Neither as charming or as harmless as they were cracked up to be
Famous for being famous, and sometimes notorious, the six Mitford sisters have gone down in history as interwar Kardashians, posh socialites who are most interesting when they’re behaving badly. Nancy Mitford, the literary sister, drew on her childhood memories to write The Pursuit of Love, published in 1945. The story of the Radlett family—a fictionalized version of the Mitfords—has been adapted for television before as a package deal with its companion novel Love in a Cold Climate, but it stands alone for the first time in this tight three-part series.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Often celebrated—or dismissed—as archetypal “eccentric aristocrats,” the Mitfords were neither as charming nor as harmless as they might seem at first glance. Much of what passed for eccentricity in 1930s England would be probably be correctly diagnosed as inbreeding-induced mental illness today. Uncle Matthew—the racist, sexist, xenophobic patriarch of the Radlett family—“would have been sent to prison for beating” his children had he not been rich. The show hints that he suffers from PTSD from World War I, but also asks us to believe that his boorishness is amusing rather than abusive.
An early adopter of unschooling, Uncle Matthew doesn’t believe that girls should be educated. As a result, his numerous daughters “manage to bridge gulfs of ignorance with charm and high spirits and odds and ends of knowledge they’ve picked up.” They communicate in babyish private slang, form secret societies, and hide away in a walk-in linen cupboard in the massive country house they’re not allowed to leave—a recipe for a magical childhood, possibly, but not for psychologically healthy adults.
The story focuses on the codependent relationship between headstrong, beautiful Linda Radlett (Lily James) and narrator Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham), her kinder, plainer, more sensible cousin, who spends holidays with the Radletts, getting swept up by Linda’s improvisational joie de vivre. Linda is a pastiche of Nancy and her sisters, but so is Fanny, in a way; she represents Nancy’s conscience, her spine, and her intelligence (the author finally persuaded her father to allow her a year of boarding school). Virtually abandoned by her flighty mother, Fanny is as wise beyond her years as Linda is infantilized.
Actress Emily Mortimer wrote and directed the adaptation, as well as playing The Bolter, as everyone knows Fanny’s man-eating mother. Mortimer captures the feverish intensity of Linda and Fanny’s friendship, with its undercurrents of rivalry and sexual tension. The male characters, by contrast, are fairly one-dimensional, though Dominic West chews the genteel scenery with irresistible gusto as Uncle Matthew, and Andrew Scott has louche fun with the role of Lord Merlin, the aesthete next door (based on the real-life Lord Berners, who really did have a house full of dyed doves).
Mortimer successfully deploys cheeky title cards and newsreel montages as footholds for 21st-century viewers. Films and TV shows often portray the 1930s as dreary and cold, but The Pursuit of Love is colorful eye candy; it’s worth watching for the books and wallpaper alone. Mortimer also brings the funny, which doesn’t always translate in the archly satirical, semi-autobiographical book; even Mitford’s mother reportedly “doubted if anybody outside the family would want to read it because they wouldn’t understand the jokes.”
Linda and Fanny can’t wait to grow up, but they quickly discover that adulting isn’t actually much fun. Balls are desultory affairs where they must dance with elderly men who step on their toes; smug Oxford boys aren’t interested in their half-formed opinions. The cousins are out of their element, but they can’t retreat back to the womb-like security of the cupboard, either. “In my bitter determination to grow up, I’d forgotten we’d have to stop being children,” Linda complains, while literally trying to hide in an entirely different cupboard. In truth, though, she never really stops being a child, remaining selfish, impulsive, and tantrum-prone.
Indeed, she’s so sheltered, intellectually stunted, and emotionally unstable that she marries the first eligible man her age she meets, with predictably disastrous consequences. “Do try to behave like an adult,” he tells her, in vain. Linda’s husband and his family admire Hitler, as Nancy’s sisters Unity, Diana, and Pamela did; their scorn drives her into the arms of a studly, serious Communist who joins the Spanish Civil War, as her sister Jessica did.
Linda chases her childish ideal of “love” while being horrible to the people who actually love her, and continue to love her in spite of her self-centered behavior: Fanny, Lord Merlin, and her neglected daughter. (Again, it’s suggested that Linda’s aristocratic disdain for her own offspring is actually a manifestation of postpartum depression—although that doesn’t explain why her parents and Fanny’s mother also seem to loathe their children.)
As World War II looms, she finally finds her calling as a kept woman, going all Emily in Paris in an interlude based on Nancy’s real-life affair with French politician Gaston Palewski. “An adulterous woman is the single most disgusting thing there is!” Uncle Matthew scolds Linda—a line given unintended resonance by the fact that West and James had a well-publicized adulterous affair while making the series. Yet for all the blustering about double standards and the plight of fallen women, real consequences are few and far between. Even when the Nazis bomb her house, Linda lands on her feet.
Between the Spanish Civil War, the Blitz, and the French Resistance, The Pursuit of Love should be a lot more romantic than it is, but Linda treats the history unfolding around her as a mildly amusing joke at best, a tedious personal inconvenience at worst. James tries valiantly, but ultimately Linda is more exhausting than enthralling. By the end, she may think she’s finally found true love, but there’s no reason to believe it will last any longer than her previous escapades. In the pursuit of love, Linda is the reckless hare to Fanny’s plodding but ultimately victorious tortoise; Fanny’s delicate negotiation of happiness with her boring but dependable Oxford don husband, Alfred (Shazad Latif), is the more compelling journey.
The Pursuit of Love holds obvious appeal for fans of Downton Abbey and Bridgerton, but its relatively recent setting (further updated with contemporary pop music) makes it less escapist fun than snarky social commentary. Your enjoyment of it may depend on your tolerance for rich people’s problems.