‘Ducks can only copulate in running water. Good luck to them’

I bloody love The Pursuit of Love.

I’ve read it every few years since I was an early teen and know passages off by heart. It’s a perfect soufflé that has much more going on than might be assumed at first glance; moments of utter devastation sneak up on you, just as airy-fairy Aunt Sadie will suddenly say something ‘sharply’. I know that I would never be part of Mitford society (and I certainly wouldn’t want to be in the company of most of them) but this book makes me feel as if I’ve just emerged from a very important Hons Society meeting in the linen cupboard (‘Talk about back to the womb’). Childish and affected as it may be, I still mentally categorise people I like as ‘terrific Hons’ and those I don’t as ‘frightful counter-Hons’.

My love of The Pursuit of Love resulted in falling down a Mitford rabbit hole in my teens. I remember reading Diana Mosley’s A Life of Contrasts and thinking I looked so terribly sophisticated. Looking back, I feel thoroughly queasy, especially as someone of Jewish ancestry. I continue to be unsettled by the fact that she seems to remain the one Nazi it’s acceptable to like due to her (alleged) charm and extreme poshness and the fact that she lived so long (‘Of course I don’t like the fact she was a Nazi but…’). I don’t blame Jessica for cutting all ties with her. I also wonder when enough time will have elapsed for a less beatific take on St Debo of Devonshire. I appreciate that she loved Diana and Unity unconditionally but I don’t think she ever condemned what they believed in (I recall one interview in which she wouldn’t hear a word against anything they did). Only amongst the Mitfords would being a diehard Tory be considered an apolitical stance.

I’m no longer particularly interested in Mitfordiana (surely the barrel has well and truly been scraped by now? I believe there’s even been a biography of Pam) but Jessica and Nancy will always have special places in my heart.The Pursuit of Love is utter blissikins every time but, on my latest reread ahead of the new adaptation, I wondered if there’s too much telling and not enough showing in relation to how delightful and charming Linda is and why Fanny, Davey and Lord Merlin worship her so. She comes across as pretty spoiled and entitled, which is perfectly illustrated when Fanny receives her ‘unsuitable’ Christmas presents from her absent parents and Linda drives the carriage and wears the fur hat. I’m madly jealous of Lord Merlin buying her ‘the prettiest little doll’s house that was ever seen’ in Chelsea. Oh, to have a Lord Merlin in one’s life! But we can’t all be Lindas and he certainly wouldn’t have done anything like that for Fanny.

Emily Mortimer’s adaptation has had mixed reviews. I loved Mortimer in The Bookshop and Mary Poppins Returns but her nepotistic casting policies and ridiculous comments about 1920s music being ‘depressing and uncool’ were a turn-off before it aired. She would have been fine as Aunt Sadie or Aunt Emily but her simpering Bolter was horrible. I’m tired of how Lily James has to be in every single period drama (I’m grateful, however, that she isn’t actively offensive like Keira Knightly) and she just isn’t very good at comedy. So many lines that never fail to make me laugh out loud when reading fell flat (that goes for the whole production). I’m all for stylisation (I loved the most recent Emma) but I found the modern flourishes here too self-consciously ‘hip’, which just looks naff.

Trying to be positive, however, this is what I liked about the adaptation:

  1. The emphasis on the romantic friendship between Linda and Fanny. I don’t mean that it’s sexual. It’s intense, volatile, the highs are all-consuming and the lows feel like the end of the world and it will always be somewhat one-sided. It’s so telling that whenever they’re in the bath together, Fanny always gets the tap end.
  2. Some of the casting of supporting roles. John Heffernan was a lovely choice as Davey (a pity his wellness obsession wasn’t mentioned until the second episode) and Freddie Fox gave a spot-on impression of a young Boris Johnson (with better hair) as Tony Kroesig. In defence of Tory (and Nazi sympathiser) Tony, at least he cares about poor Moira and reads to her before bed instead of letting Nanny do it? I also loved Kitty Archer as Linda’s jolly-hockey-sticks nemesis Lavender Davis.
  3. The way Andrew Scott says ‘Fiddlesticks’. He’s younger than how I imagine Lord Merlin but the character does have an ageless quality and I can see how the glamour he exudes would be irresistible to a young girl like Linda. Badminton House and Dyram Park looked beautiful as Merlinford and the latter is now on my National Trust wish list.
  4. Assaad Bouab is much more dashing without the man bun he sported on Call My Agent. Of course, Fabrice isn’t supposed to be handsome, but I’ll let that detail slide.
  5. Jassy is my favourite character. She gets the best lines (‘Your poor dead legs’) and I think of her as the Brigitta von Trapp (undoubtedly the best of the von Trapp children) of the Radletts.  My favourite scene in the whole novel is when she runs away to Hollywood after falling in love with a minor actor named Cary Goon and I thought that sequence showed the most comic flair in the whole production. It also made sense for Fanny, rather than Louisa, to accompany Davey to Hollywood. I wish Nancy had given us a sequel about Jassy and Cary’s adventures in Hollywood – I’d much rather read about them than the revolting Boy Dougdale.
  6. I wasn’t blown away by the costumes (I can’t remember a stand-out outfit) or the interiors but I’d happily live in Fanny and Alfred’s riverside Oxford cottage – and I obviously wouldn’t say no to Linda’s Cheyne Walk house either.
  7.  ‘Easter eggs’ from other Mitford writings to make those of us in the know feel smug. Linda’s remarks about having sexual fantasies over Lady Jane Grey comes from a letter from Nancy to Evelyn Waugh and her spiteful comment about how Louisa ‘looks like the eldest and ugliest of the Brontë sisters’ on her wedding day is quoted by Jessica in Hons and Rebels to illustrate why Nancy was too acerbic to be ‘Favourite Sister’ material amongst the younger Mitfords.

Oh dear, that is rather faint praise. I quite enjoyed the 2001 version but I don’t think I was bowled over. Has anyone seen the 1980 version with Judi Dench as Aunt Sadie? I’m better than most when it comes to looking past dated production values but I’m not sure if I could handle a full episode of stilted child actors. The Julian Slade musical, which was performed at the Bristol Old Vic in 1966, is the adaptation I’d really like to know more about – I absolutely adore Salad Days.

Neither good nor bad, just a sign of changing times, is the fact that the fairly lengthy portions of untranslated French in the book are performed in English rather than French with subtitles (Linda looks lost when Fabrice addresses her en français at the Gare du Nord). Nancy claimed that her only education was learning to ride and speak French and I suppose it was assumed that everyone who was literate at the time understood French? I’m surprised that Uncle ‘Abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends’ Matthew permitted the learning of foreign languages, so he must have realised, or been persuaded by Aunt Sadie, that it would have been social suicide for his daughters not to be able to speak French? Very different to today, when most native English speakers feel no obligation whatsoever to make an effort with foreign languages (I feel very guilty about my own limited skills). Nancy, rightfully, would be appalled.