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gertrude

August 2018

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Darling Nancy




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.

Comments

I have multiple copies of these!

ICTC oh yes. I hope she loves it.
You remind me that I am still trying to track down a copy of "Don't Tell Alfred", which was my very first Nancy Mitford.
There seem to be plenty of cheap copies on Amazon. It's not as good as the others but I wouldn't be without all four.
Yes, but I have this rooted dislike of shopping online. One of these days I'll find it in a Real Shop. :-)

(Anonymous)

Yes, I think Nancy Mitford wrote two brilliant comic novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate and two pretty good comic novels, Don't Tell Alfred and The Blessing. I have wondered whether to track down a copy of Highland Fling and I think there is an early novel called Christmas Pudding(?) but I've only ever read lukewarm reviews. I'm pretty much done with volumes of Mitford letters, too. Nicola@VintageReads
I think that's right. The early novels are Highland Fling, Christmas Pudding, Pigeon Pie and Wigs on the Green. I think the last one is pretty well unobtainable and as it's about fascism (based on her inside Mosley knowledge) I don't think anyone nowadays would find it funny.

I am enjoying the letters, even though I've already read the ones she wrote to Evelyn Waugh. It's like reading a lovely long diary. As for the rest of them: pouf!
I found Highland Fling unreadable. With you about Pursuit and Alfred, but didn't get on with Blessing
haven't Evelyn and Nancy, but have got the Waugh letters
it took me some fifteen years to connect Nancy with "Debo" - i was a very slow youngster