In some ways, Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love ought not to be as beloved by readers as it is. Its mise-en-scène is so antithetical to the experiences of those growing up today that it should be utterly alienating. And yet it is not. Its wit, its romance and its poignancy still have enormous power. This last aspect – the gentle melancholia that mists the novel – is somewhat stripped away by the recently screened BBC TV adaptation, the arch, stylised aesthetic of which places an ironic distance between the action and the viewer.
But for all the apparent silliness of The Pursuit of Love, it is a serious novel, whose subject is, above all, Englishness. True, this Englishness is a monument to past ideals. It is also an Englishness that is oblivious to any notion of cultural or political distinctiveness in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland; like other writers of the time, not least George Orwell, Mitford appears to have collapsed British identity into an idea of England in a way that would be unacceptable today.
The Englishness of The Pursuit of Love is embedded in the landscape; in, specifically, the ideal of the great country house that shelters and protects everyone from Josh the groom to the feudal patriarch Uncle Matthew, a man whose absurd sense of national superiority is most succinctly expressed in his asseveration that “abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends”. But there’s another sort of Englishness in The Pursuit of Love too – one that acts as a counterweight to Uncle Matthew’s chauvinism: that of Lord Merlin, who lives on the neighbouring estate. Merlin travels to Rome for months at a time, puts on Cocteau plays in his garden, and admires the work of Brecht and Weill. Uncle Matthew loathes Merlin, but at the same time unquestioningly accepts him as his equal. Class-bound it may be, but Mitford’s Englishness has room for art and cosmopolitanism.
Ideas of Englishness are, of course, in constant flux. It is intriguing that one of the most powerful recent statements of a modern Englishness has come, this week, from the England football team manager, Gareth Southgate, in an open letter ahead of the Euros. His personal sense of Englishness, he writes, is embedded in his memories of his grandfather, who served in the second world war; of events such as the Queen’s silver jubilee; and, of course, of football matches.
So far, so traditional – no quarrels with Uncle Matthew. But Southgate’s letter also upholds an ideal of Englishness that is more progressive, one that he perceives within the contribution made by the nation to “the arts, science and sport” (in that order); one that aspires to kindness and respect, and is committed to standing against racial injustice. Southgate understands that tournaments such as the Euros are about the creation of special moments and memories – but they are also occasions on which the behaviour of players and fans alike is especially exposed, when choices about actions really matter. The nation of England could do worse than listen to his humane and sensible words.