Archive for the ‘Nancy Mitford’ Category

christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford 001Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford ~ 1932. This edition: Curtis Books, 1973. Paperback. 238 pages.

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. 😉

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Poplar catkins, Hill Farm, some other spring.

Poplar catkins, here at Hill Farm, a spring or two ago. Rather tardy this year, as we are still covered mostly in snow, and yearning for a warm wind to take it all away and get those pussy willows and leaf buds started…

Here we have a random grouping of completely unrelated reads: the brightly satirical (Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling), the contemporary fantasy (Neil Gaiman’s Stardust), the vintage teen girl tale (Betty Cavanna’s Almost Like Sisters), and the enduring anthropomorphic classic (Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows).

highland fling nancy mitford 001Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford ~ 1931. This edition: Hamlyn, 1975. Paperback. ISBN: 0-600-20626-2. 185 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

From The Spectator, April 11, 1931, a book reviewer’s summation at Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling:

A dreary extravaganza of the post-Waugh school. (The conception is infantile, execution (at its best) undistinguished.) The Bright Young People cut familiar capers in the Gothick North. Vulgar, but not funny.

Oh, ouch! Talk about your brutal dismissal. Miss Mitford’s first published work was apparently not an instant hit with everyone in her home country, though she appears to have surmounted such dire reviews and gone on to find enduring popularity among the discriminating readers of the next eight decades. There does appear to be something of a cult Nancy Mitford following, if one may use such a term, though I’m standing very much on the edge of such, listening to the gushing praise with serene detachment.

Some of her novels are very good indeed, but this first one is not quite up to the standard of her best. She tries hard, though, and there are flashes of something very interesting going on in amongst the hectic activity and the constant digs at Society types which the young Nancy Mitford has trotted out rather heavy-handedly as a basis to her humorous repartee.

Young married couple Sally and Walter are living well beyond their means, so when they are offered an opportunity to play host and hostess at a relative’s country place in Scotland for the shooting season, they quite contentedly relocate from Town. Joining them are two of their contemporaries, the giddy Jane Dacre and the avante-garde artist Albert Memorial Gates.

The four young folk are quite clever at dodging the bloody amusement of the “grown-ups” of the party, that of going out and killing the local fish and fowl, but the two generations meet over dinner every night, which is good for some sparks-flying conversation of the culture clash type, as the Old Guard holds forth on How Things Should Be, while the younger ones parry the heavy handed pronouncements with their own rapier wit, which quite often fails to even catch the notice of the intended target.

Much merriment ensues, culminating with a conflagration which destroys Dalloch Castle, and sends everybody back to town. An inevitable romantic cat-and-mouse games ends happily for the players, and all’s well that ends well.

While readable enough, this is hardly a masterpiece. A very light entertainment, and I suspect of most interest to the already-won-over Nancy Mitford fan.

stardust charles vess nail gaimanStardust by Neil Gaiman ~ 1998. This edition: Vertigo, 1998. Illustrations by Charles Vess. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-56389-470-1. 212 pages.

My rating: 10/10

This is why I still bother with Gaiman, because he created this sort of thing in his earlier days, and we still get glimpses of it now and then, though the stories are getting increasingly edgier and darker, as well as a little bit lazy here and there.

There is only a small gap in the wall that separates the Real World (where mortals hold sway and a young Queen Victoria sits on the throne) and the Other World where Magic holds sway, and where anything can (and does) happen. Pass through the gap with caution, Mortal…

Young Tristan Thorn, in love with the lovely, manipulative town beauty, Victoria (no relation to the ruling one), sees a falling star and boasts to his lady-love that he will travel into the Other World to the place it has landed and will bring it back to her, in exchange for her giving him his Heart’s Desire.

The star is duly discovered, and turns out to be a creature in the form of a lovely young woman, terribly injured in the fall. Tristan cold-heartedly chains her to himself and the two start the long journey back to the Mortal World – where upon crossing the wall the star will turn into a chunk of stone, something she knows but Tristan doesn’t – with the star proving desperately reluctant to cooperate and Tristan becoming increasingly apologetic but focussed on his goal of winning the fickle Victoria with his successful quest.

Complications ensue, in the form of a triumvirate of witches who are also dead keen on seeking out the star, to cut the heart from her living breast in order to regain their vanished youth. We also have a darkly funny parallel plot about a dead king and his seven fratricidal sons, who are busily bumping each other off – survivor gets the throne.

There are magical transformations, battles to the death (and a fair bit of gore), and helpful creatures here and there, and Tristan and his star eventually do get back to the wall, where he parks the star and passes through to go and find Victoria. However, he’s been away quite a long while, as time is counted in the mortal world, and things have moved on without him…

What a grandly imagined story this is, in the best fairy tale tradition. And the movie made of it back in 2007, starring Claire Danes as the luminescent Yvaine-the-fallen-star, Charlie Cox as an endearingly sincere Tristan, Robert de Niro as the campy captain of a sky-ship (another side plot, don’t worry, it makes sense when you’re reading this thing, sort of) and Michelle Pfieffer as a gloriously wicked witch (equipped with horribly sharp obsidian knives for hacking out Yvaine’s heart) was a rather decent adaptation.

I’ve read both the straight novel edition (no pictures) and the Charles Vess collaboration, and both are marvelous. To get the full effect of the story, go for the print-only one. Vess’s illustrations are brilliant, but horribly distracting, in the very best sort of way.

almost like sisters betty cavannaAlmost Like Sisters by Betty Cavanna ~1963. This edition: Morrow, 1968. Hardcover. 254 pages.

My rating: 5/10

I confess to a secret fondness for Betty Cavanna’s sincere teen girl tales. The obvious care and attention to setting up the backgrounds and the “educational” details she insistently inserts in to each and every one always win me over, even though there are many cringe-worthy elements throughout, such as the continued harping on anyone who is even the tiniest bit plump, and the sometimes dreadfully pedestrian writing style. Still, something keeps pulling me back to reading these over and over again, and I am obviously not alone, as Cavanna’s books went through many editions and reprintings, are in very strong demand (and are rather high priced) in the vintage book marketplace, and are always almost in tatters when one does find them. Kind of like Betty is the D.E. Stevenson of the mid-20th century teenage set, in fact…

Almost Like Sisters, while definitely readable if you go in for this sort of thing, is not one of the shining stars in this author’s substantial oeuvre, so I won’t go on at length, but will merely share the flyleaf blurb, because it pretty well tells you all you need to know about where this story goes.

Wearing the candy-striped mother-daughter dresses, Victoria and Mrs. Logan looked once again almost like sisters. But Victoria stood on the side lines of the party, while her mother danced with every boy there.

Victoria had spent seventeen years in the shadow of her fascinating young widowed mother. Sensitive, always ill at ease, she needed to escape that shining presence, to stand on her own two feet. And so Victoria engineered a change of schools. She came to Boston, where at last she felt herself becoming an individual. Here, too, she met Pietro, who was older, romantically Italian, and who stimulated her mentally. Then, unexpectedly, her mother came to live in Boston, and Victoria’s fears returned to haunt her. Would it happen all over again? Would Pietro also be caught in her mother’s spell?

Against a background of Boston and its busy intellectual life, Betty Cavanna has drawn a sharp picture of a difficult mother-daughter relationship. Subtle characterizations highlight this vibrant, intensely interesting story of a young girl’s struggle to attain judgement and maturity…

Not my personal copy, which is a rebound old school library edition with a boring green cover.

Not my personal copy, which is a rebound old school library edition with a boring green cover.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame ~ 1908. This edition: Scribner’s, 1954. Illustrated and with Preface by Ernest H. Shepard. Hardcover. 259 pages.

My rating: 10/10

What can be said about this book that hasn’t already been said, written, or recorded in some way? A true “classic”, in every sense of the word, beloved by children and adults the world over for the century-plus since its first publication.

Grahame’s anthropomorphic characters are most cleverly depicted. They are small humans in animal form, wearing clothes, walking upright when appropriate (though some find this easier to manage than others), and only sometimes following their animal nature. They interact with the humans in their world on a perfectly equal basis (or so they think) while the “real” humans seem to view them with a mildly patronizing attitude. The whole thing is rather complex, when one stops to think about it, and it says much for Grahame’s artistry that we accept his world immediately and without question.

The story itself is a series of linked adventures, starting with the subterranean Mole busily spring cleaning his rather dingy underground home, and throwing down his scrub brush in despair when the scent of Spring wafts through the air and catches the attention of his sensitive little nose. Wandering aimlessly out along the riverbank, Mole meets the cheerful Water Rat, who is appalled that his new acquaintance is unfamiliar with the joys of the river, and decides post-haste to initiate the ground dweller into the thrill of the liquid world, for

‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: ‘messing – about – in – boats; messing –‘

‘Look ahead, Rat!’ cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank at full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air…

The earnest Mole and the carefree Rat go on to have numerous adventures, mostly concerning their bumptious neighbour Toad, who is a wealthy creature much prone to following ever-changing whims full speed ahead until something new catches his short attention. A camping trip in a horse drawn caravan (with decent Mole walking along beside the Horse to keep him company and to try to make up for the fact that the Horse is doing all of the hot, dusty work while Toad lolls in the driver’s seat) goes awry as the group is run off the road by a Motorcar. Toad is seduced immediately, buys his own extra-deluxe motorcar, and with a war cry of “Poop! Poop!” (meant to mimic the klaxon horn of his newest Beloved) gets himself into much more serious scrapes and eventually into Court, where he receives a stern sentence for Driving to the Public Danger, and much more seriously, Cheeking a Policeman. Twenty years in the deepest dungeon of the best-guarded prison in all of England is the fate of Toad. How ever while he get out of this one?!

Good stuff. Read it for your personal pleasure; read it aloud to your children, and continue the long tradition.

That’s all I have to say. If you are looking for scholarly examination, it is freely available in great abundance here, there and everywhere. But not from me. It’s a grand book, undoubtedly an “important” book, and most crucial of all, a fun-to-read book. Go read it. It’s utterly perfect for Spring.

And oh, well, here is a link to a quite lovely blog post regarding it, the sort of thing which I would have liked to have written, but which has already been done to such perfection that I lazily thought, “Why do it again?”

Check this out: Behold the Stars: The Wind in the Willows

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