Nancy Mitford & the commitment to world-building

“World-building” is a term one hears a lot in discussions of scifi writing, but that tends not to come up when speaking about non-genre literature.  Sure, Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County, but I can’t think of many other examples of literary authors who went through the trouble of setting seemingly unrelated novels in a continuous created world.  (Feel free to shout out examples I’m forgetting or don’t know.  I’m sure there are some.)

I have never read a single piece on Nancy Mitford that commented on her commitment to world-building, and yet, it is undoubtedly present in her work.  Three of her novels are narrated by Fanny Wincham — The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, and Don’t Tell Alfred — though each focuses on a different family (the Radletts, the Montdores, and Fanny’s own, respectively).  These novels are frequently referred to as companions or sequels, and as such, it’s unsurprising that they all operate in the same fictional universe.

Though little remarked upon, Mitford’s seemingly unrelated novel, The Blessing, does actually take place in the same world as well.  The hints are so subtle as to be easily missed.  Grace’s French husband, Charles-Edouard, guides her through Père La Chaise pointing out notable graves, including that of the Frenchman with whom Linda Radlett had an affair:

Sauveterre (poor Fabrice, give me one flower for him, how he would have laughed to see me here with wife and child)…

Later in the book, Grace tours Eton with her former fiance, Hughie, who turns out to have attended school with Linda Radlett’s first husband:

… we had an awful time at m’tutor’s from a brute called Kroesig…

These distant acquaintances aren’t the only things Linda and Grace have in common.  They both share a passion for Francis Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Making of a Marchioness.  Linda places it in the Communist bookstore windows, and Grace is absorbed in reading it when she hears that her mother has died.

I haven’t yet read Don’t Tell Alfred, but as I understand it, the novel folds Grace de Valhubert into Fanny’s circle.  Mitford completes the circle, and ties all four novels back to each other gracefully and without fanfare.  Surely this a skill that deserves more attention in discussions of Mitford’s body of work.  Perhaps the attractive matching Vintage reprints of the novels will encourage it.

(And for those keeping score, Mitford’s novels come straight from my to read pile: my mom saw the blog and got them for me as a Christmas present.)

To read pile, Mitfordiana edition

An obvious and huge downside to attending grad school for English (beyond that whole employment thing) is that there’s just not enough time to read the things I’d like to.

If I were drafting my ideal Christmas list, and if I had unlimited reading time, I’d go ahead and ask for all the Nancy Mitford novels that I’ve not yet read.  The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (and the BBC miniseries version of the two books) have left me desiring much more of her witty voice. Nancy is high on my list of female authors who unfairly (and anachronistically) have been deemed “chick lit” — a list that includes my all-time favorite Elaine Dundy and usual suspect Jane Austen, among others.

I’d also ask for Nancy’s biography of the Madame de Pompadour, the collected letters between all six sisters, and Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels as well.

Zoe Heller recently talked to WNYC about Nancy’s novel, Wigs on the Green, which was just reissued after 35 years of being out of print; WSJ has a nice piece on all the novels.

At the very least, I plan to work on tracking down a copy of Christmas Pudding, which has not yet been reprinted, for my winter holiday reading.