As a younger reader, I was addicted to stories in which everyone lived happily ever after. I did not seek out peril and menace; I endured them as best I could, in order to get to the bit with the prince, and the promise of permanence. A good love story was a conclusive one. The novels of Jacqueline Wilson and Charlotte’s Web had brought death and divorce to my attention and taught me that no matter how friendly a book seems, it’s still capable of throwing curveballs and breaking your heart. Still, when I was 12 and discovered a battered paperback edition of The Pursuit Of Love on my parents’ shelf, it looked like a happily ever after book to me.
I squirrelled it away to my bedroom, expecting handsome suitors, balls, jewels, swooning and the forsaking of all others. Instead, I found something even more wonderful: jokes. Fanny, the narrator and cousin of heroine Linda was thrillingly grandiose yet warmly self-deprecating. “I was at an age when the least imaginative child supposes itself to be a changeling, a princess of Indian blood, Joan of Arc or the future Empress of Russia.” Fanny, how did you know?
We might have been separated by the best part of a century, the fortifications of the aristocracy and the fact of my existence, versus the fiction of hers, but I’d never met a character who felt exactly as I did about so many things, down to matters of the heart. “We were, of course, both in love, but with people we had never met; Linda with the Prince of Wales and I with a fat, red-faced, middle-aged farmer, whom I sometimes saw riding through Shenley.”
That was my coup de foudre. As a romantic, bookish and desperately self-conscious 12-year-old girl, falling in romantic love with any one human was a leap too far for me. Instead, I was in love with the idea of love itself. Love brought opportunity, it was a rare force that could lead women to travel and transformation.
There’s Uncle Davy, health and wellness obsessive, and surprise suitor for Aunt Emily (“it’s not as if she could be in love, she’s 40”.) There’s Jassy, who aged eight is enterprising enough to sell her Christmas presents to boost her Running Away Fund. Then there’s Fanny’s mother, The Bolter, positive proof of the possibility of lovers after marriage and often invoked as a cautionary tale, until WW2 gets going and it becomes evident that she might be the smartest of them all.
More evidence against the fairytale ending lies in Linda’s first husband, Tony Kroesig. Handsome and wealthy, to use the language of Love Island, he’s "perfect on paper"– but as a husband, he turns out to be crushingly, unremittingly, unforgivably dull. Linda wonders whether her heart is broken, but she realises that it’s just her pride that has been dented, and she leaves.
The Victorian moralists who came before Mitford would almost certainly seek to punish a heroine who left a marriage simply because she was unhappy and bored. But Mitford gives Linda Christian, the strange, sexy Communist, and teaches her another lesson – that idealists seem romantic, but you don’t want to fall for a philosopher when you’re stuck with the washing up. “I think housework is far more tiring and frightening than hunting is, no comparison, and yet after hunting we had eggs for tea and were made to rest for hours, but after housework people expect one to go on just as if nothing special had happened,” Linda shrewdly observes.
By the time Linda encounters a coup de foudre of her own, Fabrice de Sauveterre, she isn’t a dreamy girl waiting for the Prince of Wales to come along and pluck her from obscurity but a a woman who has been given the opportunity to learn from her romantic mistakes, rather than being punished for them.
It’s a liberating book that gives its heroine the opportunity to find freedom in love, while shaking off the notion of ‘forever’. And it’s why The Pursuit of Love is the first book I’d pass to a younger reader for this reason. Fairytales tend to celebrate innocence and virginity, and girls – always girls – get one shot at romantic happiness. The Pursuit of Love makes a convincing argument for the value of a self-directed sentimental education.
Of course, while romantic love is presented as the star of the show, it’s really an emotional Trojan horse. Mitford’s novel is as much a celebration of family and friendship as one of passion. The Radlett family are beautifully drawn – fractious, frustrated by each other, but ultimately profoundly loving. Mitford might have been writing about an aristocratic family, but she captures a contradiction between siblings that I believe to be universal – one moment, you love them so fiercely that you suspect a psychic bond, the next you are convinced that one, or both of you must be adopted.
When I wrote my memoir, The Sisterhood, about growing up with five sisters, the imaginary Radletts and the real Mitfords were at the forefront of my mind. Tayari Jones’ novel Silver Sparrow is a very different story, but the way she captures the tenderness and pain of sisterhood, connection and friendship seemed to link directly to Linda and Fanny. Reading Brit Bennett’s brilliant The Vanishing Half, I was struck by the thematic similarities to Mitford’s novel – it might not seem like a straightforward comparison, but it’s another story about sisters being bound by family ghosts and running away. Dolly Alderton’s seminal memoir Everything I Know About Love might be the clearest point of comparison, and the best way to lure readers who are new to Mitford. Both authors have a great talent for wry observation and treat matters of the heart with a similar mix of gravity and lightness.
Since that first meeting with Fanny and Linda, I’ve read The Pursuit of Love at least once a year. The book has become a beloved friend, but it is still capable of surprising me. Mitford has been teaching me the same wise lesson for a quarter of a century. We can’t place all of our trust in happy endings – and for that reason, when the opportunity for happiness arises, it’s all the more important to grasp it with both hands: “Life is sometimes sad and often dull, but there are currants in the cake, and here is one of them.”
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Image: Ryan McEachern / Penguin