01 March 2011

The Blessing by Nancy Mitford

The Blessing (Vintage)The Blessing by Nancy Mitford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Witty and wicked and just a tad dated (in the sense of some extreme political incorrectness), The Blessing is Mitford's take on the cultural chasm between France and England after WWII.  English flower Grace marries Charles-Edouard, French aristocrat, and raises their son Sigi alone in the English countryside until he comes home after the war in seven years. They move to France, along with Sigi's unhappy Nanny, whose first experience with French cuisine leaves her horrified - "Funny-looking bread, here, too, all crust and holes. I don't know how you'd make a nice bit of damp toast with that" - and yearning for "a nice floury potato."

Once in Paris, Charles-Edouard's old passions flower, including his relationship with long-time lover Albertine, whose gift of spinning aromatic, sensual tales while telling fortunes has kept their once-torrid, now "sentimental" relationship (with the occasional afternoon tryst) alive. Charles-Edouard's affairs, which Grace's French friends encourage her to accept as entertainments no more important than his material collections, prove more than she can endure when she walks into a room on a mansion tour and finds her husband in bed with one of his pretty, young collectibles.

Before that, however, she meets dozens of unforgettable characters, from the French man who thinks English country life is personified in Wuthering Heights, to the insufferable, hectoring American, Hector Dexter, whose marriage to Grace's school friend Caroline forces her to tolerate his take on the British (who have become "frivolous" about homosexuals whom, he believes are all Communists), and American men, none of whom are "pederasts," since they are all full of "strong and lustful, but clean desire."

(Charles-Edouard is chastised by Albertine when he says that he sees "goodness" shining in the eyes of Americans. "That's not goodness," she says, "that's contact lenses.")

Grace takes Sigi and Nanny back to England and meets up with her ex-fiance Hughie, whose affair with Albertine has been thwarted, and who is ready to settle down and marry Grace. She also meets and flirts with the idea of marrying a charismatic, mad director, whose ghoulish, blonde retinue takes a dislike to Grace and vanishes when he decides to stage a version of a political play that features a snarling dog, an old man who sleeps with a pot of gold under his bed, and his son who is married to a Fascist. She fantasizes a marriage to him being like Charles and Mary Lamb, or Jane and Thomas Carlyle "without the liver attacks."

this does not come to pass...

Certain characters maintain their sense and sensibility with humor and pragmatism. Grace's father, Sir Conrad, muses that the English think that French silver is dirty because it does not shine like English silver, not realizing that English and French silver are totally different alloys. Albertine is charmed when Sigi loves her gift of a kaleidoscope so much he wants to sleep with it: "But this child is his father over again... The moment he sees something pretty he wants to take it to bed with him." Tante Regine charms her English hosts by praising Woolworth's and Yardley perfumes.

And Sigi? One of the great comedic monsters, whose preternatural cunning and powers of observation are thwarted ... just ... by the common sense of a nameless French official, precisely the sort of character keeps civilization humming behind the cultural circuses.

Some critics have said this is not A-list Mitford. Maybe not, but it delighted me. Highly, highly recommended!

View all my reviews

No comments: