The Blessing by Nancy Mitford

The Blessing cover

The Blessing by Nancy Mitford was first published in 1951, so I decided to read it for the 1951 Club which is being hosted by Karen of Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book.

The Blessing was a re-read for me but it was way back in the 1970s when I first read it and as far as I can recall – I enjoyed it just as much this time around.

It’s the beginning of World War 2 and Grace is a young upper class English woman who is engaged to Hughie. He has just gone off to war and he chose not to marry Grace before leaving, thinking it would be unfair on her if he was killed. Subsequently Grace meets Charles-Edouard a rich Frenchman who is going to join up with de Gaulle and is determined to marry Grace because he wants a son – in case he is killed during the war.

Of course Grace ends up dumping poor Hughie and marrying Charles-Edouard and she doesn’t see him for seven long years, but she did get pregnant immediately after the wedding so when her husband does get back from the war he has a six year old son Sigi who is rather spoiled and used to getting his own way.

Grace and her family move to France and so begins her education in the ways of French marriages. As predicted Charles-Edouard is far from being a faithful husband and his relatives and friends are less than impressed with his choice of wife.

When Grace leaves her husband in high dudgeon after an infidelity too far she goes back to live with her father in England and Sigi quickly realises that he can play his parents off against each other to his own benefit.

This makes it sound like rather a grim read but The Blessing is really quite hilarious in parts. When I think about Nancy Mitford’s own experiences of life in France post-war though – where she hung about for years waiting for her married lover to spare some time for her, putting her own life on hold for him, it’s actually quite sad that she knew what to expect from men of that type, but she still chose to do it – AND when his wife did die, he went off and married someone else!

As it happens over the years I’ve read and written about quite a few 1951 books, but I’ll mention those ones later.

1951 club

Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford

Pigeon Pie cover

This is a quick read at just 186 pages and it was first published in 1940, although my copy is a 1982 reprint. Nancy Mitford added this plea under the dedication in 1951:

I hope that anybody who is kind enough to read it in a second edition will remember that it was written before Christmas 1939. Published on 6th May 1940 it was an early and unimportant casualty of the real war which was then beginning.

I suppose she felt the need to add that as when the book was written it was during the ‘phoney war’ when nothing much was happening, there were no air raids to speak of and the bombs hadn’t begun to rain down on the civilians of Britain. It was a time when people were either joining the armed forces or volunteering for the Home Guard, ARP, Red Cross and all the many societies which were galvanised into action against fascism. They were all ‘vamping till ready’. In truth the war was a great excitement in many people’s lives and it pepped up their humdrum existences – but at what a price.

Anyway – to the book. I enjoyed it, it’s a frivolous piece of silliness reminiscent to me of Wodehouse, probably because it involves the English upper classes and sheer stupidity.

Lady Sophia is a young married woman, disappointed by her marriage and bored by her husband, they’ve settled down to make the best of it and that really means having an open marriage and tolerating each other’s ‘friends’.

Sophia volunteers at St Ann’s Hospital First Aid Post where she spends her time answering the phone and helping with the volunteer ‘casualties’ who appear whenever there’s a dummy practice raid. She knows she can manage as long as she can avoid knee joints, which give her the horrors. I have sympathy with her as I’m not keen on feet.

The rest of Sophia’s society chums are all pretending to be doing something terribly important for the war effort, and are dropping hints that they are really spies. Princess Olga Gogothsky (nee Baby Bagg) an old school enemy of Sophia’s is being particularly annoying and is even moving in on Sophia’s favourite escort of the moment.

The real spies are much closer to home though and stupidity and self-absorption almost end in disaster. It’s a silly but fun read, which sometimes is just exactly what is required.

It is quite amazing that at the time this book about spies in Britain was published, Nancy was instrumental in having her sister Diana banged up in prison for years. Nancy was asked by someone in the government if her sister Diana was likely to work against the British government if she was allowed her freedom and Nancy replied that in her opinion Diana should be imprisoned – so she was. That’s sisters for you – mind you I think Diana would have done her damndest to make sure that Hitler won the war, thinking that her husband Oswald Mosley would then be in a position of power in Britain, instead of being seen as a menace to society, as he was.

The cover above is the nearest I could get to the edition which I have, it’s very similar but mine is just Pigeon Pie, I haven’t read the other two books.

The Blessing by Nancy Mitford

The Blessing was first published in 1951 but it’s set in World War II and begins in London. Grace, the daughter of Sir Conrad, is engaged to Hughie who is off fighting in Egypt. When Hughie meets Charles-Edouard de Valhubert in Cairo he stupidly asks him to ‘look up’ Grace while he’s in London. Before she knows what has happened Charles-Edouard has proposed to Grace and they are married. A baby boy, Sigismond, is the result and Grace doesn’t see her husband for seven years as he’s off fighting abroad and isn’t demobbed until 1947.

When her husband does eventually turn up he whisks them off to France to meet his family. Everything is strange to Grace but she falls in love with France and she’s completely clueless about the society which she has been thrown into. When Charles-Edouard moves them to Paris he immediately resumes his affair with Albertine an old flame of his. There’s a lot of bed-hopping going on as you would expect in France. When Grace finds out, she’s not amused, who could blame her!

I didn’t enjoy this one all that much mainly because Grace is the only likeable character in it. Her husband is an arrogant, lazy, philandering scumbag, he’s everything that gives French people a bad name.

Their son Sigismond must be one of the most ghastly, manipulative children in fiction. I’m afraid the mummy in me couldn’t stand that and I longed to give him a good skelp on his bahookie, very un-p.c. of me I know but it wouldn’t half have sorted him out! What I would have done to Charles-Edouard is unprintable!

It’s a bit of a worry really as Nancy Mitford’s books tend to be very autobiographical and she did live with a Frenchman in France for a number of years. I suspect that Gaston Palewski led her a dance. According to a very elderly lady friend of mine who has had experience of living in a Scottish village which was ‘taken by storm’ by the Polish army, a French/Polish husband would be a disaster for a woman expecting fidelity. My theory is it gives them something to confess to their priests about! For me The Blessing was the least enjoyable book of the three which I’ve recently read.

What can I say – that Presbyterianism upbringing never leaves you!

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

I read the introduction to this book after I finished reading it, I tend not to do so before then as so often they tell you the whole story, where’s the fun in that! Anyway, according to Philip Hensher’s introduction Love in a Cold Climate is the ‘masterpiece’. I can’t say that I agree with him.

It’s a continuation of The Pursuit of Love and Fanny is now married to Alfred, an Oxford don. But she becomes very much embroiled in the affairs of the Montdores who are now back from India. The beautiful Polly is making her mother’s life a misery by showing no interest in any of the young men thrown in her direction at all the debutante balls. It looks as though the 20 year old is deteremined to disappoint her parents and remain an old maid instead of setting her cap at the Prince of Wales, or at least a duke.

The Montdore estate is entailed and will be inherited by Cedric, an unknown cousin who lives in Nova Scotia and he is invited to spend some time at Montdore House.

I think Cedric is supposed to supply the humour in this book but he’s no substitute for the outrageous Uncle Matthew who makes just a few appearances in Love in a Cold Climate.

I hadn’t read this one before and for me it isn’t one which I would like to read again although I’m glad that I’ve read it now, if only so that I know that I have read it. Does that make sense?

Anyway – on with the next one – The Blessing.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

I’ve been neglecting my 2011 Reading List recently. I was supposed to be reading one book a week from it in an effort to eat into the piles of unread books which have been in the house for years but I’m way off course now. I’ll probably catch up when the winter weather hits us though as I can’t do anything in the garden then. This book is one from the list.

The Pursuit of Love was actually a re-read for me as I first read it when I was about 14 but I wanted to read it again before reading Love in a Cold Climate and The Blessing. I’m in a bit of a Mitford phase at the moment after visiting Chatsworth House.

I’m pleased to be able to say that I enjoyed it this time round just as much as before. I still had quite a lot of laugh out loud moments, especially at the antics of Uncle Matthew, the very eccentric aristocrat who was actually based on Nancy’s father. In fact the whole thing is very autobiographical as the Mitford children were actually chased by their father and his bloodhounds across country fields when he wasn’t able to hunt foxes, much to the horror of any witnesses, Nancy Mitford used the experience in this book. If he hadn’t been a rich lord he would definitely have been banged up in prison but the children didn’t seem to have been damaged by it. What am I saying?! Unity was a Nazi, fell for Hitler and shot herself in the head and most of the others were unusual, to say the least.

Anyway, back to the book. The story is narrated by Fanny who is the only child of ‘the Bolter’ and she has been ‘doorstepped’ by her mother shortly after her birth. Aunt Emily brings up Fanny but she spends a lot of time with her large family of cousins, the Radletts.

Linda is the second eldest girl in the Radlett family and she’s desperate to get married as she’s so bored by her life at home. It was a time when girls were expected to get married before they were 21, after which they were deemed to be ‘on the shelf’. At Linda’s ‘coming out’ ball she meets Tony Kroesig who she finds amusing, but unknown to her he’s slightly drunk and so she doesn’t realise that his real personality is very different from her first impression. When Tony proposes marriage Linda jumps at the chance and nobody can dissuade her from it. Her father (Uncle Matthew) is horrified at the thought of having a ‘Hun’ in the family and his attitude makes Linda all the more determined to marry Tony.

Well, I know it doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs but honestly there are plenty of comedy moments in it and I’m going straight from The Pursuit of Love to the next one in the trilogy – Love in a Cold Climate.

You might know that I can be a bit of a nit-picker where details in books are concerned. So I wasn’t chuffed when Nancy Mitford mentioned the Dunkirk evacuation of the English army. My father-in-law wouldn’t have been amused by that as he was at Dunkirk in that very Scottish regiment the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. She should of course have said British army.