Jan 18, 2017, 05:55AM

A Quizzical Song for the Old Order

Nancy Mitford’s second-best-known book.

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Reading Love in a Cold Climate, half the pages feel like they’ll snap in two. The copy’s a Penguin paperback from 1957, one that sat in a cold cellar for a few decades. Water reached it, hence the mottling found at the edges of the first 90 pages or so. The binding’s intact yet entirely tentative: viewed along the spine, the book looks like a row of gold sheaves (the paper has aged) shrugging together and wondering why a strip of paper has been laid atop them. No pages have dropped out, but the book falls open at spot after spot, flops open the way a teen’s paperback flops open to a sex scene. What falls into view are the dun pages and politely serifed typeface of long-ago England.

Nancy Mitford’s novel was considered grand fun when it came out, which was almost a decade before 1957. World War II had just ended, Labour was in, and the English aristocracy was looking about done. Mitford said good-bye to them in her novels: first The Pursuit of Love and then Love in a Cold Climate. It was a fond good-bye, a cheeky good-bye, a wise and knowing good-bye. Readers ate it up. The middle class could get close to their fallen betters and make faces, and in between making faces they’d marvel. See what the nobility got up to: casual sex, bathroom talk, bellowing out Italian arias. Not all nobles would do all these things, and many of them did none, but enough did plenty. Or so one judged from Mitford’s pair of novels. Pursuit, the first book, presented the local gentry as a human petting zoo stocked with rambunctious eccentrics. Then Cold Climate moved up the scale and guyed country-house England. That was the crew of dowagers and men in dinner jackets who used to select governments and own the landscape. Mitford provides readers with their tour of the upper crust’s upper limit, and she models the tone that keeps their nerves steady for the tour: awkward but unimpressed, and sharp-tongued but not mean, just down to earth.

But Climate merely gets by. Sequels often seem lame, and this one suffers from a certain inability to find its stride. Star characters from the first book are trotted on for another turn, and not to good effect. Climate’s lead actor, the fellow who makes things happen and kicks the plot forward, doesn’t make an appearance until the book’s an inch off from three-quarters done. Page by page, the novel mainly follows the bumping about of the narrator, Fanny, who falls into minor social scrapes while witnessing or hearing about events that make up the story proper. This story often takes place around corners or off in the distance, and it’s with some surprise that the mind eventually registers it as the chief account the book has to offer.

The story runs this way. A beautiful girl-chum of Fanny marries a decrepit lecher and is cut off by her parents, Lord and Lady Montdore. This august coupler may be the grandest and richest couple in the nobility. Their new heir, summoned to replace the girl, belongs to the family’s scapegrace Canadian line and has never been seen. Upon arrival he proves to be a flaming aesthete—as was then the phrase—who adores anybody (such as the Montdores) endowed with money and fine old things. This brightly burning character is Cedric, the book’s late-arriving star and the force that kicks the Montdore situation into a new arrangement.

Under his influence, Lady Montdore loses interest in bossing prime ministers or even punishing her daughter. Her new drive in life is simply to show herself. The great dowager beast is slimmed and plucked (to borrow the book’s language) into a vibrant, hair-dyed girl of 60. She and Cedric then lead the revels of London’s well-off young, prancing before them at a fancy-dress ball featuring indoor gondolas. The lecher who ran off with the daughter winds up becoming friends with Cedric and resuming a long-standing liaison with Lady Montdore. The daughter, who’d been getting bored anyway, wanders off with a duke. Nobody gets divorced. They just step out of their old arrangements and kick them aside, uninterested. Meanwhile, Lord Montdore shuffles off to early dinners and a quiet wait for death.

Given that the story’s telling never coheres, elements may be freer to bounce around in the mind. For me they fall out this way: Mitford has drawn a cartoon of Britain’s old order giving up. The fine things loved by Cedric—furniture, jewelry, paintings—are the physical relics of the august, centuries-old civilization supposedly anchored by people like the Montdores. The civilization now adds up to nothing but the pretty things it’s left behind. These things are for show, and they’re appreciated by someone who turns Lady Montdore into a human bauble.

But show was already the point of Lady Montdore’s life. When she angled for her daughter to marry somebody suitable, Lady Montdore wanted a chance to shine as acknowledged leader of society. The aim wasn’t family or even dynasty. Lady Montdore proves interested in anchoring, in continuing, nothing. “So the poor little baby died,” she says, visiting her daughter’s bedside after a miscarriage. “I expect it was just as well, children are such an awful expense, nowadays.” At this point Lady Montdore has gone skinny and abandoned being a dowager. But the remark is nothing new. The daughter has no reaction to the comment, Fanny writes, because it “was too typical of Lady Montdore’s whole outlook on life for somebody who had been brought up by her to find it odd or upsetting.”

Lady Montdore’s whole outlook is that nothing matters except her comfort, which includes receiving a steady supply of adoration. Once she received dignified tribute; now she gallivants about and flaps her arms for attention. Either way nothing exists past her nose. She’s as hypnotized by attention as Rupert Pupkin. She’s a modern sort. That’s the surprise offered by Love in a Cold Climate, an anciently modish book that shows the new world has been around longer than we thought.

—Follow C.T. May on Twitter: @CTMay3


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