Friday, 21 January 2011
Penguin no. 1211: The Blessing by Nancy Mitford
I came away from this novel wondering about Nancy Mitford's attitude towards children. The title is ironic, the child it refers to is anything but a blessing. His name is Sigismond and he is manipulative and scheming, and focused entirely on what he perceives to be in his own interest. His affection for others, including his parents, is entirely based on what they are willing to lavish on him. He is revealed as a child who will betray anyone to get what he wants, and he appears to have no redeeming features at all. He is illustrated there on the cover, twirling his black curls, a mannerism he displays when concealing the truth.
And yet, when you reflect on the book as a whole, there is no child in it who is a blessing, who is intrinsically valuable for its own sake. Their value is always in their utility. One couple aims to have six children only so as to avoid French taxes, but the children are sent to the country to grow up so as not to interfere with their parent's social life. In another scene a ball is held with invitations only given to those with children, and as it is the event of the season suddenly people are out to adopt. Even the adults who lavish attention on Sigismond only do so with an eye to winning the affection of one of his parents. It's a curious world she portrays.
But this story is not really about children, or about this child. The comment quoted above reveals the central theme: The Blessing is a comic and mocking exploration of the differences between England and France, and yet, like all the Mitford novels, the observations it contains are penetrating. I think Nancy Mitford is explaining why she chose to make Paris her home.
She does this through the marriage of Grace and Charles-Edouard, the parents of Sigismond. Grace is English, unsophisticated, extremely beautiful and happy; she never does anyone any harm. She is not intellectual, she under-dresses and she loves the countryside; perhaps she is as different from a French woman as it is possible to be. Charles-Edouard is French. He is passionately interested in things of beauty, and married or not, it seems essential to his being to sleep with every pretty woman he meets. Grace loves her husband but she finds life difficult in Paris: she is always on display, and aware that she is being judged, for her beauty, her clothes, her connections and her wit. Living in French society takes effort.
Charles-Edouard's behaviour concerns her, but he dissembles, he successfully explains all her concerns away. In this novel all the French seem to excel at dissembling; their conception of the truth appears very fluid. But when he is caught in the act, she leaves him and returns to England. Slowly she comes to the realisation that England may be safe and easy, but it is bland: there is a price to be paid for an interesting life, and she must choose if she is willing to pay it. At no time is it suggested in this book that Charles-Edouard should bend towards her.
The wit in this book is perhaps less astringent than I expected. There are some lovely passages mocking earnest young women of a literary persuasion. And the characterisations of Nanny, and the banal American Hector Dexter are very entertaining. But someone is quoted on the cover of this Penguin asserting that The Blessing is Nancy Mitford's best book, and I cannot agree with that. It makes me wonder if the exceptional quality of Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love was evident when they were new. They certainly predate this one because there is lovely passing reference to Fabrice Sauveterre, as though he was a friend of the family. This book is interesting, amusing and enjoyable, but it is not in the league of her two masterpieces. They contain characters that you take to your heart, and which are unforgettable; you seem to carry them with you through life.