When I was a teenager in England I had a one-volume edition of the complete Radlett novels of Nancy Mitford (The Pursuit of Love (1945), Love in a Cold Climate (1949), The Blessing (1951), and Don’t Tell Alfred (1960)), which I loved and lost. Penguin has just released an attractive and unwieldy turquoise tome that includes all these plus Highland Fling (1931), Christmas Pudding (1932), Wigs on the Green (1935), and Pigeon Pie (1940). This tome has thus far been my one book purchase of the year, shipped over from the UK. It has the best and most Mitfordian blurbs: ”Utter, utter bliss” (The Daily Mail); “Deliciously funny” (Evelyn Waugh); “Entirely original, inimitable and irresistible” (Spectator). On the cover are clever faux-thirties illustrations of Lady Montdore, Grace and Sigi, Cedric, Nancy herself, and a pug.
I have a seventies paperback of Pigeon Pie that I’ve read several times in the bath, and I remember tracking down Wigs on the Green via Inter-Library Loan in my old public library autodidact days, but I’d never read Highland Fling and Christmas Pudding. Lately as part of my attempt to eat meals in the dining room like a dignified modern adult rather than reclining in bed like a decadent ancient Roman— also to welcome my mornings with a bright salute rather than hiding from them futilely under my duvet— I have been reading vintage Nancy with breakfast as the sun streams in the bay windows. Nancy at breakfast, and my Lucia omnibus before bed (six novels in one): these books are instant company. There is dialogue on every page and an entire world of gossip. Also they are too big to carry anywhere, or really even to hold, so one needs a table or pillow to set them on.
After reading Highland Fling and Christmas Pudding I am feeling hopeful about writers’ capacity for improvement yet still slightly let-down as a reader, realizing that it took Nancy a couple of practice runs to finally write a book (Wigs on the Green)with memorable characters, and she didn’t attempt emotional range until Pigeon Pie, which is gently heartrending about the Blitz. Highland Fling and Christmas Pudding are good for the following: depictions of boredom (a classic Mitford feeling), depictions of damp and cold (other classic Mitford feelings), depictions of Strachey-esque camp appropriations of Victoriana (this was old hat by the time she got to writing her great novels in the 40s). Characters in her 30s books are always going apeshit over richly painted Stags at Bay or tiny taxidermy under glass.
As my emotional tolerance shrinks with age (in my twenties I used to avoid films about serial killers or the holocaust— now I avoid anything that is not a sitcom), I will probably save these early Mitfords for all the many times when I want the jokes without the longing. They can be my Taxidermy in a Cold Climate, and The Pursuit of Solitaire.