Category Archives: British authors

Oozing With The Smell of Decay: Pure by Andrew Miller

Pure by Andrew Miller

When you read Pure by Andrew Miller, it might be wise to have a strongly scented candle by your side. For this is a book which evokes stench and decay so powerfully I was convinced I could smell it on my clothes every time I opened the book.

Pure is set in Paris in 1785. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young, ambitious engineer, arrives at the palace of Versailles hoping to get a Ministerial commission that will help him make a mark on the world.

False Dreams of Utopia

He “dreams of building utopias where the church and its superstitions will be replaced by schools run by men like himself.” Instead, the task he is handed is not one of construction but of demolition.

In the  Rue de Saint Innocents stands the oldest cemetery in Paris. More than 50,000 victims of bubonic plague were reputedly buried here in one day. The  subterranean wall separating the living from the dead has collapsed and the bones and decaying flesh have released a miasma which fouls the air,  taints the food and even the breath of those who live within its shadow.

Living Hell

It takes a year for Barratte and his team of miners to open the graves and clear away the past. It’s a job which almost costs Baratte his life as the cemetery becomes a kind of hell of burning fires and walls of bones and skulls. Few of those involved in the enterprise emerge unscathed physically or mentally. When they began they imagined they were engaged in a noble cause, building the foundations of a better future in which their endeavours would be marked for posterity.

“They will name squares after us ……..the men who purified Paris,” declares the foreman of works. But as the graves are emptied and the cemetery’s wild flowers wither, so the vitality drains out of the workers. Tobacco, alcohol, weekly visits by prostitutes – nothing can distract the team of miners from the sense of loss. ‘I had some good in me once’ one observes bleakly.

Belief Destroyed

Baratte too undergoes a transformation. The naïve young man is easy prey when he first arrives in the city. It takes little to persuade him to exchange his sensible brown suit for one of pistachio green silk or to join a group of drunken vandals who move about the city under cover of night painting obscenities about Queen Marie Antoinette. But it is not long before he finds he cannot sleep without a sedative and his ideals and belief in the power of reason are destroyed.

The cleansing of the cemetery is an extended metaphor for the cleansing that we as readers know these citizens will experience shortly, although on a significantly bigger scale. Andrew Miller provides plenty of symbolic references to the French Revolution, including naming one of characters Dr Guillotin and including dialogue that can easily be read on two levels. Take this example, from Baratte’s first meeting with the Ministerial aide,  who gives him his commission:

It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers but the king himself. The king and his ministers.

Yes, my lord.

It is to be removed.

Removed?

Destroyed. Church and cemetery. The place is to be made sweet again. Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.

“Flawless Historical Fiction”

Pure is Andrew Miller’s sixth novel and it won him the 2011 Costa Book of the Year award. The judges praised it as a “structurally and stylistically flawless historical novel.”  I’m not going to argue with that assessment.

Miller avoids the mistake made by so many historical fiction authors who load up their narrative with too much info gleaned from research. What we get in Pure is plenty of detail about clothes, food and daily domestic life of the period but it’s seamlessly woven into the narrative. Pure is so magnificently atmospheric it reminded me at times of the early scenes in Patrick Sushkind’s Perfume,

But then we get the additional layering of the parallel between the hell of the graveyard and the hell that is to follow in the Revolution. Ultimately there is a sense of optimism at the end where flowers once more bloom again in the now empty cemetery and sunlight filters through the broken roof of the church to illuminate the darkness.

Pure By Andrew Miller: Footnotes

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller gained his MA in creative writing through the prestigious programme at the University of East Anglia. He went on to complete a PhD in critical and creative writing at Lancaster University.

He has written eight books, all published by Sceptre, the imprint of Hodder and Stoughton,  His first novel, Ingenious Pain, published in 1997 went on to win three awards – The James Tait Black Memorial Prize, The Grinzane Cavour Prize in Italy and The International Dublin Literary Award. Pure won the Costa Prize Novel of the Year. His most recent novel Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (see my review) won the Walter Scott Prize.

  • Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (2018, Sceptre)
  • The Crossing (2015, Sceptre)
  • Pure (2011, Sceptre)
  • One Morning Like a Bird (2008, Sceptre)
  • The Optimists (2005, Sceptre)
  • Oxygen (2001, Sceptre)
  • Casanova (1998, Sceptre)
  • Ingenious Pain (1997, Sceptre)

This review was posted originally in 2013. This is an updated version incorporating background info about the author and improving readability by shortening the paragraphs.

Three Hours Of Tense Drama In A School Under Siege [book review]

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

When you despatch your children through the school gates each morning, you trust they’re heading into a safe environment. That nothing beyond those gate will put them in danger. Rosamund Lupton‘s debut novel Three Hours turns that belief on its head.

It’s 9.15am one cold, snowy November morning at the Cliff Heights School in rural Somerset. The morning’s session has barely begun when shots are fired. Headmaster Matthew Marr lies in a pool of blood, powerless to protect his students from the armed gunman who paces the school’s corridors. Unknown to him, accomplices hide in the surrounding woods intent on causing further harm.

Disturbingly Plausible Scenario

The disturbing scenario of Three Hours is one that’s frighteningly familiar from TV news images of school shootings like those at Dunblane Primary School in 1996 and Columbine High School in 1999.

Rosamund Lupton takes us behind those headlines to examine the reactions of people caught up in a similar attack. Hour by hour we share the fears of the students and staff trapped at the Cliff Heights school; the anxiety of parents waiting for news and the frustrations of police officers tasked with ending the siege without further bloodshed.

In the midst of their fear lies bewilderment about the identity and the motivation of the gunmen. Are they terrorists or someone with a grudge against the school? Is the entire school the target or are the attackers after two pupils only: the brothers Rafi and Basi Bukhari, both Muslim refugees from Aleppo?

An Unlikely Target

Three Hours is set in a high performing, well-funded liberal school that prides itself on its philosophy of tolerance, inclusivity and openness. It’s the last place anyone would expect to be targetted by extremists. As the deputy head tells the police psychologist drafted in to help identify the attackers:

We have safe spaces for debate, democracy in action through the school council … tolerance is an integral part of the school. It’s why we don’t have a uniform and the students are free to practice whatever religion they choose, or none.

But even these principles provide no protection against dark forces that actively encourage and support radical racist messages and actions. One morning, without warning, those forces are unleashed on the school’s sprawling campus.

Three Hours illustrates how radicalisation can happen anywhere and how extremist groups prey on susceptible minds, using complex technology platforms to cloak their identities. By the time the attack is over, pupils, teachers and parents will have had their beliefs and trust put to the severest test.

Courage In Face of Danger

But Rosamund Lupton also shows how love and courage prevail in the midst of danger and uncertainty. Some of the people involved find skills and strengths they never realised they had. Others discover who they truly are, what they believe in and for what they are willing to die.

In the school’s isolated theatre, one group of students press on with their rehearsal of Macbeth, finding that Shakespeare’s portrayal of ambition and murderous intent helps them deal with their own unfolding drama. In the pottery building, a 60-year-old teacher converts tables into a pretend house. While her class of lively seven-year-olds are diverted into making miniature clay cups and bowls, she makes clay tiles to protect them from flying glass. And in the library, sixth-former Hannah Jacobs strips to her bra, using her t shirt to stem the blood flowing from her headmaster’s body.

Healing Power of Love

The real hero of the school, and the epitome of selfless love is Rafi; the pupil who finds an explosive device in the school grounds, raises the alarm and shows the way to evacuate one building. The person who, warned by police advice that he might be a target, puts his life in danger to go in search of his younger brother missing in the woods.

Rafi suffers from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of his flight from Syria. But through his friendship with Hannah he is finding a way to put his life back together:

He thinks that a long time ago he was like a glass … clear and transparent, made of invisible love and he was filled with liquid running life, right to the brim.

… then he’d been beaten and ashamed and frightened and he was a thousand pieces scattered on a snow-covered pavement in Aleppo, an Egyptian beach, the deck of a boat, a migrant camp

But then he met a girl, loves this girl and each of those thousand pieces know their way back to their place in the glass, the cracks in him kaleidoscopes of light.

There’s much to admire in Three Hours, from the setting to the characterisation ( I was drawn particularly to Rafi) to the tightly controlled timescale. Lupton shows great skill in entering the minds of both children and adults, showing both their vulnerability and their resilience.

It’s evident too that the novel is based on some really sound research. Part of my career was spent managing crisis response so can vouch for Lupton’s description of police command procedures and the details of the school’s emergency plan.

All these factors mean Three Hours is an intense, riveting yet unsettling read. I suspect few parents with offspring still in the school system will read it and not experience a wave of anxiety.

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton: End Notes

Rosamund Lupton became a screenwriter after leaving Cambridge University. Her debut novel Sister, was a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller.

Rosamund Lupton

Three Hours is her fourth novel. It’s published by Penguin Viking in hardback and e-book on January 9, 2019 . My thanks to the publisher for the free copy I received via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Freedom Triumphs Even In The Twilight Years

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

How can I even begin to do justice to a novel so beautiful, elegant and thoughtful as All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West?

This is a novel which confounds the stereotypical portrayals of older people often found in literature. I’m sure you’ve come across them. There’s the senile grandparent in the rocking chair; the hyper-critical crone; the indomitable matriarch; the feisty woman and any number of variations on those themes.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville West’s protagonist is a very different creation. A woman who, in the twilight of her life turns out to be not ‘the very incarnation of placidity’ described by her children but a woman with a quiet determination to be free.

Lady Deborah Slane is 88 years old and recently widowed. As a young girl she yearned to become a painter. But the spirit of the age and the expectations of her family were against her. So she became instead the wife of “a great man”, the perfect consort of the Viceroy of India and Prime Minister of Britain.

Plans Confounded

When he dies, the couple’s six children are left with a burning question: What To Do About Mother. They agree the house is too big and too expensive for her but where should she live? They know their duty but really none of them want her as a permanent fixture in their homes (far too disruptive). But what if she rotated among the married couples, spending time with each as a kind of paying guest?

And so they put another set of expectations in train, believing their dutiful mother will see the merits of the plan. But they have completely misunderstood this woman. Lady Slane astounds them when she reveals she has made her own plans and has absolutely no need of their help at all. She declares:

“I am going to become completely self-indulgent. I am going to wallow in old age. 

She escapes her children’s clutches by forsaking her home in desirable Kensington for a rented house in the not so desirable suburb of Hampstead.

There she gathers an odd assortment of companions: the owner of the house Mr Bucktrout; her loyal French maid Genoux and the jack-of-all-trades Mr Gosheron. Into this close circle comes a secret admirer, Mr Fitz-George, a savvy art collector who met Lady Slane when she was the highly attractive Vicereine of India.

Freedom to Live

All Passion Spent shows that with physical freedom comes the freedom to explore the past and make sense of the world. In this new phase of her life Lady Slane reflects on frustrated artistic passions, on being young and growing old and on the nature of happiness..

Had she been happy? But one was happy at one moment, unhappy two minutes later, and neither for any good reason; so what did it mean? It meant, if it meant anything at all, that some uneasy desire wanted black to be black, and white, white; it meant that in the jungle of the terrors of life, the tiny creeping creatures sought reassurance in a formula.

At times satirical and at times amusing, All Passion Spent is insightful about the delights of living according to one’s own desires. Vita Sackville West’s friend and lover Virginia Woolf had, two years earlier, argued the necessity for a woman to ‘room of her own’. Lady Slane doesn’t get her room until late in life but she takes full advantage of the freedom it offers to her life on her own terms.

Multiple Delights

There’s so much in this novel that is sheer delight.

The portrayal of the ghastly children with their platitudinous conversations is masterful. I loved the scenes where Lady Slane and her young (er) friend Mr Fitz-George stroll slowly on Hampstead Heath, stopping frequently because they’re tired (though they pretend they want to admire the view).

Above all I adored the refreshing depiction of an elderly lady who delights in her new found independence. Vita Sackville-West shows us a woman whose calm conventional facade hid a passionate nature and an artist’s eye.

She remembered how, crossing the Persian desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting around this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air, or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailed after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life, following Henry Holland like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent, irrelevant thoughts, darting and dancing, …

Only as she approaches the end of her life is her true self set free.

If you’ve not read this book yet, I’d suggest you go out right now and buy/borrow/beg a copy. I promise you will not be disappointed.

If this books gets you thinking about how older people are depicted in literature, do take a look at the Bookword blog where Caroline reflects on that very topic. 

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West: Fast Facts

All Passion Spent first appeared in 1931 under the imprint of the Hogarth Press, an independent publishing house run by Leonard Woolf and his wife Virginia. Vita Sackville-West had been Virginia Woolf’s lover and they remained good friends.

Vita Sackville-West was a successful poet and journalist as well as a novelist. She was twice awarded the Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature: in 1927 for her pastoral epic, The Land, and in 1933 for her Collected Poems.

With her husband Sir Harold Nicolson she created the celebrated garden at Sissinghurst Castle, near Cranbrook, Kent, now owned by the National Trust.

Eye Opening Tale of Stitchers and Ringers

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

If you’ve ever taken up  painting, playing a musical instrument or cross stitch, then you’ll know how utterly absorbing these activities can be. 

In A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier shows how engrossing yourself in an interest can also be a form of salvation.

A Single ThreadIt’s embroidery that comes to the rescue for the protagonist, Violet Speedwell.  It rescues her from a life where her only choices are to stay at home with her over-bearing embittered mother or live hand-to-mouth in a draughty boarding house and drudge each day as a typist. 

Violet is what the newspapers of the 1930s labelled a “surplus woman”: unmarried and likely to remain so because vast numbers of eligible men died during World War 1.  The war was a double tragedy for Violet, both her fiancée and brother having fallen at Passchendale. She is still mourning their loss 16 years later.

Desperate to get away from the stultifying atmosphere of home, she moves to Winchester to take up a secretarial job. But still she feels she is living only half a life. 

I felt as if I were in a deep hole that took me so long to climb out of. It was as if I were sleepwalking, awake but unable to say anything or do anything to make my life come to to life again.

It isn’t until she visits the cathedral and discovers the broderers, a group of women creating intricate canvas embroidery for kneelers and cushions, that she finds fulfilment and friendship. 

Under the mentorship of the group’s founder Louisa Pesel, Violet flourishes.  Her nights at the boarding house are no longer an ordeal when she has her stitches to practice. She gains the confidence to negotiate higher wages from her employer and to handle her mother’s demands. Romance beckons in the shape of a bell ringer at the cathedral, though it’s a forbidden love since Arthur Knight is already married.

 

A Celebration of Stitches 

The story is reasonable though ideally I would have preferred more drama and greater variety in pace. The elements did exist. For example, there’s a stalker who accosts Violet in a field and again near the Cathedral one dark night (no prizes for guessing who comes to her rescue!).

There’s also tension within the borderers because of one member who’s very bossy. And we have a lesbian love affair that raises eyebrows in the ultra conservative cloistered world of Winchester.

Unfortunately they all seem to fizzle out too quickly.  

But I’ll forgive Tracy Chevalier because there were two aspects of this novel that were simply wonderful. 

This is a writer who can take an artist or a great work of art and pluck from her research a story of its creation that is rich in detail and historically accurate. A Girl In A Pearl Earring opened up the world of Vermeer and a later novel, The Lady and the Unicorn, delved into the world of tapestry weavers in sixteenth century Brussels.

In A Single Thread she turns her attention to the work of Broderers’ Guild  in Winchester. The members took inspiration from the Cathedral’s medieval tiles; using cross, tent and rice stitches to form intricate patters of medallions, Celtic knots, trees of life and flowers.  The kneelers, cushions and alms bags had a practical purpose – they were used everyday by the congregation and clergy – but they also wanted them to be beautiful, as befitting the grandeur of the Cathedral. 

A Single Thread

Tracy Chevalier shows how this is a painstaking exercise, demanding precision and attention to detail but get it right and the canvas comes alive. As Violet discovers:

…once you were skilled enough, you could settle into it and empty your mind of all but the work in front of you. Life then boiled down to a row of blue stitches that became a long braid across the canvas, or a sunburst of red that became a flower. 

It’s hardly surprising that Violet finds stitching more satisfying than typing contracts. 

I’ve tried tapestry work myself and would have loved Louisa Pesel as a tutor. I doubt however that my work would be anywhere near the standard of those cathedral stitchers. But I’d have more of a chance at proficiency in embroidery than I would at bell ringing.

 Ringing the Changes

I’m rather like Violet when she has her first introduction to ringing:

She could not make out any pattern in these bells ≠ though each was clearly struck they seemed to clatter over each other in no particular order. Yet they were deliberate, not chaotic. It was like listening to people speaking German and sensing there was a grammar and structure, a rhythm and logic to it, even if you could not understand the meaning. 

Arthur tries to explain:

We start by ringing the five bells down the scale, one after the other. These are called rounds. Then we switch the order of two of the bells, so that each sequence of bells is different from the last. We call them changes. One of the rules of change-ringing is that no sequence is repeated.

It’s all to do with maths apparently and something called factorials. Don’t ask me to explain; I can only just cope with fractions and equations. I suppose the only way to really understand what’s going on is to climb up into a bell tower and watch the ringers in action. I wonder whether Tracy Chevalier did that as part of her research? Since I’m highly unlikely to summon up enough courage to climb so high I shall just learn to appreciate the magnificence of the sound that comes out of that tower.  

There’s no doubt that this is a highly readable book with some interesting characters (I loved the depiction of Violet’s mum) and fascinating historical detail. 

A Single Thread: Fast Facts

  • A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier will be published by The Borough Press in September 2019. My copy was provided by the publishers in exchange for a balanced review.
  • Louisa Pesel is a real person. She was the first President of the Embroiderers’ Guild of England in 1920.
  • Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral,She has a modest gravestone whose inscription records her personal virtues and stoicism, but makes no mention of her writing.

 

 

Enter The Magical World Of Stories with Once Upon A River

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Do you remember the first time you heard those words: “Once upon a time…” ?

They were magical words.

Words that transported you into new worlds of good fairies and naughty imps; of brave warriors, damsels in distress and knights in shining armour. 

As you grew older, fairies and goblin stories lost their appeal. In their place came family stories heard around the dinner table or the camp fire. Stories perhaps of war and adventure, or mysterious events and comic mishaps. 

The characters changed and the stories changed. But what never altered was your love of a good yarn. 

Fireside Stories

The characters in Diane Setterfield’s magnificently atmospheric and mysterious novel, Once Upon a River, are lovers of stories too. When the gravel-diggers and bargemen gather around the fire of an ancient inn at Radcot on the Thames, they love to share stories.

Bridge over the Thames at Radcot

Stories keep them entertained on dark and dreary nights. It matters not that they’ve heard them all before: they’ve found new ways to enliven the tales, with ever more outlandish new versions.

None of them, however, came up with a tale as outlandish as the one that began one one winter solstice night.

The regulars at The Swan are indulging in another telling of their favourite story about the battle of Radcot, when the door to the inn bursts open. In staggers a man, soaked through and with his head bashed in. In his arms is what looks like “a large puppet, with waxen face and limbs and sickly painted hair.”

Except it’s not a puppet. It’s a young girl. And everyone in the pub agrees she is dead. Imagine their astonishment when hours later the girl revives.

Miracle and Mystery

For weeks afterwards the regulars of the Swan can talk about nothing other than this miracle.  

Who is the mysterious girl? The girl herself doesn’t provide any answers since she doesn’t speak. Nor can the injured man help solve the puzzle. He can say only that he found her in floating in the river.

Once Upon a River by Diane Settlefield

Theories are proposed. Gnawed over. Found wanting.

In the absence of any natural explanation, the villagers begin to wonder if other forces are responsible. Could this be the work of Quietly, a ghostly ferryman who features in many of their fireside stories? When someone gets into trouble on the river, Quietly appears

… manipulating his pole so masterfully that his punt seemed to glide as if powered by an otherworldly force. He never spoke a word, but guided you safely to the bank so you would live another day.

He’s there to get you safely home. But to whose home does this mysterious child actually belong?

Three people claim she is theirs.

A local couple whose marriage faded when their daughter was kidnapped.

A prosperous mixed race farmer who believes she’s the illegitimate
off- spring of his ne’er do well son.

A simple housekeeper who believes her long dead young sister has returned.

Sorrow Amid the Menace

Diane Setterfield takes her time to unravel the answer to this mystery. Just like the river her story “does not seem particularly intent on reaching its destination. Instead “it winds its way in time-wasting loops and diversions.” 

That doesn’t mean Once Upon a River is a laborious read however. It’s simply that a leisurely pace works best for a tale that, for all its Gothic elements of mystery and menace, is ultimately about grief.

Sorrow that never fades is experienced acutely by all three families who believe the child is theirs. But is encapsulated best by the father of the kidnapped girl

He saw her not here, in this room and not now in this hour, but in the infinity of memory. She was lost to life, but in his memory she existed, was present, and he looked at her and her eyes met his and she smiled.

Setterfield situates every aspect of the narrative in relation to The Thames.

It’s too simplistic to say that the river is as much of a character as the regulars at The Swan or the families who vie for the child. But The Thames is certainly a powerful presence, reigning god-like over the villagers of Radcot.

The river finds its way into their wells and is “drawn up to launder petticoats and to be boiled for tea” and ‘from teapot and soup dish, it passes into mouths’. The Thames provides them with transport and an occupation. It nourishes the crops needed to sustain their lives. But it also takes life away.

Mastering The Art Of Once Upon A Time

Once Upon A River is a beautifully crafted novel showing the thin border between the real and the unreal worlds. And how sometimes rational explanations do exist for strange and mysterious events.

For me the greatest pleasure lay in how Diane Setterfield uses the novel to celebrate the traditions of storytelling but also remind us that it’s an artifice.

Faced with a dearth of fact about a boy who died at the Radcot battle, the storytellers turn to invention.

At each retelling the drinkers raised the unknown boy from the dead in order to inflict upon him a new death. He had died countless times over the years, in ways ever more outlandish and entertaining. When a story is yours to tell you are allowed to take liberties with it….

Some, like the landlord of The Swan, realise that storytelling is as much about the performance as it is about the narrative.

With a bit of practice he found he could turn his hand to any kind of tale; whether it be gossip, historic, traditional, folk or fairy. His mobile face could convey surprise, trepidation relief, doubt and any other feeling as well as any actor.

But as we see through the character of the landlord’s son, not everyone can be a storyteller.

He opened his mouth and waited, agog, to hear what emerged from it. Nothing did. His face screwed squirmed with laughter and his shoulders squirmed in hilarity at himself.

This is a novel that shows what great storytelling is all about. And why we never tire of hearing a good tale.

Once Upon A River: Fast Facts

  •  Once Upon A River was published in January 2019 by Transworld Publishers, part of the Penguin Random House Group
  • Diane Setterfield was born in Berkshire, England. She embarked on an academic career but gave that up to concentrate on writing full time in the late 1990s
  • My copy was provided by the publishers in exchange for a fair review
  • Her debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale (published in 2006) was an international bestseller

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. 
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