More musings on travelling, with a cameo from Nancy Mitford

I’m back in the swing of things now; it’s my first day back at work today, and in between answering the deluge of emails in my inbox, I am allowing my mind to wander back to those sun filled African skies that now seem so far away. It’s funny how quickly you reacclimatise to life; this time last week I was wandering around a traditional African market in the blazing heat, soaking up the culture and enjoying being able to meander at my leisure through the busy streets of a foreign city. I couldn’t imagine ever going back to my normal routine, and had my usual holiday daydreams of going back to London, chucking it all in and boarding a plane to Anywhere But Here, with nothing but a small suitcase and a spirit of adventure to accompany me.

But here I am, back at my desk, and already it feels like I never went on holiday as I whack on my ipod, elbow annoying slow people out of my way as I travel around on the London Transport system and let my head get resubmerged into work and London and the life I have here. It’s not a bad job, or a bad life, and I am far from dissatisfied, but it always surprises me how, whenever I go on holiday, I feel a unique sense of freedom and connection with a ‘me’ I never normally get to be. It makes me realise how stifled I am by my everyday life; how little of what I do on a daily basis actually reflects my dreams, my ambitions, my beliefs, my desires.  What if I didn’t have to sit at this desk from 9-5.30 every day? What if I didn’t have to pay extortionate London rent every month? What if I forgot about what I am supposed to be achieving and started living the life I want to live rather than the life I am expected to? What could I be capable of? If I never make any changes, I’ll never know. I decided at the beginning of this year that this was going to be the year of radical change, and my trip to South Africa has cemented my desire to dare to be different and take the plunge into new waters. I’ve already started putting quite a few wheels into motion, and, if things work out the way I hope they will, I’ll have exciting news to report before long about where my life is heading!

So, enough about me and more about books. On my behemoth of a solo plane journey from London to Istanbul, Istanbul to Joburg, and Joburg to Cape Town (it was a very cheap flight), I only managed to read one and a half books, as I watched a couple of films (Amelia, which was so-so, and The Proposal, which I LOVE), had a little sleep, and did a lot of wandering around foreign airports. If you ever do a stop over in Istanbul, check out the Bazaar with the baskets and baskets full of free turkish delight in all different flavours; it’s amazing! As I was feeling a bit nervous about the flight and all the changeovers I had to do, I took along some comfort reading in the shape of Nancy Mitford’s masterpieces, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. I read the former many years ago, and never got around to reading the sequel, so I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in the world of the Mitfords again.

The Pursuit of Love instantly became a favourite with me when I first read it, and I loved it all over again as I laughed out loud at the exploits of the Radlett family: “always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair, they loved or they loathed, they lived in a world of superlatives”. It centres around the beautiful Linda, taking in the lives of her lovers, siblings, and parents, all lovingly narrated by her eminently sensible cousin Fanny, whose mother, nicknamed ‘The Bolter’, a glamorous commitment-phobe, is the stuff of family legend. Having read the biography of the sisters by Mary S Lovell last year, I instantly recognised many of the characters. Vague Aunt Sadie and explosive Uncle Matthew are Lord and Lady Redesdale to a T; the ravishing and implusive Linda is, of course, Nancy’s younger sister Diana Mosley. Fanny weaves a tale of a loud, dysfunctional and irrepresibly funny family, who are bound together by a love strong enough to forgive their many indiscretions. Uncle Matthew rules the household with an iron fist, or so he likes to believe, but his soft heart is his undoing, as his inability to avoid allowing his children to find ‘the thin end of the wedge’ of every punishment inevitably results in them always getting their own way. Aunt Sadie has her head in the clouds, but comes down every now and again to give out half hearted reprimands and support her children in their various endeavours. Linda and Fanny are desperate to ‘come out’ and enter the real world; they dream of falling in love and getting married, and discuss this endlessly in the ‘Hon’s Cupboard’, along with the other Radlett children. They manage to marry fairly quickly, but it is Linda’s disastrous love life, weaving its way through 1920s London, the Spanish Civil War, pre war Paris and finally war torn England that provides the plot of this hilarious and at times very moving novel that so clearly captures the eccentric and lively world the Mitfords inhabited. It’s absolutely chock full of hilarious quotes I could copy down and delight you with for hours, and it really did entertain and charm me all over again. Nancy Mitford has such an eye for people, and for picking out their ridiculous qualities; she had some excellent inspiration, but still, she had a great gift.

Love in a Cold Climate, a loose sequel to The Pursuit of Love, wasn’t quite up to the same standard in my opinion, largely because there wasn’t enough of the Radletts for my liking! It is again narrated by Fanny, and Polly, the main character, is a distant relation of hers who she stays with often, and is a neighbour of the Radletts. I thought this was a bit tenuous as there was no mention of such a character in The Pursuit of Love, but I soon got over it. Polly is a beautiful heiress about to ‘come out’, but she shows no interest in men, much to her vain and difficult mother’s distress. Unfortunately it soon turns out that she is in love, but with the highly unsuitable ‘Boy’ Dougdale, her Uncle through marriage, who ‘fooled around’ with the Radlett girls as children and has been her mother’s longstanding extra marital lover. This causes terrible problems amongst her family, and also for the Radletts, who are intimately involved, and things only get more complicated when the outrageously gay Cedric Hampton, heir to Polly’s father’s entailed fortune, turns up on the scene. It’s very funny, and wise, and filled with the same brilliant larger than life characters as The Pursuit of Love, but it lacked the charm and cosiness of its predecessor for me. Still highly recommended, though.

I know a lot of people have posted about Nancy now that Penguin are republishing her, and I am glad she is having a mini renaissance. I am anxious to read the nice new edition of Don’t Tell Alfred, which completes the triology of novels Fanny narrates. The previously unavailable Wigs on the Green has also intrigued me, though I have heard from several reliable sources that it’s not quite up to the mark. All I know is that a novel by a Mitford is always going to interest me due to their shameless use of personal friends and relatives as material, so whether they’re well written or not, they’ll always be entertaining! I’ll be asking for these two for my birthday and I’ll let you know how I get on.

34 comments

  1. My friend sent me a Nancy Mitford book for Christmas – Don’t Tell Alfred, I think – and I’m looking forward to reading it! I’ve never read anything by her.

    1. You are in for a treat! Don’t Tell Alfred is also narrated by Fanny so you might want to try and read The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate first if you can!

  2. Hi Rachel, welcome home. Your posts are such a joy I have missed them. I loved hearing about South Africa. How generous of you to give precious annual leave to helping at your friend’s school. If you want sunshine in March again you are welcome to Adelaide where I can take you to sweeping white beaches and the Writers Festival and ply you with orange juice from our tree…. Nancy Mitford is having a moment no?! I am keen to read The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate now.

    1. Hello! Thank you Merenia, you are so lovely. Don’t tempt me! I wish it wasn’t so expensive to fly to Australia, otherwise I’d be there in a heartbeat! Do read Nancy just as soon as you can – I know that you’d love her!

  3. Welcome home, Rachel! Your travels sound divine. I’m a big fan of long and exciting trips, even if means a lot of change-overs (not such a fan of delays).

    Nancy Mitford sounds like the ideal travel companion. This will be the year that I read her, starting of course with The Pursuit of Love.

    1. Thanks Claire! Long and exciting trips are indeed the best! I’m glad you are going to tackle Nancy at last – you will really enjoy her I am sure! I have a lot of unread Mitfords on my shelf so I am going to try and expand my reading this year.

  4. Coming home after travelling always shifts your perspective doesn’t it? I didn’t realise that there were sequels to Love in a Cold Climate. Thanks for letting me know!

    1. Yes…I am far too philosophical for my own good I think! The Pursuit of Love is the first, followed by Love in a Cold Climate and Don’t Tell Alfred, though they’re not really sequels and you could read them independently in my opinion.

  5. ‘…connection with a ‘me’ I never normally get to be.’ I LOVE that statement! Because we have to work to earn money and look after our homes and cook our meals and run errands, we don’t have much time to pursue the things we’d like to. Being on holiday where you can explore or linger around the things that make you happy is so fulfilling. I could never lie around on a beach, there’s too many things I want to see and learn about!

    I just finished a book last night and meant to read another Wilkie Collins but you’ve tempted me with Mitford.

    1. Thank you Darlene! It’s so true, isn’t it? Life has a way of taking over sometimes and I wish it wouldn’t! I am the same – I can do the beach for a few hours but after that I am itching to explore!

      I see you’ve started Nancy – can’t wait for your review!

  6. I was impressed by the same paragraph as Darlene. Work has a tendency to stop us being who we really want to be. It seems to be getting worse too. In many walks of life, salaries are now looked on as compensation for the level of hassle involved in any given job. (I suspect teachers might dispute that!) Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be paid to do things for which we have a true vocation? To be in a situation where a wage is something that enables us to do what we do best, and with the greatest benefit for others, rather than being the reason for doing something that brings little or no fulfilment.

    Of course, by historical standards, and indeed by comparison with millions of people on this planet right now, those of us who enjoy good health and luxuries like running water ought to count ourselves lucky. Yet, as your interesting reflections on your South African trip reminds us, those who have the least in material terms are often more contented than us busy western types.

    May I wish you the very best of luck making the changes you allude to. Many crave a change, but few do much about it. I don’t have any wild ambitions myself, even achieving modest objectives in life can sometimes seem daunting. The title of one of those Mitford books encapsulates one of my long standing frustrations, but I’ll shut up there before I embarrass myself or start treating you like a therapist!

    1. Hello David, thanks so much for commenting! You are kind. If only I could figure out my true vocation then I’d probably be getting somewhere!

      Thank you – I have become significantly more gung ho about making dramatic life decisions as I’ve got older so I am starting to find flinging myself at my ambitions and hoping for the best without worrying about the consequences is usually the best way to go! I wish you the best of luck in your own pursuit!

  7. Oh good old Nancy Mitford you can’t go wrong with her. I did wonder if Love in a Cold Climate (seriously isnt it awful that I have not read this book) would be as funny as The Pursuit of Love, which made me laugh so much one night The Converted One thought I was having some kind of seizure. I will be reading this over the next few months and look forward to comparing notes.

    1. No, you really can’t! I didn’t like it as much so I’d be interested to read your thoughts – I nearly wet myself reading The Pursuit of Love and LIACC does lack that laugh out loud quality for me.

  8. Dear Lord, I love Nancy Mitford. Have you read the letters of her sister Jessica? The whole family is the same sort of sparkling.

    Loved your musings on travel.

    -Connie @ Constance-Reader.com

    1. Hello! Thanks so much for commenting – it’s lovely to meet a new blogger. I’m off to check out your blog now!

      Yes – I have Decca’s letters but haven’t finished them yet – they are hilarious. I just love the Mitfords!

  9. Welcome home, Rachel! Your statement Darlene quoted is the one that really stood out for me, too. There is an almost magical quality to a vacation that allows you to be the real you! My husband has been to South Africa twice (both times before we were married) and says he’ll take me there one day. We’ll see…

  10. Welcome back! I find the same thing with holidays (especially ones where I get the chance to read a lot, as it looks like you did!).

    It was my trip here to visit my friend a couple years ago that made me decide to quit my (admittedly “good”) job and ship my life over here – despite the London rent, I couldn’t be more happy that I made the leap.

    Of course, my big adventure is your daily grind. Maybe we should have done a rom-com worthy life swap🙂

    1. Thanks Lija!

      That;s such an exciting thing to hear! And an encouraging thing too! I’m so glad you made the plunge. I hope I will be able to very soon!

      A life swap would be fun…any takers?!

  11. Welcome home. I hope your new direction in life is everything you want it to be. I’ve just started reading Don’t tell Alfred & I love it. It’s been sitting on my tbr shelves for years & I’m so glad I finally got around to it. This is one of the advantages of buying fewer books & reading what I already have. I’ve had lots of lovely surprises this year already.

    1. Thank you Lyn! Yes, same here – I’ve really enjoyed being able to actually read what’s on my shelves and dig out books I’ve been meaning to read for years. I have a lot of treasure as it is without needing to find any more! I’m so glad you are enjoying Don’t Tell Alfred – I hope to get it for my birthday!

  12. I love your site and am moved to comment to say I love Nancy Mitford as well! I was just working on a “10 Most Influential Books,” list and The Pursuit of Love topped the list! She has such a wonderful way with words! My sister doesn’t share this sense of humor and when I suggested she read “Pursuit” to her kids, she said, “but it isn’t very funny…well, I suppose if you think ‘Lucky Jim’ is funny, then, maybe…” No comment!
    I’m enjoying poking around your blog — Keep up the good work!

    Jennifer

    PS Don’t Tell Alfred is marvelous!!

    1. Thank you so much Jennifer! I love yours too…it’s my secret dream to live in Russia!
      I think Nancy Mitford’s humour takes a certain type of person to appreciate it! I’m so glad I’ve got a new reader in you!

  13. Welcome back Rachel, good luck with future decisions, and enjoy the crap for how much better and brighter it makes the good stuff (if their has to be crap it might as well be put to good use).

    Don’t give up on Wigs on the Green, as a stand alone novel it’s maybe a bit ropey but theres much more to it then that and as a short funny peace of social history it’s hard to beat.

    1. Thanks Hayley, you’re very kind – it’s true. Going through difficult times is a real character developing experience, plus it makes you all the more happier when the good times start rolling!

      I am still going to give Wigs on the Green a go, don’t worry – anything Nancy Mitford writes is funny to me!

  14. I very much enjoyed your previous post (but will just leave a comment here)–I would love to visit South Africa–as well as other parts of Africa, but it is so far away I’m not sure I will ever get there. I think I would find the racial disparities jarring, too. It is really hard doing the same thing every day in and out with little variation, which is how I feel right now (and it really does get you down), so I will be curious to hear what exciting plans you have in store! I’m happy to see those new Penguin Mitfords and may have to indulge a little–like you I read the first of those two novels years ago and have always meant to read the other one–will have to read them both together at some point. Glad you’re back and hopefully things won’t be too humdrum in comparison!

    1. Thanks Danielle, glad you enjoyed it. South Africa is definitely a place I think it’s important for us Westerners to visit and I hope you manage to make it one day.
      Isn’t it difficult? I’m glad I’m not the only one. I yearn for more! I will update when I have things more concretely in place…hopefully soon!

      Mitford books are worth indulging in – treat yourself! I am keeping my fingers crossed for my birthday!

      You are very kind – things aren’t tooo humdrum…though I could already do with another holiday!!

  15. I loved your entire post and the musings on travel bit specially. It struck a chord with me as well and I think this applies to everyone – we all have a secret yearning to do something or be somewhere else and we are grounded in another place due to birth, commitments and job! I think sometimes we look on what we dont have as a utopia and because its not always possible to achieve it, we yearn for it more!

    1. Thank you – you are so right! The grass is always greener, isn’t it? I think the secret is learning how to be happy with what you have…but how to achieve this? It’s a mystery to me!

  16. I enjoyed The Pursuit of Love, still haven’t got around to the sequel…

    Also love the photo – is it yours?

    And, well, I tried a desk job for a year, and yearned for studentdom… and now I yearn for a desk job! Never satisfied. But SA sounds amazing – I would love to visit if it weren’t for the heat and the spiders…

    1. You must get around to it, Simon!

      Sadly no, the photo isn’t mine – I do actually have an impressive vintage suitcase collection, but I am currently camera less since falling victim to a South African pickpocket!

      Well isn’t that the truth – I couldn’t wait to work and earn money when I was a student, and now I’d do anything to go back and do my MA and PhD…but I know I’d get bored of that too after a while!

      I saw no spiders in SA at all, Simon – and if you go outside of Dec-April you should be fine as it’s not too hot. Cape Town is a must see and I will definitely be going back one day!

  17. I love those two novels, particularly the Pursuit of Love. I went a bit Mitford-mad a few years ago and bought Mary Lovell’s excellent biography of the sisters and then the collection of their letters to each other. And then snapped up everything else I could find written by them, fiction and not. They’re great fun, although I do think I like all the Mitfords better on paper than I would in real life!🙂

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