It is the 1930s and eighteen year old Fanny has been invited to a daunting house-party at Hampton Park. Her terrifying hostess Lady Montdore and the fashionable Mrs Chaddesley Corbett call her over and ask her, ‘Are you in love?’
‘I felt myself becoming scarlet in the face. How could they have guessed my secret? ….
“There you are, Sonia,” said Mrs Chaddesley Corbett triumphantly, tapping a cigarette with nervous violence against her jewelled case and lighting it with a gold lighter, her pale blue eyes never meanwhile leaving my face . . . “We’re not going to worm. What we really want to know, to settle a bet, is this, have you always fancied someone ever since you can remember? Answer truthfully, please.”
I was obliged to admit that this was the case. From a tiny child . . . some delicious image had been enshrined in my heart, last thought at night, first thing in the morning [There follows a long list, including Byron, Rudolf Valentino, blissful Mrs Ashton at school, the guard on the 4.45, Napoleon, and a pompous young man in the Foreign Office].
“There you are you see,” Mrs Chaddesley Corbett turned triumphantly to Lady Montdore. ‘From kiddie-car to hearse, darling, I couldn’t know it better. After all, what else would there be to think about when one’s alone, otherwise?”‘
This is from Love in a Cold Climate, which I am currently reading, having just read The Pursuit of Love, both by Nancy Mitford. I always read them together and I have lost count of how often I have read them. I bought them nearly forty years ago after The Pursuit of Love was mentioned by Mrs Fowle, my wonderful English teacher, and have loved them ever since. They are far from being straightforward romantic novels or even romantic comedy. There are dark accents and some penetrating insights into the pitfalls of love and marriage. And what a marvellous writer Nancy Mitford was: her ear for dialogue is perfect, and there is never a word out of place. The narratives flow so easily that one doesn’t notice how cleverly they are constructed.
She has not been well served by the covers of recent editions of her books (often sadly the case) so I show here the cover to the first edition of The Pursuit of Love.
I’ve been reading about the Fast Diet, which has had so much publicity recently. It involves two days of fasting per week (on 500 calories a day for women, 600 for men) and five of feasting, ie eating what you like. The health benefits, quite apart from losing weight, seem to be considerable and people are saying it has amazing results. It does indeed sound like a ground-breaking idea and yet, as I read on, something began to tug at my memory. I went to the book shelves and got down LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE by Nancy Mitford, published in 1949. Sure enough, when we first encounter the delightful Uncle Davey, the narrator’s uncle and a malade imaginaire, he is ‘following a new regime for perfect health, much in vogue, he assured us, on the Continent. “The aim is to warm up your glands with a series of jolts. The worse thing in the world for the body is to settle down and lead a quiet little life of regular habits: if you do that it soons resigns itself to old age and death. Shock your glands, force them to react, startle them back into youth, keep them on tip-toe so that they never know what to expect next, and they have to keep young and healthy to deal with all the surprises.” Accordingly he ate in turns like Gandhi and like Henry VIII.’ No word of a lie, something similar is part of the rational behind the Fast Diet. I remember a few years ago there was a diet in which one wasn’t supposed to eat protein and carbohydrates in the same meal: that had a literary precedent too in A HANDFUL OF DUST where Tony and Brenda Last are undertaking the same diet. Of course both novels are set in the thirties, an era of when new ideas about Health and Beauty were much in vogue, before World War II and rationing put paid to the upper orders having much choice about what they ate. Well, whatever the merits of the Fast Diet, it has sent me back to one of my favourite novels. LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE is blissful comfort reading of the highest order and Nancy Mitford’s earlier novel, THE PURSUIT OF LOVE is, if anything, even better. Time to read them again.