The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

First published in 1945 but set largely in the interwar years, Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love is a wonderful novel about a young woman’s search for true love, complete with all the delights and disappointments such a quest entails.

While Mitford’s novel focuses on the amorous adventures of Linda Radlett, everything we see and hear is filtered through the lens of Linda’s cousin, the sensible and level-headed Fanny. Having been abandoned by her mother – known within the family as ‘the Bolter’ for her tendency to run off with a sequence of lovers – Fanny has been raised by her kindly Aunt Emily in a small but comfortable home in Shenley. Childhood Christmas holidays are spent with the rather eccentric Radletts at their estate in the Cotswolds, a large manor house by the name of Alconleigh. The Radlett family is headed by Fanny’s Uncle Matthew, a large blustering man whose favourite sports are catching Germans with his entrenching tool, hunting of any description (including the pursuit of his children around the grounds), and stomping about in search of an outlet for his many frustrations; then there is Aunt Sadie (Emily’s sister), who does her best to maintain some semblance of order within the household; and finally, the six Radlett children, most notably Linda, Fanny’s cousin and closest friend. Mitford does a great job in conveying the various idiosyncrasies of this unconventional upper-class family – we are privy to their passions and beliefs, their rather silly preoccupations with outmoded social conventions, and their various peccadillos and habits.

The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives. (p. 9)

Fanny and Linda spend much of their time chatting together about girlish things, hiding out in the linen closet (or ‘Hons’ cupboard’ as it is called), the only warm place in the house. It is here that the hopelessly romantic Linda talks of finding true love, one that is lasting and passionate, the sort that only comes along once in a lifetime. In particular, she is entranced by the glamour and sophistication of the smart set of bright young things she meets by way of her neighbour and advocate, the cultured Lord Merlin.

By the time of her coming-out ball, Linda is ripe for the taking. Much to Uncle Matthew’s dismay, she falls in love with an attractive young banker, Tony Kroesig, whose family originally hailed from Germany, albeit several generations ago. In this scene, Uncle Matthew lets rips to Davey, Aunt Emily’s delightful but rather sensitive husband. As you can see, his language is gloriously unfiltered, very much a reflection of his bombastic nature and the prevailing attitudes of the day.

‘Who is that sewer with Linda?’

‘Kroesig, Governor of the Bank of England, you know; his son.’

‘Good God, I never expected to harbour a full-blooded Hun in this house – who on earth asked him?’

‘Now, Matthew dear, don’t get excited. The Kroesigs aren’t Huns, they’ve been over here for generations, they are a very highly respected family of English bankers.’

‘Once a Hun always a Hun,’ said Uncle Matthew, ‘and I’m not too set on bankers myself. Besides, the fellow must be a gate-crasher.’

‘No, he’s not. He came with Merlin.’

‘I knew that bloody Merlin would start bringing foreigners here sooner or later. I always said he would, but I didn’t think even he would land one with a German’ (p. 56)

At first, both families are dead against the match, albeit for very different reasons. Uncle Matthew has an intense hatred of all foreigners, irrespective of their standing and tenure in Britain. The Kroesigs, on the other hand, consider landed gentry such as the Radletts to be feckless and no longer of any great relevance in the modern world. Moreover, they would prefer young Tony to concentrate on his career for a while, with the hope that he might also go on to marry the daughter of one of the other big banking families in the city, thereby creating a union of great worth. Nevertheless, in spite of this initial opposition, the Kroesig-Radlett wedding goes ahead, and Linda and Tony begin their rather ill-fated life together.

As Fanny quite rightly intuits, the marriage turns out to be a failure almost right from the start. Tony is soon revealed to be a frightful bore, a pompous, self-centred ass whose only interests revolve around money and politics – shortly after the wedding he gains a comfortable seat as a Tory MP. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Linda proves a disappointment to the Kroesig family who consider her eccentric, distracted and extravagant. Tony’s work and political activities are of no interest to Linda whatsoever, a point which becomes patently obvious for all to see. By the time her daughter Moira is born, Linda has fallen totally out of love with Tony; his many shortcomings are simply too ingrained to overlook, those first flushes of love have long since gone.

The young man she had fallen in love with, handsome, gay, intellectual, and domineering, melted away upon closer acquaintance, and proved to have been a chimera, never to have existed outside her imagination. Linda did not commit the usual fault of blaming Tony for what was entirely her own mistake, she merely turned from him in absolute indifference. This was made easier by the fact that she saw so little of him. (p. 88)

Then one day at her in-laws’ home, Linda meets Christian Talbot, a handsome Communist full of energy and ideas. Entranced by this young man, his passions and beliefs, she runs away from Tony in the hope of finding true love with husband number two.

Linda was a plum ripe for shaking. The tree was now shaken, and down she came. Intelligent and energetic, but with no outlet for her energies, unhappy in her marriage, uninterested in her child, and inwardly oppressed with a sense of futility, she was in the mood either to take up some cause, or to embark upon a love affair. That a cause should now be presented by an attractive young man made both it and him irresistible. (p.98)

But once the initial excitement dies down, Linda discovers that her new life with Christian isn’t all she had hoped it would be. All too soon, during a trip to France to support the refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War, Christian reveals himself to be a rather hopeless husband. Concerned as he is with the major revolutions of the day, Christian remains oblivious to the feelings and emotions of others, especially those closest to him; it is radical ideas and left-wing causes that interest Christian, not individual people and their emotional needs. All of a sudden this becomes apparent to Linda – and so she packs her suitcase and leaves, forsaking another husband in the process.

Then, just when Linda is at her lowest ebb, stranded in Paris with insufficient money to make it home to England, a dashing stranger appears and comes to her rescue. The man in question is Fabrice, a wealthy duke and bon viveur, the man who turns out to be the one great love of Linda’s life. At long last, there is a chance of true happiness for our heroine; but the question is, will it last?

But she was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love. Twice in her life she had mistaken something else for it; it was like seeing somebody in the street who you think is a friend, you whistle and wave and run after him, and it is not only not the friend, but not even very like him. A few minutes later the real friend appears in view, and then you can’t imagine how you ever mistook that other person for him. Linda was now looking upon the authentic face of love, and she knew it, but it frightened her. That it should come so casually, so much by a series of accidents, was frightening. (p. 139)

The Pursuit of Love is an utterly charming novel. It is by turns hilarious, artful, touching and poignant, peppered as it is with Mitford’s sparkling dialogue and wit. The author has drawn heavily on her own family here, particularly in the portrayal of Uncle Matthew, a thinly-veiled version of her father, Lord Redesdale. The characterisation is fabulous throughout, from the privileged, whimsical Linda, to the indomitable Uncle Matthew, to the pitch-perfect minor characters of Davey and Lord Merlin, both of whom remain ardent supporters of Linda in her quest for personal fulfilment. Even the infamous Bolter makes a cameo appearance at one point – another memorable character, vividly sketched.

For all its wit and satirical humour, this novel also conveys a strong sense of humanity. In spite of her many mistakes and failings, Linda is always welcomed back into the family fold, supported by Fanny, Aunt Sadie and even Uncle Matthew. There is a sense of real support and affection here, a family sticking together despite what life may throw at it.

As the story draws to a close during the turmoil of WW2, Mitford also reminds us of the fragility of our existence. This was not a time for the frivolous pleasures of love; rather the focus was on survival and the preservation of life. While the closing section is rather poignant, the novel ends on a fitting note. All in all, this is a great book, fully deserving of its status as a modern classic. I enjoyed it immensely.

The Pursuit of Love is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

41 thoughts on “The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

  1. heavenali

    (I adore that edition BTW)
    I love The Pursuit of Love I have read it twice. The thought of Uncle Matthew can still reduce me to laughter – such a fabulous character.

    Reply
  2. Cynthia's Biblio -Files

    I haven’t read this one, but a couple of months ago read a biography of the Mitford girls. Very good, fascinating, but strange. Boy, what a family, talk about extremes! And Nancy was the cool witty one, who became famous for something other than extreme political affiliations.😂

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, a truly fascinating family – and what different paths they ended up taking in their lives! I read one of the Mitford biographies with my old book group – The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell. It was quite a few years ago now, but I still remember a few of the details…

      Reply
  3. Col

    I read this a very long time ago and didn’t really get it – was a very callow youth then! Your review makes me think I should give this and other similar ‘classics’ that I didn’t get a second try!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Maybe it’s worth another try? It’s interesting how our tastes in various things (books, music, even food and wine) can change over time. I wonder how I would have found this had I read it 20 years ago. I might have had less sympathy for Linda back then!

      Reply
  4. Tredynas Days

    I have the edition that collates several of her novels into one volume. Haven’t started it yet, so will return to your review when I’ve finished. Sounds an ideal summer read. Nice cover.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, huge fun. And you’re right, she does draw on elements from her own life here, particularly in the creation of Uncle Matthew and The Bolter (what a wonderful nickname).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ll be interested to see how you get on with this. At first, I wondered if it might be a bit romancey for you, but now I’ve had a chance to think about it a bit more, I think the writing is sharp enough to see you through. Have you read any of her others? Love in a Cold Climate, perhaps?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I wasn’t aware of the miniseries. Thank you for mentioning it – I shall have to seek it out at some point. Rosamund Pike sounds perfect for this type of thing – I can just imagine her as Fanny!

      Reply
  5. M. L. Kappa

    I’ve always loved Uncle Matthew, too! I’m so enjoying your reviews of various ‘old’ books, Jacque, ones I’ve read many years ago. I’m now inspired to read them again, but…so many books, so little time…sigh. The TBR pile threatens to engulf…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He is such a wonderful character, gloriously unhinged and outrageous! I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of him chasing his own children around the grounds of Alconleigh whenever there was a shortage of proper game to hunt. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Nancy had based him on a member of her own family. What larks they must have had in that household…

      So glad to hear that you are enjoying my reviews of these classics. I guess I’m trying to plug some of the gaps in my reading over the years, making up for lost time so to speak. :)

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          There is a book of letters between the sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley, Diana’s daughter-in-law. The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters. Would that be the one? It does indeed sound fascinating…

          Reply
  6. bookbii

    Brilliant! This sounds like a very entertaining read. Good to hear that those slightly disappointing reading experiences are a thing of the past.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It was a lot of fun, hugely enjoyable and engaging. Mitford was famed for her sparkling wit, but there’s actually a lot more to this novel than that. What surprised me the most were the more poignant moments, especially those in the closing section of the book.

      Reply
  7. madamebibilophile

    I know she’s not for everyone, but I really enjoy Mitford and I’m so pleased to hear this is her at her sparkling best, as it’s buried in the TBR somewhere! Although I am tempted to upgrade to your lovely edition….

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I can imagine some readers not taking to this at all! I suppose it all depends what we are looking for when we read a book. For me, this was a bit of escapism, a return to a time when a girl’s main concerns were related to love, respect and affection. Glad to hear that you have it to look forward to – I’m pretty sure you’re going to love it. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh yes, most definitely! Uncle Matthew could have come straight out of one of Waugh’s novels, he’s so wickedly un-PC. That said, I much preferred this to Waugh’s Decline and Fall which just felt rather uneven and dated to me. The Mitford is a period piece too, of course, but a more engaging one. I think she’s a little kinder to her characters than Waugh – more sympathetic and understanding, perhaps.

      Reply
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  9. Emma

    I loved Christmas Pudding and I think I’ll have a great time with this one too. Thanks for the thoughtful review.
    You’re not good for my TBR these days but as I just said to Marina Sofia, there are more expensive hobbies than reading.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I remember your review of Christmas Pudding! It’s definitely on my list for the future as a good option for the festive season. Yes, I think you’d enjoy this. There’s a nice mix of hilarity and poignancy here, all dashed off in Mitford’s sparkling style. I know she’s not for everyone, but like you, I do find her books very entertaining.

      Reply
  10. Elena

    I have to admit that not being English, I was not familiar with the Mitford sisters until very recently (and this has become quite an embarrassment of mine). However, this book sounds fantastic. I have planned on reading the letters between the sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley this summer so I get to know them a little bit, but this one goes straight to my Christmas wishlist. As usual, Jacqui, GORGEOUS cover. You have the most beautiful books.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Nothing to feel embarrassed about at all! They are a very English family in every sense of the phrase, so it’s difficult to predict how well known they might be in other parts of the world. I think the letters would be a great introduction. Several years ago, I read one of the many biographies about the Mitford sisters for my book group – not my usual type of read, but it did give me a good insight into their different personalities and political beliefs. Once you’ve read the letters, you’ll be in a great position to try some of Nancy’s fiction. I doubt you’ll regret it – she is such a delight!

      Reply
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    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Yes, it came as a bit of surprise to me too. I only discovered it as I was doing a bit of research on the book in preparation for this post. He must have been quite the character!

      Reply

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