Emily Mortimer’s new adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel, The Pursuit of Love, brings to life a world divided by political and dynastic affiliations, echoes of which are still felt today
This is what Nancy Mitford’s biographer, Selina Hastings, wrote of her novel The Pursuit of Love, published in 1945: “It was an instant and phenomenal success. If ever there was a case of the right book at the right time, this book was it. Funny, frivolous, and sweepingly romantic, it was the perfect antidote to the long war years of hardship and austerity, providing an undernourished public with its favourite ingredients: love, childhood and the English upper classes.”
So here – as an unlikely replacement for Line of Duty in our Sunday night viewing schedule – comes Emily Mortimer’s terrific three-part adaptation of the classic comic novel (BBC One, 9 May; all episodes on iPlayer). Like the book, it is sumptuous, unapologetic, and very funny indeed: the perfect balm for our lockdown-jangled nerves.
Set between the wars, the tale of Linda Radlett, her eccentric, aristocratic family and her restless quest for romance is beautifully rendered by a cast led by Lily James (a constitutionally-required fixture in all period dramas); Dominic West (fantastic as the bellowing patriarch, Uncle Matthew); Andrew Scott as Lord Merlin, Linda’s decadent mentor; Emily Beecham as Linda’s beloved cousin, Fanny, the story’s narrator; and Mortimer herself as Fanny’s free-wheeling mother, universally known as “The Bolter”.
For a debut director, she is impressively unconstrained by the usual rules of television dramatisation. This is much more than an upmarket version of Downton Abbey. Listen out, in particular, for Mortimer’s imaginative use of modern music (I spotted The Who, T-Rex, Le Tigre, and Marianne Faithfull). If you think Andrew Scott’s entrance in Season Four of Sherlock to Queen’s ‘I Want to Break Free’ was flamboyant, wait till you see his outrageous, dream-like arrival at a dull debutante ball to the strains of ‘Dandy in the Underworld’.
It was Mitford’s great friend, Evelyn Waugh, who suggested The Pursuit of Love as the book’s title, instead of the rather more prosaic Linda. As she wrote to him on 17 January, 1945, she was (presciently) conscious that it would be compared to his own mid-century reflection upon the English upper classes, Brideshead Revisited: “I am writing a book, also in the 1st person. (Only now has it occurred to me everybody will say what a copy cat – never mind that won’t hurt you only me.) It’s about my family, a very different cup of tea, not grand & far madder. Did I begin it before reading B.head or after – I can’t remember.”
Written in three months, The Pursuit of Love – the first of a trilogy completed by Love in Cold Climate (1949) and Don’t Tell Alfred (1960) – is indeed a barely-concealed account of the early life of the Mitford clan. Now remembered only dimly, as a sort of fascist prototype for the Kardashians, the six sisters and their brother Tom (killed in the second world war) were in fact a diverse bunch of oddballs, artists and maniacs.
Unity Mitford was indeed a deranged follower of Hitler, and Diana went on to marry Oswald Mosley at the home of Joseph and Magda Goebbels, with the Fuhrer in attendance. Jessica (“Decca”) was a committed communist who went to Spain to support the Republican cause in the Civil War, while Deborah (“Debo”), who died as recently as 2014, led a fairly conventional life as a society figure and writer.
But it was Nancy who truly immortalised the family as its novelist-chronicler. Mortimer’s series captures well the book’s exploration of private language and family secrecy: like the Mitfords, the Radlett children have their own club, “The Hons Society”, which exists to combat all “Counter-Hons”.
In The Pursuit of Love, one sees, too, the seeds of the novelist’s later – and notorious – division of key English words into “U” (upper-class) and “non-U”, originally set out in a 1954 article for Encounter. It was all pretty arbitrary and preposterous, clearly as much a joke as a serious social manual (“looking-glass” is U, whereas “mirror” is non-U; “vegetables” is U, “greens” non-U; “graveyard” is U, “cemetery” non-U; and so on).
What Mitford had spotted, in her mischievous intervention, was the apparently unquenchable English taste for snobbery and social categorisation. We kid ourselves that we live in a “classless society”, but – 76 years after the publication of The Pursuit of Love – we are as addicted as ever to such classifications and their tribal meaning (“Red Wall voters”, the “metropolitan elite”, the “just-about-managing”, the “left-behind”).
Mitford and Waugh believed they were recording a way of life that would be swept away after the war. But they were only half-right. As the latter reflected in 1959, he had not bargained with “the present cult of the English country house” and the surprising extent to which “the English aristocracy [had] maintained its identity” – which meant that Brideshead was, in effect, “a panegyric preached over an empty coffin”.
Like Waugh’s great novel, The Pursuit of Love describes a world that is both long vanished and still etched deep in the English imagination. Indeed, it has become one of our principal exports: literally, in the case of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and creatively in the second Downton Abbey all-star movie, presently in the works.
Do not be deceived into thinking that this is all aristo-jinks, hunting capers and bright young things. There is a profound strain of stringency and darkness in The Pursuit of Love, elevating it from a great comic novel to a 20th-century masterpiece. All this is perfectly captured in Mortimer’s adaptation. Miss it at your peril.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Jupiter’s Legacy (Netflix, 7 May)
When is Mark Millar, already an MBE, going to get the knighthood he so richly deserves? As the writer responsible for the Kingsman and Kick-Ass franchises – amongst much else – the Lanarkshire-born Millar has established himself as a unique force in the conquest of the world by comic book culture.
Based on the graphic novels launched in 2013, Jupiter’s Legacy takes as its starting-point the dilemmas facing first-generation superheroes as their children grow up. As with all that Millar does, a dark sense of humour mingles with the imaginative power of a juggernaut. And – his trademark – you don’t have to like or know about comic books to relish the worlds that he creates.
The Boy from Medellin (Prime Video, 7 May)
Matthew Heineman’s documentary is a fascinating exploration of the unsought entanglement of global superstardom and ferocious politics. The Colombian “King of Reggaeton”, J Balvin, finds himself unwittingly embroiled in the country’s great mass protest of 2019 – El Paro Nacional – and having to word his social media posts with appropriate care and political purpose. In an era in which the world of politics has increasingly been colonised by the values of entertainment, it’s an intriguing study of a performer caught in the middle.
Monster (Netflix, 7 May)
“What do you see when you look at me?” asks Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr) in this fine adaptation of Walter Dean Myers’s 1999 novel. A son of Harlem prospering in his studies, and looking forward to a life full of possibility, Steve finds his hopes pole-axed when he is charged with felony murder. Jeffrey Wright is especially good as his father, wrestling with the brutality of fate, and Jennifer Hudson and John David Washington add further dramatic weight to proceedings. Powerful and full of acutely-observed subtleties.
As one of the world’s most prominent public intellectuals, Dawkins is best known as a foe of religion, the evolutionary biologist who popularised the word “meme”, and (because he peskily keeps on asking questions and insisting on the right to free thought) an increasingly frequent target of cancel culture.
This excellent collection of writings, interviews and philosophical reflections shows why he is utterly and magnificently uncancellable. (And don’t forget to book your spot at our ThinkIn at 18:30 BST on 20 May, at which I’ll be hosting a conversation with him about his life, research and opinions.)
Alongside Lawrence Wright’s The Plague Year (Penguin, June, an extended version of his remarkable New Yorker essay), Lewis’s book is the most eagerly-anticipated account of the pandemic on this year’s publishing roster. It does not disappoint – though it is less a Defoe-style plague diary than a prequel to a disaster movie.
Lewis’s protagonists are a group of US public health officials and scientists who see how ill-prepared America is for such a crisis, try to sound the alarm but are thwarted by the systemic problems that have featured so often in his writing. As ever, the question that curls through the pages of Lewis’s latest book is one about culpability: was this wilful blindness, stupidity – or both?
The Frontiers of Knowledge: What We Now Know about Science, History and the Mind – A.C. Grayling (Viking)
The essence of science is a humility about what we know and an enthusiasm to extend its parameters. In his latest book, the prolific philosopher tackles the question of knowledge and its limits, with an eclecticism that is remarkable: literature, neuroscience, psychology, AI… all are quarried for clues and evidence. As formidable as the subject is, this a very readable book, that makes accessible some of the most cutting-edge theories about who we are and what we can know. On which note: don’t miss Grayling in conversation with Tortoise co-founder, James Harding, on 12 May at 18:30 BST – you can book your place here.
Pleasingly eclectic in their tastes, Rattletooth are one of the most talented alternative rock bands to emerge in recent years. More than just another post-punk gang, these five young men fell to earth five years ago and appear to have spent the time listening to echoing psychedelia, the best of millennial indie and (possibly) Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. This is a very good debut album. We’ll be watching – and listening – with interest.
The composer’s last completed symphony, overshadowed by his daughter’s death and his own heart condition, is often seen as a premonition of mortality, both personal and global (it received its posthumous premiere only two years before the outbreak of the First World War). Haitink’s interpretation is full of grandeur, drama, and a sense of history colliding with tender humanity.
Blessed, I Guess – Lil Poppa (7 May)
Teased by the track ‘A.M. Flights’, featuring New York rapper Toosii, the debut album by Lil Poppa is rich in melody as well as often reflective lyrics. Born Calvin Cambridge in Jacksonville, Florida, he learned his craft singing in church, but left the pews behind at the age of 14 to pursue his hip hop recording career. One of the brightest talents in rap, and one of the albums of the spring.
…also: thank you to Tortoise member, Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron), for this recommendation:
Atomic: How Dr Strangelove Exploded Pop Culture (BBC Sounds)
“THE AIR ATTACK WARNING SOUNDS LIKE. THIS IS THE SOUND.” The throbbing intro of Two Tribes pulsates through this explosive take on nuclear pop-liferation. It’s a personal story, which takes off from presenter Jude Rogers’s Welsh homeland with the Peter George novel Two Hours to Doom/Red Alert. Thus begins a rocket ride through Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove via Blondie and Bowie, back to the Women’s Peace Camp occupation of RAF Greenham Common – cooked up by four Welshwomen in 1980. Spilling with dark humour and destructive dancefloor-fillers, Atomic exposes how culture helps us cope with and conceptualise the very real nuclear threat.
Don’t forget to send your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now – take care of yourselves, and each other.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy Robert Viglasky/Theodora Films & Moonage Pictures/BBC, Steve Wilkie/Netflix, Hulton Archive & Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images