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.
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.
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.
I’m reading The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst because it won the Booker Prize in 2004. I’m down to the last four in my project to read all the winners. I’ve found Hollinghurst’s book a bit of a struggle to the extent that I debated more than once whether to give up on the novel. Consequently it has taken me weeks to get to within the last 100 pages. To be fair it improved in the second half but it will never get on my list of favourite Booker winners.
Bloomsbury describe it as “a sweeping novel about class, sex, and money during four extraordinary years of change and tragedy.” The years of change is a reference to the fact the book is set during the ‘reign’ of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. There’s a tremendous amount of sex in this book – the central character is either thinking about it or engaged in the act – which would disturb many readers I suspect. My biggest beef about the book is that it was just boring for a large part of the time.
This was the selection for one of my book clubs this month. The contrast with Line of Beauty could not be greater. Beartown is set in a small Swedish town that’s seen better days. The locals are crazy about ice hockey and pinning their hopes that their highly talented junior hockey team win national honours, a success that can herald an economic revival for their community. All is going great until suddenly a terrible incident changes everything, setting one part of the community directly at odds with another.
Enjoyable to read though I think I know as much as I need to about ice hockey for now.
What will you be reading next?
This is usually a difficult question for me since I don’t like to plan too far in advance. But I have to this week because I’m off on holiday at the weekend and so will need to decide what comes with me in my luggage.
There is one title that will definitely be making the trip to Germany.
Another possible companion is the book I bought today. Lullabyby Leila Slimani is next month’s book club. The Guardian newspaper tells me that “This tense, deftly written novel about a perfect nanny’s transition into a monster will take your breath away.” I’m hesitating though because it’s not a very long novel.
On the e-reader I have the latest novel by Andrew Miller, author of Pure, which I thought was an outstanding novel. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, begins on a winter’s night in 1809 when a naval captain fresh from a campaign against Napolean’s forces, is carried unconscious into a house. He is traumatised by what he witnessed in that campaign. Miller is superb at re-creating the past so I’m looking forward to reading this.
The anticipation is over and the result of the latest Classic Club Spin is in. The roulette wheel fell on number 9. Which means that from the list I put together earlier this week I will be reading………
The Pursuit of Loveby Nancy Mitford
Published in 1945 it is the first in a trilogy which satirises an upper-class English family in the interwar period. Mitford of course knew this world intimately since she came from aristocratic stock herself. She put that to great effect in her portrayal of the unconventional, exuberant Radletts of Alconleigh.
Mitford’s wickedly humorous narrative traces the family through misguided marriages and dramatic love affairs. Although a comedy, the story has a darker aspect because the shadow of World War II begins to close in on the Radletts and a world that will rapidly vanish.
This is a book that I have been intending to read for years. Now I just have to find my copy. I know the cover looks nothing like the ones shown above. Isn’t that middle one awful?