My rating: 5.75/10
I had to go back to April to double-check my rating of the earlier companion piece to this very minor entry into the satirical humour, between-the-wars, Brit Lit canon, Miford’s 1931 Scottish grouse moor-set Highland Fling. I see I rated it at 5.5, which is, on further reflection, quite generous. Christmas Pudding therefore gets an also-generous 5.75/10.
This is Very Light Fiction, and not quite up to Wodehousian standards, which one would assume was the author’s goal. There is a certain flair for humorous phrasing which gives a strong hint of what the Mitford would later accomplish to a higher degree in her most critically, popularly and financially successful books, the semi-autobiographical The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing, and Don’t Tell Alfred.
Christmas Pudding is a romantic farce, with the expected eclectic cast of characters, most taken out of their usual urban habitats and tossed together into close proximity in the isolation of a country house Christmas. Here are the major characters, and a glimpse of the set-up:
- Paul Fortheringay, recently published author of Crazy Capers – a grim tragedy of a novel despite its name – is devastated when instead the “serious” book he has laboured over with such care is received as a humorous satire. “Funniest book of the season!” the critics bray. Paul is not amused. How to salvage his writerly self-esteem? Perhaps with a work of unmistakeable sincerity, such as a biography of a hitherto-neglected literary personage? But all the obvious subjects are already well written up, so Paul decides on an obscure pre-Victorian poetess, Lady Maria Bobbin, whose diaries and letters are rumoured to be still extant and sitting in dusty preservation at the country estate of Compton Bobbin.
- Walter and Sally Monteath, the penniless yet well-born young couple at the centre of Highland Fling’s hectic action, have recently been blessed with a baby girl. Still on the brink of financial disaster, the couple (now with child and nanny) are most ready to accept any offer of hospitality over the holidays, graceful sponging on wealthier acquaintances being their speciality.
- Middle-aged but very well preserved Amabelle Fortescue, retired and rather well-invested ex-demimondaine, moves in the better circles and includes such Bright Young Things as Walter and Sally among her chums. Paul is also a pal. Amabelle has decided to do something different this Christmas, and has taken Mulberrie Farm as her temporary abode, an amusing departure from the London whirl-of-gaiety norm.
- Next door to Mulberrie Farm we have the sedate estate of Compton Bobbin (aha!), inhabited by hunting-mad Lady Bobbin, the unchallenged matriarch of her meek household and the terror of the countryside at large. Also in residence are her daughter Philadelphia, beautiful, bored, listless and waiting for something – anything! – to rescue her from her bleak existence in the rural purdah dictated by her mother, and young Roderick – Bobby – Bobbin, down from Eton for the hols. Bobby is an oldish sort of young man; he is rather well acquainted with our Amabelle, without his mother’s knowledge, of course.
- Michael Lewes, of the diplomatic service, presently stationed in Cairo, but coming back to England for Christmas, which he will be spending as a guest of the Bobbins. Michael has long been in love with Amabelle, and persists in asking her for her hand in matrimony, to her continual good-natured refusal.
- Major Stanworth is another neighbour Mulberrie Farm. A widower, he’s a rather good sort, hearty and cheerful and, as it turns out, at a stage in life where some womanly consolation for his single state is welcome.
Plot in a paragraph:
Paul writes to Lady Bobbin asking permission to go through Lady Maria’s papers. Lady Bobbin gives a brief but forceful “No!” Hang on, says Amabelle, when Paul bemoans the situation to her, I know the young Bobbin heir. So Paul is dispatched to Compton Bobbin under guise of being Bobby’s holiday tutor, the plan being that while he pretends to be closeted with young Bobby in academic solitude, he will in reality be working on his biography of Lady Maria, leaving Bobby free to go a-visiting on the quiet at Mulberrie Farm. Paul sees Philadelphia, and his heart goes thump-thump, as does Michael Lewes’ heart, which is open for consolation after yet another gentle put-down by Amabelle. Philadelphia, suddenly the focus of two sets of admiring male eyes, perks up marvellously. Major Stamworth’s more mature charms appeal to Amabelle, and hers to him; a romance quietly blossoms in the most unlikely way. Scads of Bobbin relations descend for Christmas on Compton Bobbin, as do a number of Amabelle’s friends on Mulberrie Farm, including Walter and Sally, who are just sort of there in the tale, though they don’t really play a major part in the intrigues. Will Paul have his cover blown? Will Bobby’s deception be revealed to his bossy mum? Will Philadelphia go for money, good nature and sterling worth (Michael) or poverty, hot passion and the literary arts (Paul)? Will urbanite Amabelle and country gentleman Major Stanworth get together for good and walk arm in arm off into the rural sunset?
I thought that Christmas Pudding, Mitford’s second published novel, was perhaps a more polished piece than Highland Fling, with its young author settling down a bit and finding it easier to maintain a narrative strand of sorts. (Well, not that young, really, for when I do the math I see that Nancy Mitford was 28 years old when Christmas Pudding was published, which surprised me rather – it reads as though she were 19 or thereabouts, with its frequently cheeky “Let’s shock the elders!” tone.)
Though the book is set during the holiday season, one can’t really call it a “Christmas book” in the heart-warming, nostalgic, feel-good sense; the smiles it engenders are just a little too cynical, though there is a rather funny episode Christmas morning which I think will stick with me, concerning one of the wee children roistering about the country house where most of the characters are staying.
At about five o’clock in the morning Master Christopher Robin Chadlington made a tour of the bedrooms, and having awoken each occupant in turn with a blast of his mouth organ, announced in a voice fraught with tragedy that Auntie Gloria had forgotten to put a chocolate baby in his stocking. “Please might I have a bit of yours?” This quaint ruse was only too successful, and Christopher Robin acquired thereby no fewer than fourteen chocolate babies, all of which he ate before breakfast. The consequences, which were appalling, took place under the dining-room table at a moment when everybody else was busily opening the Christmas post. After this, weak but cheerful, young Master Chadlington spent the rest of the day in bed practising on his mouth organ.
Forgive me, for I laughed out loud at this passage.
“Weak but cheerful.” Oh, indeed! That could well describe this frothy little novel.
P.S. – Young Christopher Robin has a sister named Wendy. I know some of you will deeply appreciate that tidbit. 😉