Three of the Mitford sisters. From left to right: Unity Mitford; Diana Mitford and writer Nancy Mitford. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The enduring appeal of the Mitford family

As the BBC’s adaptation of The Pursuit of Love begins, Alexander Larman questions whether the new dramatisation will do justice to Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel

Artillery Row

“Longing for love and obsessed with sex, Linda is on the hunt for the perfect lover. But finding Mr Right is much harder than she thought.” Thus the BBC have billed their new adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, filling the Line of Duty-shaped hole on BBC1 on Sunday evenings for the next three weeks. Even by the standards of TV promotional copywriting, however, this seems a reductive way of describing the story of one of the greatest and wittiest comic novels of the twentieth century. Instead, it seems more akin to a description of Emily In Paris or Sex and the City, and bodes ill for Emily Mortimer’s new version of Mitford’s tale.

The lasting appeal of the Mitfords is that they remain almost indecently entertaining

Admittedly, my reaction to the show’s trailer was one of horror. While the earlier adaptations of the novel from 1980 and 2001 were largely faithful, other than conflating the storyline with the book’s sequel Love in a Cold Climate, it looks as if Mortimer has taken considerable liberties with both casting and plotting. Mitford’s heroine Linda Radlett is shown in quasi-sapphic bathtub trysts with Fanny Logan, the novel’s narrator, and Lord Merlin, Mitford’s affectionate pastiche of her friend, the aesthete Lord Berners, has been portrayed as a younger, sexier gay man, as played by Andrew Scott, the “Hot Priest” himself. As one appalled commentator (me) put it, “Lord Merlin fucks.” And this is before we get onto the casting of Dominic West as one of literature’s greatest comic characters Uncle Matthew, or his unfortunate and much-reported fling with Lily James, the actress playing his daughter Linda. 

However, it is extremely unlikely that Nancy Mitford would have been precious about the adaptation, given the lucrative nature of the film rights. She described the book to her friend Evelyn Waugh as “about my family, a very different cup of tea [to Brideshead Revisited], not grand and far madder”. She hoped that it would be a modest commercial success, perhaps making her as much as a thousand pounds, and was delighted to have been offered an advance of £250 for it. In the event, it sold over 200,000 copies, making her thousands and thousands. As she delightedly informed her sister Diana in April 1946: “More thousands for the book. Two more to be exact. So I’ve simply let go everything & buy whatever takes my fancy, it is heaven.”

The novel was not just a commercial success, but a critical one. John Betjeman wrote to Nancy to praise her as “you clever old girl”, and said, “You have produced something that is really a monument to our friends … it cannot be that the wonderful, unforgettable Uncle Matthew is really like Lord Redesdale, can it? He is my favourite character in the book.” Yet the enduring appeal of The Pursuit of Love is that its apparently outlandish humour and characters are based on a closely observed and affectionate account of the Mitford clan, ruled over by the deeply eccentric David Freeman-Mitford, aka Uncle Matthew. He was a man whose opinions on Europe are summarised as, “Frogs are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.”

His (female) children were memorably and pithily summarised by Ben Macintyre as: “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur”. (The Mitford son Tom was legendarily handsome and served in World War Two in Italy, North Africa and Burma because he did not want to fight the Germans, who he admired. He died of his wounds in Burma at the end of March 1945.)

The continued interest in the Mitford industry is meat and drink to those of us who value the magnificent clan’s work

If today Nancy remains the best-known because of the enduring success of her novels, then this is not to denigrate Diana, who married Oswald Mosley and remained a freelance book reviewer and unrepentant fascist until her death in 2003, and Deborah, who lived until 2014 and became Duchess of Devonshire and chatelaine of Chatsworth. But Jessica, who wrote The American Way of Death, and Unity, who adored Hitler and shot herself in the head after the declaration of World War Two, remain fascinating figures, alternately adored and treated with horror by their peers. Only Pamela led an entirely undistinguished life in the country, leading Betjeman to describe her as “the most rural of them all” in a poem about the Mitfords.

The family’s appearance in fictionalised form in The Pursuit of Love, to say nothing of their various friends and acquaintances, remains richly entertaining and full of memorable comic vignettes. Yet it seems extraordinary that, in this age of Bridgerton and Downton Abbey, there has not been any serious attempt for a network or streaming service to make a long-form drama based on the eventful lives of the Mitford sisters. The journalist Helen Lewis remarked recently that she had attempted to write such a thing on spec, only to be told that the TV industry was full of unmade Mitford projects. Still, as she said, “I regret nothing because the reading was some of the most fun I’ve ever had.”

The lasting appeal of the Mitfords is that they remain almost indecently entertaining, whether individually or as a pack. While we remain in thrall to the watered-down version of the aristocracy that has been served up for our viewing entertainment, the galumphing eccentricity and quixotically English preoccupations of the twentieth century’s most inimitable family remain a devilishly enjoyable diversion, whether in fictional or biographical form.

There are still unanswered questions that we may never resolve satisfactorily — did Unity really have an affair with Hitler? And no doubt every few years will see some intrepid writer attempt to delve deeper into the family’s interconnected public and personal lives, just as, if Mortimer’s adaptation of The Pursuit of Love is a success, we can expect a version of its sequel Love in a Cold Climate before too long.

All of this continued interest in the Mitford industry is meat and drink to those of us who value the magnificent clan’s work. So let us fervently hope that Emily Mortimer — herself someone who knows something about belonging to an eccentric family with a famous father — has done Nancy’s wonderful novel proud. Otherwise we shall be obliged to follow Uncle Matthew’s famous curse, and put her name in the drawer.

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