Both books share a narrator, Fanny Logan Wincham, a well-born young woman who lives on the fringe of aristocratic society due to her parents’ scandalous behavior (her mother’s serial marriages have earned her the moniker “Bolter,” while her father has bucked up his part of the family fortunes by attaching himself to a series of wealthy older women). Through this classic “poor relation,” Mitford provides the reader with a humorous take on a British society that was poised for change in the period between the two World Wars. The books are not about Fanny, however. In each, she is sharing the coming-of-age (read “courtship and marriage”) story of a woman close to her: poised and polished friend Lady Leopoldina (Polly) Hampton in Love in a Cold Climate and cousin and best friend Linda Radclett in The Pursuit of Love.
That’s where the books really diverge, giving each of the books a character all its own. Fanny’s devotion to Linda and her other cousins at Alconleigh makes The Pursuit of Love laugh-out-loud funny, loving and bittersweet. In contrast, her detachment from Polly, an heiress of astounding beauty, and her terror of her conniving mother, Lady Sonia Montdore, is what gives Love in a Cold Climate its legendary bite.
Lady Montdore dominates Love in a Cold Climate, clinging to the status quo for dear life, worrying that any change would threaten “all this,” her generalized term for her wealth, her station, and her comfortable surroundings. Nobody is more aware of Lady Montdore’s importance than Lady Montdore, and her goal is to always remain at the center of society. In one great passage, Fanny details Lady Montdore’s calculations about who got picked up from the train:
Lady Montdore’s writing paper was headed Hampton Place, Oxford, Station Twyfold. But Twyfold, with the change and hour’s wait at Oxford it involved, was only inflicted upon such people as were never likely to be in a position to get their own back on Lady Montdore, anybody for whom she had the slightest regard being met at Oxford. “Always be civil to the girls, you never know who they may marry,” is an aphorism which has saved many an English spinster from being treated like an Indian widow. (p. 18 )
I have read that Love in a Cold Climate was revolutionary in its time for its inclusion of an openly gay character, the Montdore heir Cedric Hampton. And I suppose it was. Over time, however, that characterization seems a bit dated, probably because serious, literary, modern novels are not likely to play a gay character for effeminate laughs. Cedric becomes Lady Montdore’s “sassy gay friend,” which is all well and good, but there were times when the sharing of jewels and make-up made Cedric seem a ridiculous foil for Lady Montdore, rather than an interesting and complex character in his own right.*
Common wisdom refers to Love in a Cold Climate as Mitford’s “best novel,” but I can’t agree. For me, The Pursuit of Love was the more enjoyable of the two, mostly because of the wacky antics of the Radclett cousins and their eccentric father, Uncle Matthew, a country squire of the decidedly old school. Uncle Matthew’s vociferous rages, contempt for all things not English and obsession with hunting are truly hilarious. And the Radclett clan reminded me of the brood from Cheaper by the Dozen, always letting their imaginations lead them into a good time, on the way to a bunch of trouble.
But both books are charming time capsules, bringing the reader right back to a particular time and a very specific part of society that are now largely gone. I loved reading about the “London season” young girls enjoyed – or endured, depending on the girl – while looking for a husband. Both books drip with irony, something I adore. And who knows, had I read them in the correct chronological order, I might have liked Love in a Cold Climate even more than I did. I heartily recommend them both to those who love literary fiction (and even those who usually read historical fiction) with a humorous side. You won’t be disappointed.
Because of Cedric's groundbreaking part in it, Love in a Cold Climate counts toward the GLBT Reading Challenge. And “pursuit” counts as a movement in the What’s in a Name 4 Challenge. Thanks to BethFishReads for hosting!
*If you haven’t seen Second City's wildly popular and irreverent Sassy Gay Friend videos, they involve a character from literature changing her hideous fate with the help of a sassy gay friend. Here’s a link.