By one of those strange coincidences, I’d just picked up Highland Fling from the library when I bought a copy of Love from Nancy: the letters of Nancy Mitford at the market. I’ve been reading the two books in tandem, thinking how well Charlotte Mosley has done out of her in-laws :-).
Highland Fling (1931) was Nancy Mitford’s first published novel. Reading The Pursuit of Love, one of my top favourite books, I’m always astonished at how many wonderful characters and events are packed into such a slight novel. In contrast Highland Fling is completely undisciplined. Nancy Mitford establishes her characters and then gets them talking to each other, interminably. The basic set up is that a bunch of Bright Young Things goes up to Scotland to host a shooting party in a castle. There they meet a lot of Dull Old Things who are completely uncongenial.
It’s often said that first novels contain everything that an author has to say; hence the lack of good second novels. Nancy Mitford seems to have poured out an exact description of her friends and lifestyle of the 1920s. One of the house guests (the ‘grownups’ as the young ones call them), General Murgatroyd, is a combination of her own father and the future ‘Uncle Matthew’. An argument between old and young about the war could have been taken verbatim from a letter of 1928 about her father’s rudeness to a guest at Swinbrook.
There are amusing things in the book but the story, such as it is, is very slow. I found the shoot as boring as poor Jane did; there is a whole chapter of mock Scots including a dreadful ballad which I found completely unfunny and skimmed through; the castle burns down for no apparent reason and with no consequences except for the unfortunate owners. What is more surprising is how little one cares for the characters. Faced with the frivolity of the BYTs, I recalled Uncle Matthew and his ‘Sewers!’ with some sympathy. Yet in The Pursuit of Love one dotes on Davey Warbeck and thinks Lord Merlin rather a duck. That, of course, was the skill of the mature artist. I later read in the Letters that the character of Albert, whom I heartily disliked, was based on Hamish St Clair Erskine, which explains a lot.
Without The Pursuit of Love this book would probably never have been reprinted and no loss. I can sympathise with authors who would prefer to have their early works suppressed. Meanwhile, the letters can be dipped into with pleasure at any time.