My only experience of reading Nancy Mitford is the unnamed trilogy made up of The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, and Don’t Tell Alfred, all of which I loved – the first one in particular. There are devotees of Nancy and her family, but I am not really one of them, though I do find them as interesting as everyone else seems to. A biography of the sisters is on my long-term TBR.
Capuchin Classics emailed me to offer me a copy of Christmas Pudding, and having enjoyed what I had read of Nancy M., I accepted. Capuchin are the Classics imprint of Stacey International, an independent publisher based in London. I had never heard of them, but I liked their strap line – “Books to Keep Alive” – and always like to discover new publishers.
Christmas Pudding was Mitford’s second novel, published when she was only 28, and written partly for the fun of it, partly to cheer herself up (after a break up) and partly to remedy some money troubles. Every review I have read agrees that though excellent it does not quite meet the calibre of her later novels – and I must say I agree. The Pursuit of Love is, for me and many others, simply wonderful (I cried), and Christmas Pudding is a lot of fun but not at the pinnacle of Nancy’s literary talent.
The central character (well, ish) is Paul Fotheringay, a writer whose debut novel was supposed to be a great romantic tragedy but is being hailed as the great comic novel of his generation. He is disappointed and embarrassed, and in doubt of his abilities. He decides his next project will be a biography of Victorian poet Lady Maria Bobbin – a desperate attempt to make people take him seriously. His friend Amabelle Fortescue knows the current Bobbins, and also happens to be renting a house near theirs for Christmas, so Paul accompanies her on the pretext of tutoring young Bobby Bobbin (who is rather enamoured of Amabelle) to rifle through Lady Maria’s diaries for material. Bobby’s mother, the current Lady Bobbin, is obsessed with hunting and beside herself that foot-and-mouth is preventing the regular season – and her insistence that Paul get Bobby outside is hilarious as Paul feigns outdoorsy-ness. Every character is a ‘type’ most of us will be familiar with from our exposure to the Bright Young People of the years between the Wars – aristocratic but not necessarily rich, always bored and never shocked, and desperate to look good and be admired; and also, in many ways, just absurd (and perfectly encapsulated in ‘Bright Young Things‘, the film adaptation of Vile Bodies by Mitford’s contemporary Evelyn Waugh).
With a farcical set up and plenty of laughs to be had with these toffs in the countryside, Christmas Pudding is extremely enjoyable, though the pace of Mitford’s narrative voice may jar with those not used to her work. It’s been a while since I read anything by her and going into this novel it took me a few pages to adjust to her swift, sharp style. Once you’re on board though it is a marvellous ride with great wit and style, as well as moments of foreshadowing to Mitford’s much better later work. A Christmas treat that anyone would enjoy. Frankly I’m surprised there isn’t a TV version shown every year!
Christmas Pudding was originally published in 1932. It was reissued by Capuchin Classics in 2011, and as a hardback gift edition in 2012. My copy was kindly sent by the publisher for review.