Years ago, I read my mother's library copies of One Pair of Hands and One Pair of Feet, as well as her Follyfoot series as a horse-mad child, but I'd never read any of her novels for adults until now. Harriet Lane's introduction to the Persephone edition places this book alongside other iconic novels of young womanhood like I Capture the Castle and The Pursuit of Love, and thematically there are certainly similarities. In the opening chapter, our heroine Mary, during a stormy night in World War II, hears that her husband's ship has been sunk. The phone line to her isolated Essex cottage has blown down and any telegram will have been sent to her London home. While she waits out the hours before she can find out whether her husband is dead or alive, she thinks back over her life to date.
Mary has been brought up by her mother, her father having died in the first war when she was a baby, and her mother's brother, Uncle Geoffrey, a jobbing actor specialising in "silly-ass" parts. They live in a flat in London's Olympia, but Mary loves best her long holidays at Charbury, the Somerset home of her paternal grandparents, where she can lead a country childhood, riding, hunting, and staging mock hangings in the playhouse with her young cousins. One cousin, the handsome Denys, will be Mary's first love, until he scuppers his chances by getting off with a blonde at his college ball. Mary is uninterested in education or a career, telling her mother that schoolwork is pointless because she just wants to get married and have twenty-six children, their names going right through the alphabet. However, she is forced through a good school, has a short-lived flirtation with drama school, before being sent to Paris to learn dress design. In Paris, she acquires some sophistication and a glamorous French fiancé. Will Mary make a good wife to an upper-class Frenchman, or will her love of England prove disruptive to Pierre's plans?
One of the things this book has in common with I Capture the Castle is its profound expression of love for England, particularly the English countryside, which is imbued with a beauty and authenticity that cannot be achieved by London smartness or Parisian elegance. I wondered if it had been written in exile as Dodie Smith's book was, but it seems not - except to the extent that anyone in wartime Britain was in exile from the country they once knew. It is the episodes at Carbury that no doubt prompt comparisons with The Pursuit of Love, but Mitford's children are tougher,more heartless and much funnier than Mary and her cousins.Hannah Stoneham's review draws out the similarities between Mary's growing love for Denys, and Cassandra's romantic awakening. But Mary is, to me, less interesting than Cassandra, more ordinary and rather aimless, although I don't doubt that she is extremely representative of some girls of her period. I was more interested in her mother, a sparky, energetic woman who makes a career for herself and maintains an independent life when she could probably have lived off her in-laws; in Uncle Geoff's slightly seedy theatrical world which blossoms into unexpected success; and in her ghastly maternal grandmother, self-dramatising, critical and repellent. I agree with Hannah Stoneham that Mary is most interesting in her worst moments, asserting her sense of entitlement, disrupting a drama school examination, moping about with jealousy when Denys takes a friend out shooting; she acquires a bit of drive and vigour at these times, even if - or perhaps because - she is being irritating.
As the introduction warns, there is some outrageous snobbishness on display in the novel, and some very ouchy anti-Semitism, probably entirely typical and realistic, but it's as well to brace yourself. One of the things I found slightly odd about the narrative is that Mary's memories are not presented as such; there is no reflection from the older, married Mary on her younger self as we see her move between Charbury, school, London and Paris, or any sense that these stories are being remembered by her rather than told to us by Monica Dickens, and only the chapters that bracket the novel remind us that times have moved on. This book is definitely comfort reading, a "hot-water bottle book" as Harriet Lane has it, but I'm not sure it would keep the chill out for me as effectively as some of its literary peers do.