A wonderfully satirical quote from Nancy Mitford’s modern classic Love in a Cold Climate, reviewed yesterday, that suggests why the novel night appeal to fans of Jane Austen:
“Lady Montdore loved anybody royal. It was a genuine emotion, quite disinterested, since she loved them in as much in exile as in power, and the act of curtseying was the consummation of this love. Her curtseys, owing to the solid quality of her frame, did not recall the graceful movement of wheat before the wind. She scrambled down like a camel, rising again backside foremost, like a cow, a strange performance, painful, it might be supposed, to the performer, the expression on whose face, however, belied this thought. Her knees crackled like revolver shots but her smile was heavenly.”
“Class was a delicate matter, a subject for intuition rather than conversation, one of those ‘borderline’ subjects, deeply felt but never discussed,” writes Jessica Mitford in Hons and Rebels (NYRB Classics, 2004), a memoir of growing up in the storied upper-class English family that inspired her sister Nancy’s Love in a Cold Climate, reviewed earlier today. I haven’t read this one, but I admired Jessica Mitford’s landmark exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. And the NYRB site has a brief introduction by Christopher Hitchens and a reading group guide with more on this family of six gifted daughters and a son killed in World War II.
Say what you will about the decomposing British class system, the follies of aristocrats have inspired some the finest comic scenes in Western literature. Few authors saw the excesses at closer range than Nancy Mitford, who drew on them for Love in a Cold Climate, a modern classic based in part on her storied and half-batty upper-class family. First published in 1949, this comedy of manners tells the story of the heiress Polly Montdore, an only child who flouts convention by marrying a middle-aged man who had been her mother’s lover. Mitford’s portrait of the young Polly sets the tone of a book that is witty and elegant without being aloof: “Polly was a withdrawn, formal little girl, who went through the day with the sense of ritual, the poise, the absolute submission to etiquette of a Spanish Infanta. You had to love her, she was so beautiful and friendly, but it was impossible to feel very intimate with her.”