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  • The Fate Of The Modern Mistress: Nancy Mitford And The Comedy Of Marriage

In Nancy Mitford’s two novels about the comedies of Eros, The Pursuit of Love (1945) and its sequel Love in a Cold Climate (1949), marriage has no necessary relation to love. Both novels represent marriage as a convenient means of uniting business interests or consolidating bloodlines but not as a suitable means of accommodating desire. One’s spouse need not be one’s erotic partner, as Polly Hampton in Love in a Cold Climate discovers after her disappointing marriage to Boy Dougdale. As the novel ends, Polly remains married to Boy and takes a lover. Mitford, an avowed admirer of all things French, models extramarital affairs like Polly’s on prototypes in eighteenth-century French history and literature. She wrote lighthearted biographies of Madame de Pompadour (mistress of Louis XV) and Madame du Châtelet (mistress of Voltaire) as learned women who make Eros compatible with disillusioned savoir faire. Mitford’s comic representation of mistresses belongs to the French novelistic tradition, insofar as the role of the mistress is not morally censured and insofar as the role combines intellect, humor, autonomy, and pleasure. By contrast, English novels condemn women who seek erotic fulfillment outside marriage. Most English mistresses are called “adulteresses” and are made to suffer remorse without pleasure, or judgment without recourse, because they flout marital bonds. [End Page 340] A mistress commits adultery, yet is not flabbergasted by the moral consequences of the action. Refiguring the tradition of mistresses for modernist tastes and representational possibilities, Mitford offers a distinctive version of women’s comedy based on the premise that Eros, to sustain itself, requires an endless deferral of commitment and the illusion of attachment.

The tradition of representing mistresses often concludes with their censure or their demise: Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Tess Durbeyfield. Certain modernist texts generated scandal when the offending mistress was not punished, as in Grant Allen’s The Woman Who Did, or D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or James Joyce’s Ulysses. In these and other instances, modern fiction records a barrage of challenges to the representational practices that make adultery and mistresses untenable. Within this general modernist reconfiguration of erotic desire outside of marriage, Mitford’s fiction raises an additional question of class prerogatives. Her upper-class characters take lovers nonchalantly, almost as a gesture of defiance toward the bourgeois tradition of censuring mistresses. The refusal to treat mistresses as objects of derision suggests that Eros cannot be circumscribed by conventional, marital arrangements, or even by heterosexual norms.

Mitford’s fictional method is frankly biographical. The four novels she published before World War II are romans à clef designed to amuse and tease readers who would recognize themselves and others in her narratives. Each novel—Highland Fling (1931), Christmas Pudding (1932), Wigs on the Green (1935) and Pigeon Pie (1940)—contains portraits of family members or friends. After the war, Mitford’s method turned autobiographical. Married to an Englishman who refused to grant her a divorce, Mitford was the mistress of French politician Gaston Palewski. Mitford met Palewski in 1942 when he was fighting as a colonel with the Free French in London. She works and reworks her personal circumstances in a series of English-French liaisons in her postwar novels. In three of these works, she uses first-person narrative instead of third-person (characteristic of all the prewar books), and makes her narrator the goofy, hapless Fanny who pokes fun at her own shortcomings. In the two Love novels, as well as The Blessing (1951) and Don’t Tell Alfred (1960), Mitford continues to model characters on family members, and supplements them with characters based on herself. 1 As narrator, Fanny does not judge the shenanigans of lovelorn women [End Page 341] according to prescribed marital duties or compare them to her own domestic happiness as she tells the tales of two women who become mistresses as a means of capturing love: Linda in The Pursuit of Love and Polly in Love in a Cold Climate. Instead of promoting her marriage as a model, Fanny exposes the contradictions between marriage and happiness for...

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