An outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease may have terminated the hunting at the Compton Bobbins' in the Cotswolds, but it has not dampened the Yuletide spirit of the Bright Young Things who find themselves among the oddly assorted guests of the not-so young and quite formidable Lady Maria Bobbin. Hilarious misadventures abound as Lady Bobbin's serenely beautiful daughter, Philadelphia, meets the advances of the very eligible, and equally dull, Lord Lewis and of the charming but penniless Paul Fotheringay, whose terribly serious first novel has, to his dismay, just been hailed by critics as the funniest book of the year. With signature wit and gentle mockery, not to mention her acid malice for the second-rate, Nancy Mitford romps rippingly through the wold and the life of the county set in the cozy English 1930s.
Because I'm such a wacko, I must read an author's body of work chronologically, whenever possible. So, even if I've been dying to read Nancy Mitford's most well-known novels, I've just finished Christmas Pudding, which is the second novel she wrote. This time, my weird habit is paying off. There were some characters from Highland Fling who also made an appearance in this novel. I was delighted to find Walter and Sally Monteith again - they represent the Bright Young Things extremely well, and are endearingly funny characters to read about.
Nancy Mitford was a skilled narrator, capable of laughing at herself and at her own milieu, which was rather a bold thing to do. She acknowledged the absurdity of the lifestyle led by a set of people who happened to had been born under auspicious conditions, while others had to work hard for the same privileges. She wrote fine social criticism with a sense of humour, and I'm really thankful for that. Her prose is full of sharp one-liners and witty descriptions that help to get her point accross, as in the introduction of Amabelle, who had a past life as a demimondaine:
She had immediately decided, with characteristic grasp of a situation, that the one of her many talents which amounted almost to genius should be that employed to earn her bread, board and lodging. Very soon after this decision was put into practice, the bread was, as it were, lost to sight beneath a substantial layer of Russian caviare; the board, changing with the fashions of the years, first took to itself a lace tablecloth, then exposed a gleaming surface of polished mahogany, and finally became transformed into a piece of scrubbed and rotting oak; while the lodging, which had originally been one indeed, and on the wrong side of Campden Hill, was now a large and beautiful house in Portman Square.
A typical British comedy of manners, Christmas Pudding is great from start to finish, and a light read at that. I chose this novel because of the Christmas setting, but it truly can be read at any time of the year, since Christmas is not that predominant in the novel, but only the excuse for the unlikely gathering of these particular set of characters in the British countryside. We have a couple of poor BYT and a former courtesan who have rented a house in the Cotswolds, a rebellious Eton schoolboy and his quiet older sister, a succesful young author disguised as an outdoorsy holiday tutor, a dull young diplomat, a widower farmer Major and an assortment of stern and sporty relatives who want to infuse the youth with some Yuletide spirit. The interactions between them and the love triangles (quadrangles? pentagons?) create trouble after trouble, each one funnier than the one before. Unfortunately, although the solution to the mess is sound, the ending is a bit anticlimatic and the pace undergoes a quick decline in the last few pages.
Despite that minor quibble, this novel is finer than her previous one, and I've heard it only gets better with every book. I'm in for a treat!