Christmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford
I have been saving this book for the holidays, though I knew with Nancy Mitford it wouldn't be a real "Christmas" book. It was a perfect fit, a light and funny antidote to holiday stress, laced with her trademark cynicism. As always with her books, I felt like I was missing some of the private jokes, but not enough to interrupt the fun.
The Prologue introduces us, at "Four o'clock on the First of November. A dark and foggy day," to "Sixteen characters in search of an author." One of these, Paul Fotheringay, has just published his first novel, Crazy Capers, a searing portrait of a young man's tragic struggle with the mysteries of life. The good news is that the book has become a runaway best-seller. The bad news is that everyone considers it the comic masterpiece of the year. Paul, his soul ravaged by this barbarity, resolves to write a serious book that must compel the world's respect. He settles on literary biography as his genre, and Lady Maria Bobbin, a 19th century poet, as his subject. Initially refused access to Lady Maria's papers, housed at the ancestral home of Compton Bobbin in Gloucestershire, he enlists the help of his friend Amabelle Fortescue. She has taken a house near Compton Bobbin for several months, and she knows the Bobbin family. She secures Paul a position as a holiday tutor to the heir, the frighteningly precocious Sir Roderick (Bobby) Bobbin, currently at Eton. Amabelle herself is taking a party to the house she has leased, Mulberrie Farm.
Mitford has great fun with Mulberrie Farm, which has been renovated into an "olde worlde" showpiece, and with Bobby's mother Lady Bobbin, obsessed with hunting and the threat of socialism. Lady Bobbin is also devoted to the proper celebration of Christmas in the true "Merrie Englande" style, gathering the far-flung Bobbin family to the old family home for the feast. Of the two, I think I'd prefer to spend Christmas with Amabelle at Mulberrie Farm.
At Compton Bobbin, Paul finds fourteen volumes of Lady Maria's journals, a wealth of resources for his biography. Mitford includes some extensive quotes from the diaries, which sound amazingly like Queen Victoria's, down to the death of Lady Maria's husband Sir Josiah. Bobby, who prefers to spend his holiday in gossip and bridge with Amabelle and her friends, is more than happy to leave Paul to his research. But Paul is somewhat distracted from his poetess by Bobby's lovely sister Philadelphia. He has a rival in the rich and eligible (but ponderous and prosing) Marquis of Lewes. Philadelphia, marooned in the country with her trying mother and bored to distraction, ready to fall in love with the first man who offers her a more exciting life, here has two. Another romance is also blooming, in a quieter way - one that shocks the circle of friends. The discussion of marriage, of love and of more practical motives, makes up a major theme of the book. I'm not sure I agree with Philadelphia's final choice, but I do see why she makes it. I'd love to know how it works out in the end for her.
This was a fun, diverting read, with its sixteen amusing characters, and I really enjoyed it.