Saturday, 25 October 2014

Love In A Cold Climate

The world of English courtship, of noble families with sons and daughters and marriage on their minds, is familiar to all regular readers of English literature. Jane Austen almost immediately comes to mind. It is a world of manners and morals, a world of perforative elegance. It is popular to berate the modern world for being less elegant, and there is an entire nostalgia industry that cashes in on the charm factor of this world, such as the BBC adaptations of Austen and Victorian novels and Downton Abbey to name a few. When the presence and multiplicity of immigrants becomes too much to handle, it is good to have an all white world to return to. Ironically, this world evokes a certain nostalgia even among the colonised creatures whose history it never was, but whose imaginative geography it shaped.
I picked up Nancy Mitford's Love in A Cold Climate (1949) not expecting anything very different. I had heard it praised a lot, but that usually puts me off books rather than more interested in them. (I'm working towards changing this cynicism.) Mitford belongs squarely to the twentieth century, and what made me fall in love with her writing, was that it does too. It is still the world of English courtship, but it is no longer asexual or idealised. Instead, it is rendered from close up, with sympathy for its follies and an awareness of its darker shades. There are balls and gowns and big rooms, and small, furtive sexual encounters in those big rooms. To me, what stood out most about the book was the matter-of-fact tone it took to everything, rendering most things faintly comical even when they revealed selfishness, exploitation and conspicuous consumption.
To cite the most blatant example, there is an uncle, ironically nicknamed 'Boy', who is fond of feeling up young girls, and this 'habit' returns to haunt him when one of the girls he feels up, Polly, mistakes it for everlasting love and insists on marrying him. There is not a lot of angst or hand wringing about the abuse, and this universe has a moment of pity for the abuser, when he has to actually live with and love the girl he desired temporarily, or rather did not even desire in and of herself, but only as another girl to fondle. Our perceptions of these matters are so shaped by our own discursive frameworks of child abuse, paedophilia and punishment that this attitude can come across as cavalier. After all, he is an abuser and she is a victim, and how can any reading be otherwise? What this book did, however, is allow me to inhabit a world wherein the mores that governed human sexuality were different. What Boy does is not justified, but neither is it an exceptional act. It is one of the things that happens in the world, and thus it can be shown as banal; its tragic potential highlighted only when Polly insists on misreading Boy's propensity as love and desire. Not only that, this tragedy is not maintained indefinitely and is represented with as little hand-wringing as everything else.
Lest the mention of abuse give the impression that this is a depressing book, I should clarify that the novel is satirical and witty. I laughed out loud right at the very beginning, as the author traced the history of the Montdore family: "they drag forth ancestors with P. G. Wodehouse names, Ugs and Berts and Threds, and Walter Scott fates. His Lordship was attainted — beheaded — convicted — proscribed — exiled — dragged from prison by a furious mob — slain at the Battle of Crécy — went down in the White Ship — perished during the third crusade — killed in a duel". This is a world that rests on shallow, hollow foundations, and isn't that funny? So Lady Montdore is always polite to young girls, even those who do not have a lot of fortune. This is not out of the goodness of her heart; rather it comes from the soundness of her mind. "'Always be civil to the girls, you never know who they may marry' is a aphorism which has saved many an English spinster from being treated like an Indian widow." Polly rues this habit that all the young people have of being constantly in love with someone or the other. She had observed it in India, but had hoped that "in a cold climate" things would be different, hence the title. The book maintains a light and chatty tone throughout, which actually sets off the sexual encounters, familial conflict, homosexuality and murder quite well. Ok, I'm kidding, there is no murder in the book, but I wish there had been. I feel Mitford would have dealt with it lightly and exquisitely.
At one point in the text, two characters want to know what Polly and Boy's marriage is like. They ask their elder sister, Fanny, to find out, and when she points out that they do hear from Polly, this is their reply: "Do people ever sound unhappy on postcards, Fanny? Isn't it always lovely weather and everything wonderful, on postcards?" To me, the parallel to Facebook was striking. It is not a new world that we live in. The world of Love in A Cold Climate is not as different from our world today as it may seem to be superficially, and I don't know whether to rejoice or be sad about this.