“The Pursuit of Love” Is a Scathing Satire of the British Upper Classes
In a new adaptation of the novel, two cousins navigate family, marriage, and their complicated friendship.
By Anna Russell
July 27, 2021
There’s nothing like a truly horrendous party for cementing a friendship. On your own, the night might be an ego-bruising failure; with an ally, it’s an anecdote. In the first episode of Emily Mortimer’s fizzy new three-part adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel about the English upper classes, “The Pursuit of Love”—coming to Amazon Prime Video on July 30th—the bookish teen-ager Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham) and her more glamorous cousin Linda Radlett (Lily James) find themselves at the stuffiest of soirées. It is 1928, and they are wearing awkward taffeta and organza dresses and facing a room filled with the much-older friends of Linda’s father’s, presented as potential suitors for Linda’s older sister Louisa. The sheltered Fanny and Linda, not yet eighteen and kept largely away from “society,” have spent weeks fantasizing about the event and the possibility of meeting their respective crushes—a “fat, red-faced middle-aged farmer” for Fanny, the Prince of Wales for Linda—on the dance floor. Instead, they are largely ignored, as the men talk in low voices about the House of Lords and killing animals. “They’re all so small and ugly,” Linda says, despondently, clutching Fanny. “Old and ugly.”
For Linda and Fanny, parties are not just about socializing. They are also escape routes, offering a path, via marriage, out of the freezing, fortress-like Radlett family home presided over by Linda’s father, known to Fanny as Uncle Matthew (Dominic West). Uncle Matthew, like many of the weirdo aristocrats in the Radletts’ circle, is an old-fashioned English eccentric: wealthy and supremely out of touch. “Uncle Matthew knew no middle course. He either loved or he hated. And, generally, it must be said, he hated,” Fanny, who narrates the story, tells us in voice-over. Every morning, Uncle Matthew appears on the house’s lawn, cracking a pair of stock whips and humming along to opera. He is enormously proud of the grisly “entrenching tool” hung over his fireplace, which he had used “to whack to death eight Germans as they crawled out of a dugout in 1915.” We learn that he hates “Huns, frogs, Americans, Catholics, and all other foreigners,” and that every Christmas he likes to “hunt” his children, chasing them through the sprawling grounds with a quartet of “beautiful bloodhounds.” “Had the Radletts been poor, he no doubt would have been sent to prison for beating and refusing to educate them,” Fanny says, calmly. “Uncle Matthew loathed educated females, particularly me.”
Fanny lives only part time with the Radletts and their many unruly children. More often, she lives with her Aunt Emily (Annabel Mullion), who took over her upbringing after Fanny’s mother ran off at nineteen, “feeling herself too beautiful and gay to be burdened with a baby.” Fanny’s mother, played with obvious delight by Emily Mortimer, swings into her daughter’s life occasionally, Fanny says, “like a meteor showering me with her extravagance.” Always laughing, always bearing gifts, Fanny’s mother “ran away so often and with so many different men that she became known to her family and friends as the Bolter.” The Bolter seems to be having a fabulous time: she is shown lounging on a pool float, waving away her new love, an Italian count, with an imperious hand. She presents her daughter with a pony, then leaves. She shows up at the same parties as Fanny (“Hello darling! You’ve got so tall!”), with much younger men, and dances them all under the table. “Is that Linda I just saw you with?” she says to Fanny at one, in her exaggerated drawl. “Oh, no, it’s such a mistake to be friends with girls who are more beautiful than one is, darling. It’s too dispiriting.”
The Bolter may be cruel, but she’s not altogether wrong. Linda’s looks, and her dogged obsession with finding love, threaten to overshadow Fanny and their girlhood friendship. “Poor Linda,” Aunt Emily’s partner, Davey (John Heffernan), tells Fanny. “She has an intensely romantic character, which is fatal for a woman, and also what makes her completely irresistible. Fortunately, most women are madly matter-of-fact. Otherwise, the world could hardly carry on.” (When Fanny asks, in a moment of tender vulnerability, “What am I, Davey?” he answers, unsatisfyingly, “You’re you, Fanny. You’ll be all right.”) As Linda and Fanny grow older, they drift apart. Linda soon marries the first man to sweep her off her feet—a rich and entitled bore who hates the lower classes—and moves into a magnificent house in London. Fanny falls for a soft-spoken scholar, Alfred (Shazad Latif), and settles into a quiet life in Oxford. (The courtship: “Gosh, don’t you love a bookshop?” “I do.”) Linda, disillusioned with her marriage and new baby, begins spending all her time at the theatre, dinners, night clubs. A hint of judgment, and maybe jealousy, creeps into Fanny’s telling of Linda’s story. “She became what’s known as a society beauty,” she says. “Fashionable young men clustered around her like bees around honey. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Chat, chat, chat.”
There’s something barbed, and very honest, about Fanny’s friendship with Linda. She is sipping on a cocktail that she can’t put down. The relationship is marked by that spiky mix of devotion and rivalry that is sometimes found between women who have grown up together. As children, they sat in a linen cupboard and compared measurements: arms, waist, bust, ankles. As adults, they compare husbands, houses, children, ideologies. At several moments over the three episodes—and there are spoilers ahead—Linda tells Fanny, sincerely, “I’m lost without you.” Still, each is unable to keep from turning the life choices of the other over and over in her mind, like worrying a stone. When Linda runs away from her awful first husband, Tony (Freddie Fox), she comes to Fanny for something akin to absolution. “I do think it’s unfair that when I’m unfaithful it’s disgusting, but when Tony is no one bans him from anything!” Linda says. You can see Fanny struggling to keep her face carefully blank; she’s judging, no question. Later, when Fanny offers, piously, “After all, our children’s well-being is all that really matters in the end,” it’s Linda who is silent. She looks a little pityingly at her friend.
Everything comes to a head when Linda asks Fanny to see her off at the train station. Linda, who has never left England, is bound for the Spanish border, where her new husband, a Communist this time, has gone to fight Fascism. Fanny, heavily pregnant again, is skeptical about the journey—and the marriage—but burns with jealousy nonetheless. She takes it personally, as friends do. “It might be easy for you to drop everything, and leave your life, and be free, and never face any consequences,” Fanny says, furiously, “but some of us have to stay behind to support our husbands and look after the children.” She accuses Linda of abandoning her child—and of abandoning her. At last, Fanny says the words that they both fear: “I’m always telling everyone that you’re not like my mother, but you’re just exactly like her.”
The choices that women make, and the comments that other women make about those choices, was fertile ground for Nancy Mitford. By the time she wrote “The Pursuit of Love,” her fifth novel and the one that launched her career as a writer, she had watched five sisters come out into society—“the English upper-class version of the puberty ritual”—with radically different results. Partly because of the turbulent times in which they lived, and partly because of their strange, inward-facing upbringing, the Mitford sisters chose diametrically opposed fates (to the enduring fascination of the British public.) One sister ran away from her wealthy first husband to become the mistress of Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. Another became a Communist. Another a duchess. Another, an admirer of Hitler, shot herself when Britain declared war on Germany. In a wide-ranging group biography, “The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters,” Laura Thompson writes, “One can chant the careers of the Mitford sisters in the manner of Henry VIII’s wives, thus: Writer; Countrywoman; Fascist; Nazi; Communist; Duchess.”
Nancy Mitford, to the horror of some of her sisters, resisted marriage for just over a decade after her coming out. She passed through several social seasons, turning down offers from respectable young men for her own reasons. You can imagine her lurking among the well-dressed men and women, sharp-eyed and a little mean, cracking jokes and puncturing egos—the kind of person you’d like to sit next to at a dinner party. In “The Pursuit of Love,” she is a perfect guide through this odd, snobbish world, re-creating in the Radletts a fictionalized version of the Mitford childhood, which Thompson describes, memorably, as “posh-feral.” “The supreme irony about The Pursuit of Love,” Thompson writes, “is that, by the time it was published, pretty much everything that it represented was vanishing.”
Mortimer’s adaptation injects new life into Nancy Mitford’s sharpest observations. Andrew Scott, who played the “hot priest” in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag,” is deliciously entertaining as Lord Merlin, the Radletts’ over-the-top neighbor, who puts on Dada plays in his back yard and dyes his pigeons bright colors. (“Oh, no, they love it. They love it. Makes them so pretty for each other.”) Lord Merlin acts as a quasi-mentor to Linda, whose education he has taken on haphazardly, and he appears at critical moments in her life to deliver aid and devastating one-liners. Scott is a joy to watch; he is consistently, convincingly vivacious—the embodiment of Mitford charm. “Fanny, you really are most dreadfully conventional,” he says, exasperated, at one point. “We can’t all experience the same sort of domestic bliss that you and, you and”—he falters—“Alfred have achieved. Some of us must protect bohemia, irreverence.” And why not? This is a period drama that makes fun of its period’s stuffiness, playing on its stilted conventions, as when Fanny and Linda pose for a debutante portrait—white dresses, gloves, large feathers—to the raspy, down-on-my-luck tones of Marianne Faithfull’s “Give My Love to London.”
The adaptation is also funny, and not shy, on certain unflattering truths regarding motherhood. After Linda gives birth for the first time, she tells Fanny, “Not to scare you, but it was absolutely the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.” Lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by flowers, she is unmoved by her pink and writhing baby. “It shrieks,” she says, flatly. “Poor soul, she must have caught sight of herself in a glass somewhere.” She names her daughter Moira, even though Fanny tells her that the name is unkind. Later, when circumstances conspire to force Fanny to climb through Linda’s window, she leaves her own shrieking baby in a wicker basket at the front door. “Shush!” she calls down to it. “Please stop screaming. You’re embarrassing me!”
The spectre of Fanny’s mother, the dreaded Bolter, is a constant presence, hanging over every decision the women make. What kind of women are they? What kind of women do they want to be? “I keep thinking about your mother. Am I a bolter?” Linda asks shakily, her marriage in crisis. But the prospect of becoming a bolter, while clearly terrifying for Fanny and Linda, is also, on some level, deeply alluring. Is she a fallen woman or is she free? When Linda finally finds love as the mistress of a dashing Frenchman (played with wolfish panache by Assaad Bouab, of “Call My Agent!”), you can’t help thinking she looks that rare thing: happy.
As war approaches, the scattered Radlett clan retreats to the family home, and Fanny and Linda find themselves together again. The Bolter, in high spirits, as always, has also joined them, a new lover in tow. Earlier, in Oxford, she had smoked on Fanny’s couch and told her to leave her children with a relative. “Don’t let your children get in the way of your life, darling,” she says, blithely. “Do you mean me?” Fanny asks. “No, no. You didn’t get in the way. Of course, you didn’t,” the Bolter assures her. “I’ve had a wonderful life.”
Anna Russell, a contributing writer for The New Yorker, began writing for the magazine in 2016. She lives in London.