Literary Ramblings

I’ve come across some wonderful websites & podcasts recently & I do love to share. After all, if I’m going to be scrambling to fit all these into my reading & listening schedule, I think you should all be under the same relentless pressure!

First though, I want to mention an audio book. Some friends have been visiting Mitford country & that may be why, when my monthly Audible credit was due, I decided to download Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford. Read by Patricia Hodge, who is the most perfect narrator for this book that I can imagine – do admit. I haven’t read Love in a Cold Climate for years & I’m loving it. It’s such a witty, funny book; Lady Montdore & Boy Dougdale are so dreadful that it’s a treat to revisit them all again even though there’s a sadness in Polly’s story which is heartbreaking. That’s my Mitford shelf at the top of the post. I have quite a few Mitfords on the tbr shelves but they’re scattered so not easy to photograph.
I’m so pleased that some of these older Chivers audio books are available on Audible. Chivers went through several name changes over the years & finally went under altogether a couple of years ago. I would love their editions of the Barbara Pym & Dorothy L Sayers (read by Ian Carmichael) audio books to be available but, I’ll take what I can get. Apart from anything else, their cover art for their classics series was always so stylish.

I came across this article about Constance Fenimore Woolson at Lithub which led me to sign up for their newsletter which links to lots of literary articles. The Woolson article was written by Anne Boyd Rioux, author of a new biography of Woolson that I’m very keen to read. Then, I discovered Boyd Rioux’s website & her Bluestocking Bulletin which began in February & I’ve read the back issues & subscribed.

While reading the Bluestocking Bulletin, I came across a mention of the New Statesman History podcast series Hidden Histories. It is a six episode exploration of women writers before Jane Austen, from Aphra Behn to Maria Edgeworth. I’ve listened to two episodes so far & it’s wonderful. You can listen at the website or subscribe to the podcast.

Another new podcast is from the people who run crowdfunding publisher, Unbound. Called Backlisted, each episode highlights a forgotten book, in the manner of the website, Neglected Books.
I’ve listened to one episode so far, on Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, one of my favourite novels. I found the episode a bit too long & a little self-indulgent. The three male hosts didn’t let their guest, Samantha Ellis, get a word in for some time, but when the discussion did get started on the book, it was fascinating. I’ve downloaded two more episodes, on Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing & J L Carr’s A Month in the Country, so I will persevere.
I heard about this podcast from a terrific Facebook group, Undervalued British Women Novelists 1930-1960. It’s worth joining if you’re interested in the period & neglected women writers.

Well, that’s it for now. More rambling to come when I have something to ramble about. Happy reading, listening & subscribing.

Christmas reading

I’ve started putting together a collection of books to read this month with Christmas themes. I made my Christmas pudding last weekend to the sounds of Christmas carols & the Christmas cake was made on Cup Day (first Tuesday in November) & had its final feeding of brandy the other day. I’ve planned the contents of the hampers I’m putting together for Christmas presents. I’m buying a few things from the farmers market tomorrow morning & I’m going to make chocolate truffles & panforte a couple of days before Christmas. My Christmas cards (from Animal Aid this year because that’s where I adopted Lucky & Phoebe) have arrived & I hope to have them written in the next week or so. I’ll set up the Christmas tree tomorrow as well. I have a small pine tree in a pot that I’ll bring inside & decorate. Abby never went near the tree in previous years, I’m not so sure about Lucky & especially Phoebe so we’ll see how long the decorations last. I found Phoebe asleep on the top shelf of the pantry the other day. I have no idea how she got in there.

Anyway, back to books. Last year I enjoyed lots of 19th century stories as well as some romance. This year is looking more 20th century. I’m very excited about the Stella Gibbons reprints from Vintage. Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm is a volume of short stories. Although only the title story takes place at the famous Cold Comfort Farm, the reviews have been enthusiastic in the Guardian & the Independent & I’m looking forward to reading it.

Nancy Mitford is another author who’s had lots of attention this years with reprints of her non-fiction from Vintage & her fiction from Capuchin. I’m not sure how Christmassy Christmas Pudding is but I can’t resist the title at this time of year.

Romance is covered in Trisha Ashley’s new book, The Magic of Christmas. This is “loosely based on one of my earlier novels, Sweet Nothings, with the addition of a lot of new material.” according to a note at the beginning. I’ve read Sweet Nothings but it was a long time ago so I’ll think of this as a whole new story as the author intends.

Every year I read and/or listen to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I have an audio book of Miriam Margolyes reading the book which I’ll be listening to on the way to work in a couple of weeks & Hesperus has just published a book by Miriam Margolyes & Sonia Fraser called Dickens’ Women. This is the text of the one woman show that Margolyes has toured around the world & there will be another tour next year to celebrate the Dickens Bicentenary. I’m looking forward to it very much. Margolyes is a Dickens devotee & presented an excellent series some years ago about Dickens’s trip to America. She also played Flora Finching in the 1988 TV production of Little Dorrit.

So, I’m all set for a month of reading, listening to far too many Christmas carols, watching my favourite Christmas movies again & wondering how long the angel on top of the Christmas tree is going to survive Phoebe’s attentions. I also have a new gardening enterprise to keep me busy. I’ll post some photos of that in a couple of days.

Recent arrivals

All my Book Depository preorders are coming home to roost! I ordered these lovely books months ago, as soon as I knew they were on the horizon, so it’s been a real treat to come home & find packages on the doorstep this week. Vintage have reprinted Nancy Mitford’s four historical biographies. I’ve bought Voltaire in Love & Frederick the Great but not The Sun King or Madame de Pompadour, which I already own. I also have the Capuchin editions of Christmas Pudding & Pigeon Pie to come but they’re not published until the end of the month.

Alison Weir is one of my favourite writers of historical biography & her latest subject is Mary Boleyn. Mary has always been quite a shadowy figure. She avoided the fall of her sister, Anne, & brother, George but has been best known for having been the mistress of two kings – Francis I of France & Henry VIII. In recent years, Mary has been the subject of historical novels including Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl which started that dreadful fashion for headless women on book covers, as well as perpetuating some of the myths about Mary & her character & starting a few new ones. I’m looking forward to seeing what Alison Weir has managed to discover about the real Mary.

I’ve only become a fan of the novels of Georgette Heyer in the last few years. I didn’t read Regency romances as a teenager which seems to be the time when most women fall in love with Heyer’s heroes. I started reading her books with the encouragement of my online bookgroup, some of whom are big fans & know the books backwards. So, I asked for recommendations & read A Civil Contract which I enjoyed very much. I prefer the books with older heroines – I’m too old to have much in common with young flibbertigibbets – & since then, I’ve enjoyed half a dozen more including Lady of Quality, The Black Sheep, The Reluctant Widow & The Nonesuch. So, I was pleased to hear about this new biography of Heyer who was a notoriously private woman. I’d read Jane Aiken Hodge’s biography but there was still a lot to be discovered & Jennifer Kloester has worked on her book for over 10 years. She had the help of Jane Aiken Hodge & Heyer’s son & I’m hoping for lots of detail about how she wrote her books which are famous for the extensive research & accuracy of historical detail. There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle in the Press already about comments Heyer made about Dame Barbara Cartland, accusing her of plagiarism. You can also hear an interview with Kloester & Katie Fforde on the BBC here. Just scroll down to Chapter 3 at the bottom of the page. Speaking of Jane Aiken Hodge, there’s a novelist who I would love to see reprinted. Very much in the vein of Mary Stewart. I have fond memories of her romantic suspense novels, often with historical settings like Watch the Wall My Darling & Greek Wedding. Those 1970s Pan paperback covers bring back a lot of memories.

So, what to read first? I have no idea!

The glory of Versailles

This beautiful book has just arrived and, as I don’t know when I’ll get around to reading it, I can’t resist sharing a few photos. When books like this exist, e-readers have a lot of catching up to do! It’s the newly-published Folio Society edition of The Sun King by Nancy Mitford. I rejoined the Folio Society last year because they tempted me with the boxset of E F Benson’s Mapp & Lucia novels for $9.99. This is the last of the books I had to buy and it’s quite spectacular.

It’s almost a folio size hardback. The cover, as you can see, is all blue, white and gold. Here’s the lovely title page with a painting of the Orangerie at Versailles.

The book is full of illustrations, including some lovely portraits I hadn’t seen before. This is Marie Louise, Queen of Spain, daughter of the Duc d’Orleans & Henrietta, sister of Charles II.

This is the Duc de Villars, Marechal of France. The reproduction of the plates is stunning, my poor photos don’t do them justice. Roy Strong has written the Introduction & says that Nancy Mitford’s portrait of Louis XIV is full of gossip & fascinating snippets of information from the diaries & memoirs of the time. I read & enjoyed her biography of Madame de Pompadour last year so I’m looking forward to this. I also have her biographies of Voltaire & Frederick the Great on preorder as they’re being reprinted by Vintage Classics in a few months. The Sun King & Madame de Pompadour are also being reprinted so if you’re tempted, you don’t have to buy this edition, although it’s well worth it for the illustrations alone.

Highland Fling – Nancy Mitford

After the gruesome serial killings of The Jackal Man & The Last Sherlock Holmes Story that I reviewed on Saturday, I needed to read something light & fluffy. Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling was just what I was looking for. In an interview in the 1960s, Nancy Mitford said that she “wrote a book because she wanted to earn a hundred pounds.” Highland Fling is that book, her first novel, written as a bit of fun, to make some money & maybe to score some points off the people & institutions that annoyed her.

The novel is about the clash of a quartet of Bright Young Things of the 20s & 30s with the Establishment figures of Lords, Ladies & Generals. Walter & Sally Monteath are newly married, very much in love but living way beyond their means. When Sally’s Aunt & Uncle, the Craigdallochs are suddenly called away to Rhodesia, Aunt Madge invites Sally & Walter to go to Dalloch Castle in the Highlands to host a shooting party that’s been arranged. Sally sees this as the answer to their prayers while Walter thinks it would be cheaper to go on holiday to the Lido. As Walter’s extravagance is the main reason for their poverty, Sally cajoles him into her way of thinking. The Monteaths meet the Craigdallochs at the House of Lords to go over the fine details &, after listening to Lord Craigdalloch make an interminable speech to a few sleepy peers & attendants, they discuss the details of the shooting party. The authentic Mitford voice is obvious here,

‘How wonderful you are looking, Sally. Where did you get so wonderfully sunburnt?’
‘At Elizabeth Arden’s, Aunt Madge.’
Lady Craigdalloch inwardly supposed that this must be one of Walter’s Bright Young but Undesirable friends that she was always hearing so much about from Sally’s mother. The creature probably had a villa in the South of France – so much the better, those sort of people are not wanted in England, where they merely annoy their elders and breed Socialism.

The Monteaths invite Albert Gates, a Surrealist painter & Jane Dacre, Sally’s best friend to accompany them. The shooting party in Scotland is a real delight. The young people, lying in bed until lunchtime & avoiding the great outdoors at all costs, come up against the older generation. General Murgatroyd is an early version of Uncle Matthew in Love in a Cold Climate. Devoted to hunting, shooting & fishing, he can think of nothing better than a day out on the moors,

‘Why, my dear young lady, by the time you’ve been out with the guns, or flogging the river all day, you’ll be too tired to do anything except perhaps to have a set or two of lawn tennis. After dinner we can always listen to Craig’s wireless. I’ve just asked the chauffeur to fix it up.

Lord & Lady Prague are also part of the County set. He is stone deaf & she talks very loudly & confidently about any subject under discussion. Admiral Wenceslaus is obsessed with the subject of the naval blockade of Germany during WWI & brings every conversation around to the topic. Captain & Lady Brenda Chadlington are said to be immensely charming but the Monteaths & their friends can’t see it. Mr Buggins is a gentle soul, boringly knowledgeable about the legends & poetry of Scotland. Albert is a lover of Victoriana & he’s thrilled to discover rooms full of Victorian pictures & bric a brac in the attics so he spends most of his time photographing them for a monograph, Recent Finds at Dalloch Castle.

Albert & Jane fall in love &, after many misunderstandings, become engaged. The young people are taken out shooting & experience every horror from boredom to hunger & freezing cold while their elders take it all in their stride. A visit to the local Highland Games leads to the incident of the disappearing picnic basket & there’s the ghost that haunts Dalloch Castle & Lady Prague in particular. Highland Fling is a frothy romp, interesting mostly for the biting wit & satire that was evident in this early novel by one of the wittiest writers of the 20th century.

More treats to look forward to.

I posted last month about the forthcoming release of more long out of print books by Nancy Mitford & since then, in every blog, website, newspaper or magazine I’ve read, I’ve discovered more treats to look forward to. D E Stevenson is having quite a revival at the moment. I’ve been listening to lots of her books on audio, released by Soundings Audio Books (borrowed from my library). Persephone are reprinting Miss Buncle Married next month, after the success of Miss Buncle’s Book which they published a couple of years ago. Greyladies have discovered two previously unpublished books by D E Stevenson, The Fair Miss Fortune & Emily Dennistoun & they’ll be published in May (you can preorder them from April 1st).

Reading a recent issue of The Bookseller, I discovered that Virago are publishing a volume of previously unpublished stories by Daphne Du Maurier. The stories were originally published in magazines & Anne Willmore, owner of the Bookends bookshop in Fowey, tracked them down. Only one of the stories has ever been published in book form before. And His Letters Grew Colder was published in Virago’s Daphne Du Maurier Companion a few years ago. I read a volume of Du Maurier’s stories last year & I’m looking forward to reading these early stories very much.

Penguin are about to begin reprinting all of Evelyn Waugh’s books in lovely hardcover editions. I think these look very elegant & although his fiction has always been in print, Waugh also wrote travel books & biographies, like this book on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, that are less well-known.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is one of my favourite books so I’m very excited that Vintage are reprinting more of her books this year, including the sequels to Cold Comfort Farm, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm & Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm. Two other titles, Westwood & Starlight, will be published in August & more will be available as Print on Demand. Vintage followed the same program a few years ago when they reprinted Nevil Shute. Four of his titles were printed as conventional paperbacks with the usual gorgeous Vintage covers & the rest of his backlist as POD with plain red covers. I bought them all for my library as I was so excited to have him back in print & available. Nevil Shute is a very popular author here in Australia. He lived here for many years, many of his books are set here & some of them like A Town Like Alice, On The Beach & Requiem for a Wren, are classics.

Mary Stewart is another favourite author getting a new look this year. Although she has rarely been out of print, her entire backlist is getting a new look from Hodder & Stoughton. I think these new covers are gorgeous & I’ve ordered 8 of them so I can indulge in a bit of a reread. I read all Mary Stewart’s books when I was a teenager but, until I reread My Brother Michael last year, I hadn’t revisited her in years. I’ll post some pictures of my Mary Stewarts when they arrive.

Well, that’s enough to be going on with, I think. I’m looking forward to a long winter of Sunday afternoons with a pile of books & endless cups of tea. Bliss!

Treats for Nancy Mitford fans in 2011

By the end of 2011, all of Nancy Mitford’s books (except The Water Beetle) will be back in print. Penguin recently reprinted most of her novels, including the rare Wigs on the Green. In July, Vintage Classics are reprinting Nancy’s four historical biographies, Frederick the Great, the Sun King, Madame de Pompadour (which I reviewed here) & Voltaire in Love. Vintage produce such lovely paperbacks with gorgeous cover designs so I can’t wait to see what these look like. I will probably need to own at least a couple of them as well. In October, Capuchin Classics will be reprinting Pigeon Pie & Christmas Pudding, which I think will bring all of Mitford’s novels back into print, probably for the first time. Capuchin republished Highland Fling just last year & it’s now sitting on my tbr pile. Both the new Capuchin titles will feature their new colour cover pictures, just click on the links from their homepage to have a look. I read lots of Mitfordiana last year & I can’t wait to get my hands on these titles to complete my collection.

We are definitely living in a great time for the classic reprint. With publishers like Vintage, Capuchin, Greyladies, Persephone, Virago, Bloomsbury & Hesperus as well as Penguin & OUP with their 18th & 19th century lists, I could quite happily never read a modern novel again. Well, maybe that’s a bit too drastic, but there are very few modern novelists whose books I enjoy as I do those of Dorothy Whipple, O Douglas, Barbara Pym, P G Wodehouse, Marghanita Laski, Dorothy L Sayers let alone Jane Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell. I can’t wait to see what the future holds. Maybe a reprint of Ann Bridge’s Illyrian Spring which has been enthusiastically reviewed on many of the blogs I read, most recently by Verity here? Bloomsbury reprinted The Brontes Went to Woolworths which was the Holy Grail of middlebrow readers, now we’re all desperate to read Illyrian Spring! Or more E H Young, after Harriet Devine’s enticing reviews of William (which I also enjoyed) or Miss Mole? The sky’s the limit, or should I say the dusty library stacks are the limit, as Dani at A Work in Progress has discovered.

Royal mistresses – Madame de Pompadour & Mrs Howard

I’ve been reading about royal mistresses this week. I’ve just finished reading Nancy Mitford’s biography of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV & I’m half way through listening to the audio book of Tracy Borman’s biography of Henrietta Howard, mistress of George II. Both women lived in the 18th century, a period I’ve never been terribly interested in, but recently I’ve been reading more about it. I’ve always been more attracted to the Tudor & Victorian periods. Then, I became interested in Richard III so that led me back a little through the medieval period. Then the Anglo-Saxons took my fancy & my love of early 20th century fiction led to an interest in the history of the period & the World Wars. So, it was inevitable that I would get to the 18th century sooner or later.

I’ve dabbled in the 18th century before with Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana, Flora Fraser’s Princesses & Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats, all biographies of fascinating women. There are also big gaps in my knowledge of French history. Apart from the Revolutionary period & the 16th century, I really only know about French history when it impinged on English history. So, Nancy Mitford’s witty, elegantly written biography was a good place to start.

Madame de Pompadour’s full name was Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Madame Le Normant d’Etioles, Marquise-Duchesse de Pompadour, known to her family as Reinette. I’ll refer to her as Madame, I think! Born into a loving bourgeois family, Madame made an early marriage to Monsieur d’Etioles but she always had great ambitions. Her charm & beauty had captivated everyone she met. She visited a fortune teller when she was nine & was told she would be the mistress of a king & she was called Reinette (little queen) after this. She was an excellent amateur actress, a skill she put to good use in later years when she put on theatrical performances to amuse the King at Court. She was lovely without being truly beautiful. None of the many portraits by artists such as Boucher are said to be very like her. Mitford quotes some descriptions of Madame by her contemporaries, such as Dufort de Cheverny,

Not a man alive but would have had her for his mistress if he could. Tall, though not too tall; beautiful figure; round face with regular features; wonderful complexion, hands and arms; eyes not so very big, but the brightest, wittiest and most sparkling I ever saw. Everything about her was rounded, including all her gestures. She absolutely extinguished all the other women at Court, although some were very beautiful.

It was almost unheard of for a bourgeoise to become the King’s mistress & her ascendency caused much gossip & jealousy. Although any woman would have caused just as much gossip as gossip was almost the only thing that kept the courtiers from dying of boredom. Madame was a great patron of the arts. She was responsible for the Sevres china factory’s success & was a great admirer of writers such as Voltaire who she helped with her friendship & contacts at Court. She was a great gardener & when the King built the Petit Trianon for them to retire to, Madame was responsible for the design of the gardens. She was sincerely devoted to Louis & he to her, although his devotion didn’t prevent him sleeping with as many other women as he fancied. Madame became quite influential politically as well. The King & his chief ministers would meet in her apartments & she was very involved in the peace negotiations during the Seven Years War.

Louis remained devoted to Madame for nearly twenty years. Her poor health was the only blot on her happiness & she died of a lung complaint at the age of 43. Louis was so attached to Madame that he allowed her to die at Versailles (it was the custom that only members of the royal family were permitted to die there). Her body was immediately removed after her death to a chapel at the Hotel des Reservoirs nearby. The King watched the cortege on its journey to Paris from a balcony of the palace,

He watched the Marquise as she went back up the long Avenue de Paris; in the bitter wind he stood there without coat or hat until she was out of sight. Then he turned away, tears pouring down his cheeks. “That is the only tribute I can pay her.”

In some ways, Henrietta Howard’s story is similar to Madame de Pompadour’s. Henrietta was born into a noble, but impoverished family. After her father’s death in a duel & her mother’s death when Henrietta was just 12, she had to rely on the kindness of relatives. She made an early, disastrous marriage to a distant relation, Charles Howard. He was a drunken womaniser who abused his wife physically & mentally. They were not well-off as Charles gambled & drank away what money they had, mostly Henrietta’s allowance. Henrietta’s only joy in the years of her marriage was her son, Henry. The Howard’s precarious financial situation led to them living with relations until their welcome wore out & then in a succession of dingy lodging houses.

Then, Henrietta had the idea of selling everything they had & going to the Hanoverian Court at Herrenhausen in Germany. The last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne, was ailing & her heir was her cousin, Dowager Electress Sophia of Hanover & her son, the Elector George Louis. Henrietta thought it might be possible to ingratiate herself with the Hanoverians that would result in a position at the English Court when they succeeded Queen Anne on the English throne. Henrietta was an attractive young woman, resourceful, intelligent & witty. She was also discreet & modest. Sophia was delighted with her as was her grandson, George Augustus & his wife, Caroline.

Sophia died just two months before Queen Anne so it was George Louis who became George I of Great Britain. Fortunately for Henrietta, the new Princess of Wales, Caroline, honoured a promise to find her a position at Court & Henrietta became one of the Princess’s Women of the Bedchamber. Here was the longed for financial security at last. Henrietta was separated by Charles by this time, made easier by the fact that he was in King George’s Household & the King & Prince of Wales loathed each other & kept very separate Courts. She was constantly afraid of Charles’s temper though & worried that he would create a scandal that would harm her position. She was also devastated that He would not allow her to see young Henry, who was growing up to despise his mother.

Several years after the Hanoverians arrived in England, Henrietta became the mistress of the Prince of Wales. Prince George wasn’t a very prepossessing character, unattractive physically with his stoutness & bulging eyes, he had a choleric temper & was an incredibly boring conversationalist. He was also still very much in love with his wife & retired to bed with her at every opportunity, much to the laughter of his courtiers. George felt he must have a mistress. It was expected of a Prince & he was tired of people saying that he was dominated by his wife. It was certainly no love match but it did give Henrietta a measure of influence & she used this to further the careers of her friends, including the writers, John Gay & Alexander Pope.

I’m just at the halfway mark of this fascinating book & George has paid Henrietta off very generously with enough money, furniture & jewels to buy & furnish her own house at Twickenham. George was notoriously miserly so this was a magnificent gesture & he tied the gift up legally so that Charles couldn’t get his hands on any of it – vitally important in this period when everything a woman possessed belonged to her husband. Henrietta is looking forward to leaving Court & living quietly in the country but I can’t help thinking Charles is destined to make trouble for her. I’m looking forward to the rest of Henrietta’s story.

Don’t tell Alfred – Nancy Mitford


Don’t tell Alfred is narrated by Fanny – narrator of Love in a Cold Climate & The Pursuit of Love & daughter of the Bolter, a woman who has been married so many times Fanny can’t keep track. It’s set 20 years after the other books. Fanny has been happily married to Alfred, Oxford don of Pastoral Theology, for all this time but life is about to become more interesting when Alfred is appointed Ambassador in Paris.

Fanny is apprehensive as she’s never been a particularly stylish or successful don’s wife, definitely not one of the Dior set in Oxford as she calls them. She suffers from weak ankles & has caught the awful modern habit of kissing everyone as a greeting so she has visions of herself falling down the steps at a solemn ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, extinguishing the Eternal Flame in the process & then kissing the President of the Republic instead of properly shaking hands. Fanny is relieved to discover that Philip Cliffe-Musgrave, a former pupil of Alfred’s & now a devoted friend, will be there to guide her through some of the pitfalls of diplomatic life, but she will also need a social secretary. Unfortunately, instead of her plain, intelligent & sensible niece, Jean McKenzie, she ends up with Jean’s hopelessly disorganized & silly sister, Northey. Northey is beautiful & soon has all the Ministers in the French Government falling in love with her, but, as a social secretary, she’s useless. Her eyes are constantly brimming with tears & she’s so soft-hearted about animals that she takes the lobsters that were a gift from a Minister & undiplomatically releases them back into the sea.

Some of the characters from earlier books make an appearance. The book opens with Fanny visiting Uncle Matthew in London & discovering that he has fallen on his feet after leaving the family home to his son’s family. He has a devoted manservant, Payne, who looks after him between doing his real job as a taxi driver, & he has discovered a fondness for cocktail parties. He can go along & have a drink & still be home in reasonable time for dinner & bed. Grace & Charles-Edouard Valhubert from The Blessing are part of the social scene in Paris & Grace advises Fanny on clothes & flowers & is still devotedly in love with her husband.

There are some very funny scenes. The previous Ambassadress, Lady Leone, is devastated when she has to leave Paris & simply refuses to leave the Embassy. She moves into another wing of the building & becomes the social success of the season. Fanny & Alfred sit in the official residence alone while Lady Leone holds uproarious parties in another part of the house. It takes Fanny’s Uncle Davey to find a solution to that problem. Then there’s the poisonous gossip columnist, Amyas Mockbar, whose left-leaning newspaper is violently anti-Alfred & writes scandalous lies about Alfred. As Alfred never reads the Daily Post, he’s oblivious to the slurs but Fanny reads all the papers & is devastated by each column.

Fanny’s children are another constant source of worry. Basil has decided to be a travel agent. He takes up with the Bolter’s latest husband & they run Grandad’s Tours, herding English tourists through Spain & France. David turns up one day with a pregnant wife & adopted Chinese baby & announces that he is now a Zen Buddhist & is on his way to the East. The younger boys, Charlie & Fabrice (son of Fanny’s cousin Linda whose story was told in The Pursuit of Love), team up with Sigi Valhubert at Eton & decide to leave school & manage a pop star.Nancy Mitford is very funny about society & Don’t tell Alfred is very much in the same vein as The Blessing. Fanny is a sympathetic heroine & it’s fun to meet up with favourite characters from the previous books. Mitford’s love of Paris is also evident in some lovely descriptions of Paris through the seasons.

Penguin have just reprinted lots of Mitford but my copy is one I bought many years ago when Love in a Cold Climate was made into a TV series with Judi Dench & Vivien Pickles. I’ve just bought Wigs on the Green & I’ve ordered Capuchin Classics new edition of Highland Fling, so this is going to be a year of reading the Mitfords. I also have Nancy’s biography of Mme de Pompadour, Laura Thompson’s biography of Nancy & Jessica’s letters on the tbr shelves so I have plenty to go on with.

The Blessing – Nancy Mitford


Desperate Reader mentioned some forthcoming reprints of Nancy Mitford titles a couple of weeks ago & I was reminded of a few Mitfords I haven’t yet read from the tbr shelves. The Blessing is the story of Grace, who marries charming Frenchman Charles-Edouard during the War, is left at home in England with their son Sigi, the Blessing of the title, while Charles is fighting, & then goes to live in his family home in France after the War. It’s very light, bright & sparkling. Lots of humour comes from the differences between the French & the English. Will Grace ever get used to Charles-Edouard visiting his two mistresses in the afternoons? Will Charles-Edouard’s friends ever understand Grace, with her unsophisticated clothes & her expectation that her husband will be faithful? When Grace walks in on Charles-Edouard & his mistress in bed in the middle of the afternoon, she takes Sigi & goes home to her father’s house in the English countryside.

Sigi soon finds that he sees much more of his parents when they’re separated than he ever did when they were together & forever sending him off to find Nanny so they could be alone. Nanny is the funniest character in the novel. A completely correct English Nanny, contemptuous of the French & all their ways, turning her nose up at the food, the nursery, the bathrooms, the standards of cleanliness, until she goes home to England where she extols everything French as just marvellous. A complete tyrant. Sigi decides to stop any chance of his parents reuniting by encouraging them to marry other people & sabotaging Charles-Edouard’s attempts to contact Grace. I found Sigi totally obnoxious, a spoilt brat with no redeeming features at all. Still, as Nanny said, is it any wonder considering how he’s been brought up? This is Nancy Mitford, so I suppose I shouldn’t get too worked up about spoilt children & flippant attitudes towards adultery. Grace is miserable without Charles-Edouard & is obviously only waiting for a word from him to throw herself back into his arms.

One of the best scenes in the book is a fancy dress party held by Albertine, one of Charles-Edouard’s mistresses. She’s trying to curry favour with Sigi as a way of getting his father to marry her. Sigi wants to go to a party, & as children don’t go to grown-up parties, Albertine decides to hold a fancy dress party where the only guests will be families who must come as famous parents & their famous children. This also has the effect of denying an invitation to childless Juliette, Charles-Edouard’s other mistress, who also wants to marry him. All of society wants to come to the party, so they set about roping in children, nephews & nieces from anywhere possible. They dress up as Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette & children; Henri II, Catherine de Medici & children, Napoleon III, Eugenie & the Prince Imperial etc depending on the number of children they have. At the party, the parents all behave as usual, ignoring their children & socialising with their friends. The children run around, eat too much & end by falling asleep where they drop. Nanny & another Nanny come along, “like two tragic mothers after some massacre of the innocents… Bearing away the little bodies, their faces glowing with a just indignation, the two English nannies vanished into the night.” The dialogue sparkles & the contrast between English innocence & French cynicism is beautifully done.

I also have Don’t Tell Alfred & the biography of Madame du Pompadour on the tbr shelves & I’ve preordered Highland Fling from Capuchin. It looks like Penguin are just about to reprint several of the novels. I haven’t read Wigs on the Green & I’m tempted. But. I plan a Book Depository order at Easter with some more preorders in it so I think I’ll wait until then. The picture shows my Mitford collection, including the Mitford sisters’ letters which was one of my best books of 2008. I just loved it, I became totally absorbed in their lives & was desolate when it finished. The book was huge but it could have been twice as long & I wouldn’t have complained.