Friday, March 28, 2014

Book Review - Nancy Mitford's The Blessing

The Blessing by Nancy Mitford
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: 1951
Format: Paperback, 256 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Grace Allingham is engaged to a nice English boy. He didn't push for the marriage to happen before the war and therefore when Charles-Edouard de Valhubert comes into her life and sweeps her off her feet, it's really Hughie's own fault for not locking that down. Charles-Edouard is French and exciting. He loves art and beauty and Grace. Grace, like her father, is taken by all things French and is therefore really taken with her new husband. They have two glorious weeks together till he ships out and she doesn't see him for seven years. In those two weeks she managed to get pregnant, so the seven years away from her husband that she barely knows is spent raising their son Sigi and tending goats.

A year after the war is over Charles-Edouard sweeps back into Grace's life and whisks her away to France and a new life. Only Charles-Edouard is determined to continue living his old life. Sure, he has a wife and son, but that doesn't mean he's not going to reunite with his mistresses and perhaps pick up a few more. When Grace catches him in the act she flees back to England and the familiar. The couple want to reunite, but they both want what the other can't give. Meanwhile Sigi sees an opportunity. It appears to him that keeping his parents apart might benefit him. He would no longer be ignored but would be lavished with presents and attention. Plus, if he could also get bribes off of perspective suitors for his mother's or father's hand in marriage... he might come out very well, as long as his parents don't rumble his con.

The Blessing is an odd novel in that it feels like you are reading about ghosts long gone, a feeling enhanced by the visit to the Père Lachaise Cemetery in the book. Grace Allingham and Charles-Edouard de Valhubert are quite literally Linda Radlett and Fabrice de Sauveterre from The Pursuit of Love brought back from the dead. There are many questions this brings up. Is The Blessing a long "what if" novel wherein Nancy was wondering one day what would have happened if Linda and Fabrice hadn't died? Did she just love these characters so much that though she parted with them she had to bring them back in some way? Or was she using the ghosts of the past to recapture the best seller cache of her previous two novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate? All or none of these things may be true, but as a reader I felt like I was just trudging over terrain I had already gone over and over and was now trapped in a rut. There are only so many phone conversations between louche Frenchman and naive English girls that one can take in a lifetime and I think I have had my fill.

By giving Charles-Edouard/Fabrice and his lackadaisical morals full reign the book, no matter how Nancy tries, isn't a love story but a reflection of an amoral society that you aren't quite sure she's making fun of or even trying to justify in some sick way. The situations in The Pursuit of Love are able to push Fabrice into being a loving antihero for awhile, but without the strictures of the war, you see that Fabrice would have easily reverted to Charles-Edouard and his philandering ways. Charles-Edouard in some ways does love Grace, but the truth is, it isn't a love I would accept on any level. She must abide by his character or else lose him.

How is this fair? And why does everyone expect Grace to just accept this? Charles-Edouard has a long standing mistress, but of course it's "innocent" because the sex doesn't matter as much as the conversation. Then there's the young nubile mistress who Grace catches him with, though he still denies that there wasn't anything wrong with what she saw. Then there's the danger of any pretty woman anywhere that he might just wander off with at a moments notice. Yet Grace is expected to just be ok with this? No. It's not funny, it's not ok, it's sad. Everyone deserves to be loved exclusively without caveats. Sorry Nancy if you think this is acceptable, I don't.

And speaking of Nancy, and her sad Francophile life... the truth is maybe she didn't find this acceptable but she was trying to justify her own life. In 1942 she met a man, Gaston Palewski. He worked closely with Charles de Gaulle and was key in the French government for many years. Nancy fell in love, hard. Gaston was the love of her life, she dedicated a book to him and based both Fabrice and Charles-Edouard on him. Sadly, she wasn't the love of his life and he would never give up his ways as a reckless womanizer. In 1946 she moved to Paris to be closer to Gaston, with her life revolving around whenever he could spare a moment for her. She was willing to drop any plans if she could see or hear him for just a few minutes.

This obsession is oddly similar to Unity's obsession with Hitler and the stalker qualities it brought out in her. Nancy could easily be said to have been Gaston's stalker, seeing as their relationship was mainly one sided. She would have killed herself willingly for Gaston, a situation he found flattering and amusing. In 1969 Gaston married another one of his mistresses who was not much younger then Nancy. Nancy soon after became ill and eventually died of Cancer. He broke her heart. The Blessing might be see as one long justification of the life Nancy lived, a way to con herself into believing that just being a part of his life, just being one of his women was enough. I, on the other hand, find it heartbreaking. That such a smart, witty, bright woman could think that this was enough for her, that this was the life she deserved, it breaks my heart.


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