (the very class she features in her novels). The siblings achieved fame/notoriety in 1930s, three of them because of their political affiliations. A journalist for The Times, Ben Macintyre, labelled them “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur”.

Why I read this book

I added Love in a Cold Climate to my Classics Club list having seen it described as a “masterpiece’ of witticism. I also included her earlier novel The Pursuit of Love but now I’m wondering if that will be just as disappointing.

Want to know more

  • Read more about the Mitford family in this BBC article.
  • Vanity Fair has a published an interesting feature  exploring why the six Mitford sisters continue to fascinate people.
  • Ali who blogs at HeavenAli is more of a fan of the Mitford writers, than I seem to be. Check out her reviews here. 

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on June 26, 2019, in Book Reviews, British authors, Classics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. Reading about them was always more interesting to me. This bio was excellent. https://www.amazon.com/Sisters-Saga-Mitford-Family/dp/0393324141

  2. I have a lot of fondness for Mitford’s best works (by which I mean the ones that don’t include loveable Fascists), but they certainly only work in certain moods. I also remember hearing them dramatised on BBC radio which really helped with the bland narrator issues

  3. My daughter has read and loved the Mitford novels. I’ve always meant to, but have never got around to it. I’ve always thought I’d enjoy her but, who knows?

  4. I’ve never read any Mitford, and I’ve never even heard of this book so I’m not too disappointed. The premise sounds appetizing but if it’s not very good..well then, I don’t have to worry about my tbr increasing!

  5. I felt about the same after I read Barbara Pym’s novel Excellent Women. There were funny moments, but I was supposed to get this genius work. I must say, though, that the main character of Excellent Women was never described as a fourteen-year-old girl who has had something happen in her life to make her worship a womanizer. Who’s raises the child?!

  6. I have considered reading Mitford. Didn’t she have sisters who also wrote? Having read your review, I don’t think she is for me. Even if she is satirizing all those views of the rich, I don’t feel like wallowing in that right now. Though I did recently read a pretty good, short novel about the rich in Los Angeles: A Student of History by Nina Revoyr. https://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2019/05/a-student-of-history.html

    • Two of them were supporters of the Fascists and adored Hitler. Two others did write – maybe the most famous is Jessica Mitford who wrote The American Way of Death. A very ‘colourful’ family….

  7. I read this yonks ago and expected to get more out of it than I did. I considered revisiting the Mitfords recently, but my sympathies with the upper classes are non existent nowadays…

  8. I too enjoyed The Pursuit of Love, but the arch critique of the privileged classes failed to win me over in other NM novels. Amorality and arrogance aren’t as funny as she seems to think

  9. I had exactly the same response to this when I read it a couple of years ago. It wasn’t just the fact that all the characters automatically accepted their ‘entitlement’ but that it was so apparent that Mitford did as well. I came away from the book feeling distinctly grubby.

  10. Hurrah! I’m not the only one who found her over-rated then! I tried to read The Blessing a couple of years ago and abandoned it halfway through because I simply couldn’t have cared less about any of them, and the humour just wasn’t humorous enough to carry it. Think I’ll continue my Mitford ban and give this one a miss…

    • Books work best for me when I care about at least one of the characters. Doesn’t mean I have to like them, just that I’m invested in their story. I didn’t really get that interested in any of these Mitford people. Who Polly married and whether she was happy was of no interest whatsoever.

  11. That’s a shame! (I have it on my 20 Books of Summer list because I read the first one in the series, The Pursuit of Love, which I really loved). Not sure if you’ve read much Mitford but I do love Wigs on the Green.

  12. I don’t know about ‘work of genius’ but I loved reading Nancy Mitford as a young man – and other voyeuristic accounts of the upper class, particularly Brideshead. Mitford always positions herself as the ‘ordinary’ outsider looking in, no not looking in, living amongst. Her connections to the nobility enhance her status with other professors’ wives, but whether they see her as one of them is problematic – you can only imagine the cut glass accent she grew up with. And Polly is lovely, a really well-drawn character.

    That said, I’m sure the books we grew up with have a special place in our hearts, impervious to criticism.

  13. I enjoyed the book. I love a scene in the 2001 t.v. version where Cedric (Daniel Evans) teaches Lady Montdore to smile by saying “brush”–very campy and funny. But I found the real Mitfords way more interesting.

    • I’m going to look out for that TV version; will be interesting to see how it transfers to the screen. But yes those Mitford girls were certainly ‘characters’

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