My attempt to be highbrow over Christmas by reading Charlotte Bronte’s rather melancholy Villette ended on Christmas Eve, when, trapped in the house thanks to torrential rain, I fancied something cheery to get me in the festive mood. Loneliness and self deprecation are not exactly natural thematic twins for the Christmas period; frivolity and humour are more in keeping with this time of year, and thankfully I had just the thing sitting on my bookshelf. I bought Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding years ago in a charity shop in Whitby; I actually thought I’d bought Highland Fling, as the person who donated it had accidentally (I presume) switched the dust jackets, and I didn’t realise that I had an entirely different Nancy Mitford until I got it home. As it was a Christmas themed novel, I put it on the shelf to be read at an appropriate moment, and naturally it has taken me three years to come back to it. Better late than never! It proved to be the perfect companion for the gloomy post Christmas days when the rain has not stopped, the wind has raged and the skies have glowered darkly without any respite. I’ve had a whale of a time, giggling away on the sofa while stuffing my face with Ferrero Rochers!
Christmas Pudding has a large cast of characters, all of whom are part of the same social circle through friendship, blood or marriage. The central lynchpin is Paul Fotheringay, who, licking his wounds from the disappointing critical reception of his first novel, Crazy Capers (everyone thinks it is a hilarious farce; he intended it as a profound tragedy), is on the lookout for something serious to write about that will save his reputation. A trip to the London Library and a leaf through the Dictionary of National Biography later, and he has hit on the perfect subject; Lady Maria Bobbin, Victorian poetess. Accordingly, Paul sends off a gushing letter to the current Lady Bobbin, a mannish widow whose only passion in life is fox hunting, requesting permission to consult Lady Maria’s journals. Lady Bobbin refuses rather curtly, and sends Paul into paroxysms of despair. Thankfully, Paul’s good friend, the wise and beautiful demimondaine Amabelle Fortescue, has a solution. She is, despite being in her forties, close friends with Bobby Bobbin, Lady Bobbin’s dissolute teenage son, currently boarding at Eton. They concoct a plan to disguise Paul as Bobby’s holiday tutor, giving him access to Lady Maria’s diaries while Bobby gets off the hook of studying over Christmas. Handily, Amabelle is renting the hideously olde worlde farmhouse next door to the Bobbin family estate for Christmas, and so, along with Amabelle’s friends, young, penniless couple Sally and Walter Monteath, and Philadelphia, Lady Bobbin’s teenage daughter, a Christmas house party full of fun, misunderstandings, love and plenty of farce is formed.
The plot is whisper light, but the characters are marvellously drawn. Where else but in a Mitford novel could you find such an eclectic blend of people? From Bright Young Things Walter and Sally, who live the high life through leeching off their richer friends to old beyond his years Bobby, with his expense account at Cartier and fondness for older women, they effortlessly capture the idleness, frivolity and pleasure that characterised the aristocratic circles of pre war Britain. Everyone has ridiculous nicknames, everything is heavenly and divine, and darling, lovely and thrilling are peppered throughout every conversation. Pleasure is these characters’ main preoccupation, though love comes a close second; Paul is always thinking he’s in love, Philadelphia doesn’t know who she’s in love with, Amabelle is always being made love to and Walter and Sally are held up as a great example of love, which is the only thing they have to sustain their poverty stricken existence. Love and marriage are not necessarily found together, and Mitford can’t seem to quite make up her mind whether marriage should be entered into for practical or romantic reasons. Amabelle married wholly pragmatically, and is quick to recommend this course to others. She even argues that love best not come into things at all; loving your partner too much, as Walter and Sally do, often causes more misery than happiness. Philadelphia sways between the two before making her final decision, but, as one would expect, it is more comic than tragic that a diamond bracelet helps her to come to the right conclusion!
The sparkle in Christmas Pudding comes from the hilarious exchanges between the characters and wonderful caricatures of high society that Mitford creates through choosing just the right elements of expression and appearance to bring them to life. It lacks the heart of her greatest novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, but that doesn’t mean it should be written off as unworthy of attention. Far from it; it is a deliciously funny, frothy little novel that brings the world of the Bright Young Things to life, while also being a clever satire of Victorian values and the falsity of the previous generation who criticised these Bright Young Things. Lady Maria Bobbin’s brilliantly crafted pious diary entries, that talk much of her own goodness and religious fervour, reveal only her selfishness and love of luxury to the astute reader. Dig beneath the surface and you will find some meaty topics worth pondering; the purpose of marriage, the difficulties of keeping your head above water in a social circle consisting of people considerably wealthier than you, the terrible lack of education and occupation available for upper class girls – but ultimately, this is a light caper meant to be curled up with, laughed at and thoroughly enjoyed. I couldn’t have asked for a better literary companion for the Christmas holidays. Capuchin Classics have recently reissued it in a lovely hardback, so if you fancy giving yourself a little belated Christmas present…you’ve got an excellent excuse!