by James Wallace Harris, 9/27/21
My friends Mike and Betsy recommended a new TV series on Amazon Prime, The Pursuit of Love, so I gave it a try. This essay chronicles where their casual recommendation has led me.
As I watched the show on Amazon Prime I was reasonably entertained but disturbed by certain details. For a period piece set the 1920s – 1940s it felt over the top. I doubted people really looked and acted like they did in the show. The sense of a revisionist history was further enhanced by the soundtrack that used contemporary music. I called Mike to chat about my impressions, and he agreed. I knew nothing about the novel the show was based on. We both thought the past couldn’t have been much like that, but didn’t know for sure. Of course, we knew it was a rom-com drama and wasn’t meant to be a history lesson, but it kept sideswiping bits of real history, and that was intriguing.
I decided to research its historical accuracy and discovered that the TV show was based on a trilogy of novels written by Nancy Mitford. They were based on her family, and it was then I discovered she was part of a famous group of six sisters. I remembered reading a review of a book called The Sisters by Mary S. Lovell years ago. I read the review because I liked the book’s cover but details within the review put me off. Two of the sisters had been friends with Adolph Hitler, and several family members had supported Hitler, and one daughter married the hated Oswald Mosley, leader of the English fascists. They just didn’t seem to be nice people to read about. The sisters had become notorious, an embarrassment to their parents, hounded by press, which made them sound like depression era Kardashians. Not something for me.
Still, the television show intrigued me. Was it an accurate portrayal of people in England at the time? Or was it a modern interpretation of how 21st-century screenwriters wanted to glamourize that history. I ordered a copy of The Sisters to find out. I figured the biography would tell me. I also discovered there had been two previous television productions of the story, based on: The Pursuit of Love (1945), Love in a Cold Climate (1949). There was a third book in the series, Don’t Tell Alfred (1960). By the way, I think all three TV productions focus on the first book despite two of them using the title from the second book, but the 1980 series goes into the second book.
My assumption that I’d hate The Sisters from reading the review was completely wrong. The family’s biography turned out to be immensely readable and fascinating. All I can say if if you love Downton Abby, there’s a good chance you’ll love this book. I’ve always been partial to biographies, and this one is a good one. A good biography makes you feel like you’re getting to know someone, and in this book, you get close to nine people (mother, father, son, and six daughters).
I learned that Nancy Mitford had lived a real life version of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s she fictionalized in The Pursuit of Love. I then wondered if the 1980 miniseries, Love in the Cold Climate, that had been on Masterpiece Theater was a more realistic portrayal to the times? I went looking for it but found it’s not available to stream or buy. I did find a used DVD copy to order, but when it arrived it was a Region 2 disc. Luckily, I remembered had an extra DVD player that was region free. (This version is available on YouTube.)
About this time my friend Anne dropped by and saw the biography. She got excited and said she remembered seeing a show on Masterpiece Theater a long time ago based on the Mitford sisters. I pulled out the DVD, “This one?” “Yes, that’s it!” She got even more excited and we decided to watch it together. This version gives Judi Dench star billing as the mother but she doesn’t get much air time. The only other actor I knew was Anthony Head, and his wasn’t a major part either. I did like this version, and I think I’ll rewatch the 2021 version. The main thing about the 1980 version, was the actors, costumes, and sets looked more realistic to how I picture the 1920s – 1940s. The performances were much more subtle, and being eight parts rather than three, included a lot more of the details and dialog from the novels.
By then I was reading the novel, and had encountered some of the family anecdotes four different ways. This was rather revealing about basing fiction on real life events. For example, Nancy tells in her novel how her father liked to hunt his children on horseback with fox hounds. The novel version is a gussy-up memory, but the two television versions sensationalizes the story. When I read the biography Lovell suggests it was probably one old hound one time with a couple of the daughters. And Jessica Mitford also wrote a book about the same family stories of growing up with her sisters, Hons and Rebels, and gives a different view, but I haven’t read it yet. Nancy later on felt Jessica’s memory had been distorted by her book, and that led to squabbles between them. However, all six girls were always squabbling, and all six became very successful in their own ways.
There is another adaptation of Love in the Cold Climate from 2001 what I want to watch, but I’ll have to subscribe to BritBox to watch it. It’s another 3-part version. I’m curious how they present the time period too.
The Sisters was full of history. The Mitford girls were related to Churchill and connected by marriage to the Kennedys, two of them were pals with Hitler, one connected to de Gaulle, and one had connections with the Roosevelts. They all knew many famous writers and became bestselling authors themselves. They were part of the Bright Young Things set. And if you’re into that kind of thing, they hobnobbed with fellow aristocrats, royalty, while growing up in manor houses, hunting foxes, attending coming out balls, following the season, and doing all those things we saw in Downton Abby. Various sisters lived in London during the Blitz and V-2 bombings, Spain during the revolution, Germany during the rise of the Nazis, and France before and after the war. One sister had to go before the House of Un-American Activities, while another was jailed during the WWII for being married to Oswald Mosley.
Here is a nice animated video that quickly covers the history of the Mitford sisters:
Because of all this history, and wanting to know more about the writers they knew, I ordered two more books to read.
This history fills in a time period after the Bloomsbury group that I learned about as an English major and before The Beatles who made England interesting back in the 1960s when I was growing up.
I fell into this black hole of literary history in the same way I fell into reading a zillion books about The Beats and Jack Kerouac, or all the books I’ve read about the Transcendentalists, or the Lost Generation, or the Impressionists, or certain crowds of science fiction writers. I love how an art movement brings people together.