Friday, March 21, 2014

Book Review - Nancy Mitford's Christmas Pudding

Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: 1932
Format: Paperback, 368 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Paul Fotheringay is gutted. His first book Crazy Capers is an unrivaled success. Most authors would be pleased with this development, but not Paul. He poured his heart and soul into his book that he hoped would be heralded as a literary masterpiece only to have everyone think it is a comedy. Not just that, but the funniest book they have ever read. His tragedy is a laughing matter. In fact his whole life is rather tragic at the moment. His friend Amabelle, a rather notorious woman, tells Paul that the only hope he has now of being taken seriously is to follow up his first book with an in depth biography, something no one could mistake as farcical. He decides that the only possible subject for his masterpiece is the Victorian poetess Lady Maria Bobbin. Paul writes an impassioned letter to the family imploring Lady Bobbin to allow him access to Maria's diaries and ephemera. Lady Bobbin, being more concerned with hoof and mouth and when she'll be able to return to the hunt swiftly denies Paul and his life becomes even bleaker.

If Paul had only consulted Amabelle before approaching Lady Bobbin things could have been easily solved because, as it happens, Amabelle is good friends with Lady Bobbin's son and heir, Sir Roderick Bobbin, and Paul actually knows Bobby too! But instead of a straight forward plea to see the diaries which Paul's letter to Lady Bobbin makes impossible, they come up with an elaborate scheme wherein Paul is pretending to be Bobby's tutor over the winter holidays, so while Bobby sleeps in in the mornings, Paul spends his time immersed in Lady Maria's writings, and then they spend the afternoons "taking exercise" at Lady Bobbin's request. Of course, the "exercise" isn't really what Lady Bobbin expects, because it's really playing cards and gossiping at a nearby farm Amabelle has let for Christmas and is sharing with her friends the Monteaths. Things get even more out of hand when Amabelle's amorous suitor returns from Egypt but falls for Bobby's sister, whom Paul is also falling for. Add to that more relatives then you can possibly imagine descending on Compton Bobbin, and things are about to get real sticky.

Nancy Mitford, while perhaps best known for her witty writing, also seems to have an interesting secondary agenda of addressing the foibles of humans in love, one might even say a primary objective given her later books. While I wouldn't call her view jaundiced, it's more like she can pick up on the folly of those who see their love through rose colored glasses. Love is not put on a pedestal, yet there is true love. Love is viewed more realistically and handled in a way that makes it more true to life then other writers. She has handled this in every book of hers that I've read, though some more successfully then others it must be said. Christmas Pudding is only her second novel and you can easily see that this is the case. While her themes are there she hasn't yet gotten the cohesiveness that will mark her more famous novels. Instead of a well plotted book infused with humor, we get great one liners, wordplay that you will want to quote all day and all night, but her youthfulness in going for the bon mot versus the long game with a constructed storyline makes this book not as memorable.

This isn't to say that you won't have a good read, Nancy has this way of capturing the conflict between the horse and hounds set versus the bright young things that will leave you wanting more. The conflict I think probably accurately depicts the life she lived. Known to mine the personalities of those around her, you can easily see her parents in those who would rather live in their big drafty old house and shoot things, while she is the young girl longing to be amongst the bright lights in the big city while simultaneously being a bright young thing. Because Nancy has been both. She was trapped in the country and ill educated for so many years that when she did go to London she sparkled as a wit of the day. This dynamic of the two opposite mentalities clashing is what brings some of the heartiest laughs. Yet I think it's Nancy's willingness to make fun of herself foremost that makes this book stand out.

With Paul Fotheringay, we have a character who is very much taking the piss out of writers and therefore Nancy herself. I can just see Nancy chuckling as she wrote Paul's dilemma. Having only written Highland Fling, a well received comedy, she probably thought it would be hysterical if she had meant it as one thing and everyone took it as another. Could you imagine Nancy being viewed as anything but a classic comic writer? But one also wonders if there isn't more then a little truth here. Nancy was great at blending fact and fiction into her works. So what if she wanted to be considered a serious writer? I'm not saying that at the time Christmas Pudding was written she had this ambition, but it is odd that she ending up going the same was as Paul. What do I mean? Well, she did take to writing biographies... now her subjects weren't as satire worthy as the great Lady Maria Bobbin, but we can't ignore the fact that Nancy's biographies are popular. Was this her way of trying to legitimize herself? Because having a character like Amabelle who is obviously a parody of Madame de Pompadour, and then some twenty years later actually writing a biography of Madame de Pompadour... we're getting into a whole other level of meta and it makes me want to sit down with Nancy and have a little chat. What did she mean by this? Did she want to be known for her scholarly books more then her comedic prose? Looking back, is Paul, in the end, a tragic figure to her?


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