Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Blessing by Nancy Mitford

Obviously I had heard of the Mitford sisters; talented, beautiful, charming, wayward and cracked but detail was lacking and they remained occluded by celebrity. Coming across The Blessing by Nancy Mitford at the Bell, Book and Candle for €2 I thought this might be a good place to start. The 'blessing' is the child of Grace an English woman and Charles-Edouard a French man, both scions of their respective aristocracies. The difference between them is that the British view their land as a luxury to be hunted, shot and fished over with a respite in London in the season to marry off their 'gels' to other members of that narrow class whereas the French aristocracy treat their ancestral lands as factories producing wine and timber and agricultural produce. They repair there for the Summer and when business demands, but real cultural life is lived in Paris. For Charles-Edouard this is the collection of objects d'art and assiduous venery. The era of the novel is post WW II.

Grace and Charles-Eduoard met during the war while he was in London being a colonel in the Free French and they married there and Sigismond was conceived . By the time they meet up again, after his various missions, Sigi is seven and they spend their first months of reunion at the family chateau in Provence. For Grace it is blissful, for C-E it is that but also a tiresome interlude before the resumption of real life which includes the longstanding affaire with Mme. Morel. How Grace has this affaire confirmed to her has a touch of French bedroom farce. She and her old school friend are learning about the stately homes of the neighbourhood where they live. On these exclusive tours for a sizable fee they get to see what would normally be inaccessible to any but family. A residence of a relation of Charles-Edouard is one of those and though she has often been there her friend persuades her to go. One of the rooms that she has not seen is a bedroom with a famous erotic ceiling used by the Marquise de Hauteserre when meeting the Regent and others. Seemingly by special arrangement or the malice of fate the guide has a key for this piece de resistance.

Within are her husband and Mme.Morel :

Grace happened to be standing beside him, and together they looked in. It was a tiny room decorated with a gold and white trellis; an alcove contained a bed, and on the bed, in a considerable state of disarray, were Juliette and Charles-Edouard.

After this she takes herself and Sigi back to England and her father's house being unable to accept the cynical complaisance that is expected of her:

'It's no good, Charles-Edouard, I'm too English; your behaviour makes me too miserable, and I can't bear it any more.'

This event takes place midway in the novel. Before that the French and their obsession with culture is described which makes her feel like each dinner party is an examination even though she is beautiful and speaks French well which is a sure pass. The hereditary nanny who rears Sigi is a true English woman who holds that abroad is bloody and makes Bird's custard and tapioca pudding over a spirit lamp in the nursery lest Sigi fall ill from messed about food.

It's witty and deft and skips along but at a certain point I had a feeling that there was an undercurrent of wry regret that Grace who was faithful should love a man that was incapable of fidelity. Mitford's more famous book The Pursuit of Love is dedicated to a man Gaston Palewski who shares some of the biography of Charles-Edouard and is described by Mary S.Lovell author of The Mitford Girls as unsuitable.

The second half of the novel is set around the playing of the estranged couple against each other by the devious Sigi and the courting of Grace by an old boyfriend Hughie who decides that the boy must go to Eton. This cult of Eton is amusingly mocked by an account of a recce they make on the pretext of taking out a nephew for the day. No wonder the officer class were immediately at home in Staleg 7. The food was better too.

I am looking forward now to reading The Pursuit of Love which I got yesterday in the Hibernian metropolis along with A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor and Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh, all for €5 in pristine Penguin orange covers.

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