I just finished Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel, The Pursuit of Love. Mitford writes in that light, British upper-class, devil-may-care manner that I adore in P.G. Wodehouse and Dorothy Sayers, and her words don’t disappoint. It’s not the kind of novel you can think about too deeply, though, or everything will turn sour and sordid.
The Pursuit of Love sounds like a romance, and it is involved with romantic love. The heroine, Linda, follows her passions to catch a wealthy banker, then an idealistic Communist – neither of whom can give her the kind of fantasy love she desires. Her third love is a guy she meets at a train station, who whisks her off into a fantasy of clothes and the Paris of 1939. She spends eleven fantastic months with him before he sends her off to safety (?) in London . . . and then she gets bombed out and goes home, only to die in childbirth. But she did spend eleven months of pure, unalloyed happiness, and challenges her cousin (the narrator) to feel unhappy for her.
Are those spoilers? I don’t think so. One reads the Mitford book for the clear stream of words that lead you from one plot point to the next, with hardly a brush with the murky bottom. I’d have to copy and paste the entire book here in order to “spoil” it.
But murky bottoms it does have. The narrator barely mentions her own happy, even-keeled marriage to an academic – she seems to think it isn’t worth a story, and maybe it’s true. In romance, we like happy endings, but how many romances have you read that start and continue from a happy beginning?
Politics play an important part in the story, but more as a lever, rather than the warp and woof of the story. The second lover is a Communist, and as a result, Linda follows him to the camps of refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War. Linda is useless, with no Spanish and very bad French, but she gives according to her ability, and receives according to her basic human needs, as a good Communist should. But her lover spends far more time with a different English girl who is far more useful in camp; this catapults Linda into Paris, and her third major romance. The tangled politics of the era are just plot tools to this story – which is not a bad thing. There’s nothing worse than being bludgeoned about How the World Should Be in a story.
How should the world be, according to The Pursuit of Love? The characters seem to be at their most content when they are in their childhood home, holed up in the attic and talking with each other. Adulthood scattered them to the winds in search of families of their own making; the oddity is that World War Two brought them back together, escaping German bombs by fleeing to the countryside – generally, the Woman’s Journey doesn’t follow Campbell’s Hero Journey where the Hero gets to come home and have a happy ending. Here, though, it does – although I’m not quite sure if the ending is happy. Perhaps it was the happiest of options available to poor Linda.
For romance writers, I recommend The Pursuit of Love for its smooth prose and humorous lightness. It’s also a good primer in what not to write for a romantic hero. It’s a book about women who empowered themselves, followed their dreams, and lived and died as a result of their own choices. It’s a good choice for a wintry afternoon.