Thursday, November 20, 2014

Oh the world!

I recently read a "biography" of Nancy Mitford that was composed mostly of excerpts from her letters. Her friend Harold Acton put it together not long after she died. Nancy Mitford is the author of the incomparably English novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate yet she lived from 1945 to her death in 1973 in France.

The two novels I mentioned are hilariously funny, yet poignant. Later, she turned to writing biographies, and I am now reading her life of Madame de Pompadour. What I've read by her has not shown much interest on her part in religion (although no antipathy toward it either), so I was interested to read in her letters, in the years of the illness that eventually took her life, the remark "The longer I live the more Christian I become—Christian civilisation with all its faults has been by far the best in historical times, do admit."

Sometimes she had so much pain from her illness that she longed to die, but when she had relief from the pain, she wanted to live. She said, "Oh the world! how much better off we shall all be in the next one. And yet one’s pretty house, the sunshine, the bird’s moving in for the winter, Hassan and his niceness and all one’s friends can’t but attach one to it." (Hassan kept house, cooked, and cared for her in her illness.) I relate to that because I often think that this world is so beautiful that I wish we didn't ultimately have to leave it, even for a better one, and what I like best are my yard, my deck, my neighborhood, my dog, my family. Simple pleasures are the best, as the baked beans commercial used to say.

I was a little disappointed that, in my Kindle edition of Madame de Pompadour, the introduction, by Amanda Foreman, had several mistakes concerning Nancy Mitford. After mentioning Nancy Mitford's father's aversion to sending his daughters to school, she says, "Nancy was only half-joking when she claimed that the one novel she had read in her life was White Fang." Nancy Mitford never said this about herself, it was a line she put in the mouth of her fictional character "Uncle Matthew" (a character based on her father, Lord Redesdale), who said it was such a good book he never had to read another one. A couple sentences later, Ms. Foreman states, "She achieved instant fame with her essay 'The English Aristocracy,' a witty analysis of class-based habits of speech, in which she coined the terms U and non-U, meaning 'upper-class' and 'the rest.'" In fact Nancy Mitford wrote that essay some time after her novels had become wildly popular. Then, "After the war, Nancy moved to France and lived in a charming house in Versailles." Actually, Nancy Mitford lived in Paris from 1945 through 1966 and moved to Versailles in 1967. All these facts are in the book to which Ms. Foreman is writing the foreword. All she had to do was read the book to get it right.

Amanda Foreman, by the way, is the author of a biography I've read and enjoyed, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. I trust her research in that work was of a higher caliber than this.

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