The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford is her fifth novel published in 1945. It is the first novel in a trilogy of which Love in a Cold Climate and Don’t Tell Alfred form a part. The Pursuit of Love was the first novel that brought Mitford popularity and is semi-autobiographical. The time frame of the story is set in between the two world wars. The threat of impending war and its repercussions play a major role in the unfolding of the story. However, at the heart of the tale is the story of a young woman’s lifelong quest to find love.
The story is told through the eyes of Fanny Logan, cousin to the Radlett children. Fanny’s mother- wittily described as the ‘Bolter’ in the story due to her tendency to form a series of monogamous romantic attachments, abandoned her daughter at a very young age, leaving her to be brought up by her younger, unmarried sister- Aunt Emily. Aunt Sadie, mother to the Radlett children is the third sister.
There are six Radlett children and their parents are Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie. They live in a large manor house in the Gloucestershire countryside called Alconleigh. The Radlett children have an unusual upbringing- bereft of any formal education. Their father-Uncle Matthew is a slightly eccentric, short-tempered, overbearing man. Their mother, Fanny’s Aunt Sadie is a mild-mannered woman. Linda, the protagonist of the story is the beautiful second daughter of the family.
Towards the beginning of the story we find Louisa, the eldest Radlett daughter engaged to be married to the much older John Fort William- a lacklustre personality of good pedigree. The alliance is a prudent one, guided by the head and not the heart and to Linda seems an uninspiring choice. Nevertheless, we see Linda Radlett consumed with jealousy for her sister’s engagement.
In a couple of years Linda and Fanny who are of the same age make their debut. So eager is Linda to be in love and married, that she fancies herself in love with the first person she meets- Tony Kroesig, son of a rich, banking family lacking a title. Despite her parent’s disapproval Linda quickly marries Tony and very quickly repents her decision. They are ill suited to one another. Tony is focused on his career and being successful. We very quickly see the marriage falling apart. Linda embarks on a decade long whirlwind of gay partying and socializing, remaining faithful to her husband but engaging in frivolous flirtations with all and sundry. In the interim she gives birth to a daughter, Moira, whom she literally abandons, leaving her to be brought up by family. After many years she meets a Communist reformer Christian Talbot, and perhaps overcome with a desire to at last do something meaningful, is enamored by his ideology and personality. She divorces Kroesig and marries Christian.
In the following years we find Linda following Christian to France to work with refugees during the Spanish Civil War. Here, her husband falls in love with the idealogical Lavender Davis. Linda realizing this truth decides to leave Christian without a direct confrontation and returns to London via Paris.
In Paris, under the most unusual and unexpected circumstances Linda meets the love of her life- a wealthy duke- Fabrice de Sauveterre. She spends several blissful months as Sauveterre’s mistress living in an apartment. Although the arrangement seems distasteful and sordid, especially in view of the strong moral upbringing of the Radlett children- there is nothing sordid about the relationship Linda and Fabrice share. For the first time in her life, Linda finds herself perfectly happy and fulfilled in love. Then the Second World War starts and Linda finds her life taking a turn for the worse…
Some of the descriptions and imagery used in the tale are exquisite. Mitford’s description alternate between the sublime and the most cruel. For example Fanny eloquently describes a photograph of Aunt Sadie and her six children, sitting around the table at Alconleigh-
” There they are, held like flies in the amber of that moment-click goes the camera and on goes life; the minutes, the days, the years, the decades, taking them further and further from that happiness and promise of youth, from the hopes Aunt Sadie must have had for them, and from the dreams they dreamed for themselves. I often think there is nothing quite so poignantly sad as old family groups.”
These beautiful, thoughtful musings are interspersed with numerous examples of Mitford’s quirky, cruel sense of humor. An example of such an eccentricity is Uncle Matthew’s habit of using bloodhounds to hunt down his children in mad capers across the countryside. Uncle Matthew’s children, however, give back as good as they get. There is an episode where Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie leave for Canada on an ocean liner. The Radlett children, lacking drama in their everyday life, rush to see the newspaper headlines every morning for news of sinking of the ship – ” they yearned to be total orphans- especially Linda, who saw herself as Katy in What Katy Did.”
It is hard to put a finger on what kind of novel ‘The Pursuit of Love Is’. On the surface the story reads as a frivolous tale of Linda Radlett’s foolish attempts to find a partner- stuttering from one wrong decision to another. During the course of the story we develop a whole-hearted empathy for this short-sighted woman who yearns for nothing more than to love and to be loved in return. We want to guide her, hold her hand and to reassure her that she will find it in due course.
The Pursuit of Love is a comedy. However, it is also a tragedy. Mitford uses her peculiar sense of humor to full effect and delivers us a story that on the surface lulls us into a false sense of security about the happenings in the story. It then cruelly delivers an ending which we might anticipate but can hardly believe.
It leaves us with closure regarding Linda Radlett’s story but it hardly satisfies. We leave with an all powerful sense of awe at Mitford’s masterful story-telling. The Pursuit of Love is a book to be read and re-read and to be appreciated on many levels. I highly recommend it.