“Love is fatal for a woman”. As talking heads everywhere predicted a post-Covid “Summer of Love” and the BBC’s adaption of ‘The Pursuit of Love’ came out on TV, I found myself asking: just what can Nancy Mitford’s classic teach us about our endless obsession with the intoxicating pursuit of romantic love?
The novel follows Linda Radlett, a woman in love with the idea of love. She’s described as an “intensely romantic character”, desperately “destined to fall in love” with the first agreeable man she meets. She falls in love three times, leaving the reader unsure as to whether her love is a temporary, silly infatuation or the most important thing in the world.
Linda’s idealisation of romantic love is a relatively new take – in the ancient world, love was likened to a mental illness. According to Ruth Rothaus Caston’s research, “Falling in love [was] described as physical and psychological ruin… [in which the lover] is willing to sacrifice everything for his love: autonomy, reputation and health”. Love was a dangerous and unpredictable force that saw the Greek god Eros attacking his lovers with a bow and arrow.
According to Mitford, love is “fatal for a woman” and with a sly god at the helm, a character like Linda is always in danger when crossing its path.
Mitford turns this around in ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, declaring, “whoever invented love ought to be shot”. Eros is wounded and laughed at in her novels: aiming badly, he’s either an ignored god, or one making ill-judged shots. In ‘The Pursuit of Love’, “the Bolter” is forever jumping from partner to partner, Linda is unsatisfied and Fanny is stuck with her “dreary old husband”. If love is an act divinely inspired, Mitford warns us its aftertaste isn’t sweet like ambrosia. She has a pragmatic approach to marriage, suggesting we do it “for love if you can, it won’t last, but it is a very interesting experience and makes a good beginning in life. Later on, when you marry for money, for heaven’s sake let it be big money. There are no other possible reasons for marrying at all.”
At the end of ‘The Pursuit of Love’, we are made to believe that Linda has finally found “the one” but Mitford, ever sceptical, drops a bombshell in her final lines:
“Fabrice,” I said. “He was the great love of her life, you know.”
“Oh, dulling,” said my mother, sadly. “One always thinks that.
Every, every time.”
There’s a tendency to dismiss Mitford as a light, gossipy novelist but, personally, I’m a fan of witty, unsentimental women. Is Linda mad, delusional, or was she really in love all along? All I know for sure is that she’s dazzling on the page and, this year, the summer of 2021 promises sun.
More can be read about Ruth Rothaus Caston’s study, “Love as Illness: Poets and Philosophers on Romantic Love,” (2006) in The Classical Journal, vol. 101, no. 3.