Saturday, 2 January 2010

The Blessing (Nancy Mitford)

--The blurb--
"After the war, English rose Grace joins her dashing aristocratic husband, Charles-Edouard, in France. She is out of her depth among the elegant French women and when she discovers her husband's tendency to lust after pretty girls, it seems that all is over - until her son Sigismond steps in..."

--The review--
It is surprising to discover that Nancy Mitford was born in 1904, just as the reign of Queen Victoria had come to a close, died in 1973, and wrote The Blessing in 1951. The surprise arises from the sheer modernity of the humour and situations with which we are presented in the forms of Grace, Charles-Edouard, Sigi, Nanny, and all their friends and family. Even having a nanny is not as dated as you might imagine, with several upper-class Parisian children still having 'nounous' today to collect them from school and look after them until their parents reappear.

As well as the characters being luminously described, with sharp dialogue and well-drawn features, the plot is taut and the mischief of Sigi enlivens the novel. The modernity and relevance of the novel is striking, although perhaps not all parts of this may be picked up on for those unfamiliar with Paris and its surrounding area: the pictures of expatriate social life could just as easily have been written today, with the mentions of British brands such as Tiptree adding to this in a positive way rather than detracting from the passages' effectiveness.

Mitford is perfectly able to keep readers on their toes as regards the storyline: in one way we know Sigi should get his comeuppance, but in another way we almost don't really want him to. The eventual reconciliation between Charles-Edouard and Grace is realistic, and the humour throughout is subtle and well-sustained (though again, some of it may pass non-expatriates by). The novella is light, but tremendously well-written and witty; it is a welcome introduction to one of the underrated classic authors of our age, and almost guaranteed to hook any reader who takes the bait.

Other works by Nancy Mitford
Highland Fling (1931)
Christmas Pudding (1932)
Wigs on the Green (1935)
Pigeon Pie (1940)
The Pursuit of Love (1945)
Love in a Cold Climate (1949)
Madame de Pompadour (1954)
Voltaire in Love (1957)
Don't Tell Alfred (1960)
The Water Beetle (1962)
The Sun King (1966)
Frederick the Great (1970)

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