Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford in 1931

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!

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34 comments

  1. I’ve also just finished this novel! Enjoyed it, but not nearly so much as the other Mitford novels I’ve read. I wasn’t sure why, but I think perhaps you’re right about the lack of heart. Worth a read, though.

  2. I’ve just realised that I haven’t had a single Ferrero Rocher all Christmas. I’m sure this is a significant economic indicator – but of upturn/depression, I’m not quite sure! Is Mr Ambassador suffering cutbacks?

  3. sounds rather delightful. I love Nancy Mitford – anything remotely Mitfordesque really – but haven’t read either this or Highland fling, and have been meaning to buy myself copies for ages. I am intending to re-read The Pursuit of Love in January during my month of re-reading however and that may just inspire me order those two for future reading.

    1. I think the early novels tend to be a bit more fun and frivolous than the later ones – they’re definitely worth reading! Enjoy your Pursuit of Love re-read!

  4. I’ve never read any Nancy Mitford novels, despite loving reading about the lives of her and her sisters. Obviously I’ll have to wait til next Christmas to read this one – but I’ll look for some others earlier in 2013.

    1. 2013 should definitely be your year of reading some Mitford, Joanne! If you loved reading about their lives, you’ll find the books wonderful, as Nancy’s writing really captures that era!

  5. A certain amount of serendipity at the holidays keeps everything cheerful! How lucky it was another Nancy Mitford under the dust jacket and not something worthless. All the best in the New Year. I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while now but this is my first comment :)

    1. I know – it could have been something awful, couldn’t it? It’s lovely to have you come out of the woodwork – don’t be a stranger from now on, Lee-Anne! :)

  6. That sounds like a delightful novel, and perfect for the holidays! Oddly, I too began Villette this December, but ended up setting it aside for a brief and cheery interlude with Barbara Pym. Hope you have a happy New Year!

  7. I planned to read this over Christmas but didn’t get to it. I’ll either read it soon or put it back on the shelf until next year. Happy New Year!

  8. I have never read any Nancy Mitford novels . I have read her biography, letters and general Mitford non fiction. They were a fascinating family but I am often worried about their politics and that at least 2 of the sisters were such lovers of Hitler and fascism. I will put Nancy on my list for 2013. Which is your favourite as a starter?

    1. Oh Enid, you need to remedy that!! Their politics are questionable but Nancy is a good writer and there isn’t anything in the novels that you wouldn’t typically find in other books of the same period. My favourite is The Pursuit of Love – definitely read that next!

  9. Oooh I’ve been looking forward to reading your thoughts on this. Reading your review has made me remember that I did enjoy reading this. I think at times I felt some of the characters a little tiresome.
    Happy New Year to you Rachel x

  10. I have The Pursuit of Love on my Classics Club Challenge list. Should I stick with this one or change to Love in a Cold Climate? Which would you recommend??

  11. how lovely :-) am still reading All Passion Spent on your recommendation and plan to finish it tonight (when it drops to 29 degrees – not sure what that is in old money – in manhattan).

    this is one for next year’s list.

    up there with christmas at cold comfort farm which we wanted to get for this festive season and Completely Forgot!

    love that the main character in Christmas Pudding calls her daughter Philadelphia – always makes us giggle when people are named after Places.

    no one calls their child Birmingham (or maybe they do, down south, here in the USA).

    1. I’m so glad to hear that! Hope you’re enjoying All Passion Spent!

      I used to live in Manhattan so I can well appreciate just how cold it is for you right now! Hope you had a lovely Christmas and weren’t too cold.

      I know – the names are hilarious in this one! Though apparently Philadelphia was quite a common name in the UK in the 18th century…

      1. your blog is really splendid.

        have added it to the List We read regularly.

        and so good to know you’re also a world travel(l)er/global resident/citizen

        waving from 29 degrees (minus 2 – brrr)

        _teamgloria x

  12. Rachel,
    Thank you for the Nancy Mitford tip. It sounds like another book for the Boudoir Shelf (as in bouder: to sulk in French) where those slabs of comfort solace sit waiting for you to need to read them again.
    Incidentally, it always fascinates me that the first three candidates for the Boudoir Shelf have titles prominent in alliterative ‘c’s:
    Love in a Cold Climate (Nancy Mitford)
    Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
    I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith)
    I draw no conclusions from this, it’s just wonderful.

    Sad to say items for the Boudoir Shelf are usually written by women. Then I started to take notice of Ronald Blythe (recently 90 and, it is to be hoped, going strong) who deliberates most beautifully about both the past and now. He writes a weekly elegiac ramble on the back of the Church Times but he is probably best remembered for Akenfield (the changing life of a fictional village in rural Suffolk) which was made into a film by Peter Hall in 1969. He never went to university and doesn’t feel he missed out even when he fell in with an elevated literary/musical and artistic set (Britten, Cedric Morris, the Nashes) and has lived for many years in a house John Nash left to him. Try http://www.wormingfield.blogspot

    I wish you all the best in your teaching. It is a joy to know that someone as in love with literature as you are is at work opening the minds of some lucky children somewhere. Let us hope that bureaucracy is on the wain and there will be more latitude for teachers to inspire above and beyond expectations.

    I’d love it if you would have a look at my website: http://www.addisonembroideryatthevicarage.
    It’s a bit of a mixed bag out of which tumble embroidery, patchwork, painted furniture, flowers, church events, art and literature. Rather a grand claim for something rather small.

    with the best of wishes,
    Mary

    1. Hi Mary! Lovely to hear from you. Thank you for your kind words and also your recommendation – I hadn’t heard of Akenfield before and have now added it to my amazon wishlist – I think it won’t be long before I snap it up! It sounds wonderful!

      It’s always wonderful to meet someone else with such similar tastes – I hope you’ll come by more often! And I love your blog – fascinating!

  13. I have a Nancy Mitford novel on my shelves at home. You’re making me think I should have it mailed to me in New York in my next batch of book mailings! I have been meaning to give her a try anyway. It’s not this one but I figure all her books are comparably charming?

    1. Yes you should, Jenny! They’re not all of the same quality, though, no…the later ones are better. I love The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate best – LIACC is the sequel to TPOL so you have to read them in the right order!

  14. I’m so glad to hear you liked this one. I haven’t yet been able to track down a copy, so your review hit the spot for the moment. Thank for the link to Capuchin’s edition. I may have to treat myself to it and squirrel it away for next Christmas. And I actually kind of like the idea that the incorrect book jacket was an intentional switch! Imagine all the mischief you could cause by switching the jackets before donating a bunch of books.

    1. Oh you should definitely treat yourself! You need to have stuff like this waiting to be read! Oooh…maybe it was! That’s an interesting theory! You’ve given me ideas now – it could be a fun game to do that! :)

  15. Oh I love the Mitford’s so, especially Nancy! I read this the Christmas before the one just gone and, as you mentioned, its the perfect book to just curl up with some chocolates and read. I didn’t read a Mitford last year which is shocking!

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