IN PURSUIT OF THE PURSUIT OF LOVE
The 2020s have arrived, bringing sensational headlines on the state of the global economy that anticipate “another Roaring Twenties” or condemn the comparison as “absurd.” What these headlines miss, and often obscure, is the reality of political turmoil and economic hardship endured by most people in the United States and United Kingdom while rich socialites partied in the 1920s and 1930s. This problematic narrative approach has a long history, as is demonstrated by comparing the historical and contemporary contexts of the new three-part miniseries, The Pursuit of Love. Despite the perpetually widening wealth gap, the demand for this kind of entertainment — the sort which glamorizes the wealthy and obscures political realities — shows no sign of slowing.
Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel, The Pursuit of Love, has already been adapted twice in the past half century (in 1980 and 2001), with this third version being written and directed by Emily Mortimer. The miniseries follows the aristocratic Radlett family through their ridiculous, glamorous, and quotidian lives from 1927 to 1941, centering the second daughter Linda (played by Lily James of Downton Abbey fame) in her obsessive quest to find true love. Each episode sees the rise of a new lover: a British aristocrat of German extraction (who hastily becomes Linda’s husband — much to the chagrin of her father, for whom the memory of World War I lingers); a communist revolutionary assisting Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War; and, finally, a leader of the French resistance in World War II. The miniseries (like the novel) is narrated by Linda’s cousin Fanny Logan — played by Emily Beecham from Hail, Caesar! Fanny is a stand-in for the audience, often remarking with bemusement on the eccentricities of the Radletts. For example, Fanny finds her Uncle Matthew’s habit of starting each day with the cracking of whips ridiculous, though his wife and children appear to find such behavior unremarkable.
If socialites like the Radletts and the Mitfords are so vapid, why do they persist in American and British entertainment?
Mitford frequently drew inspiration from her family when writing her books, and The Pursuit of Love was no exception. In the novel’s foreword, the author’s sister Jessica Mitford remarked that upon their father’s death in 1958, the obituary writer in The Times seemed to describe the character of Uncle Matthew (Dominic West) rather than the real Lord Redesdale. Likewise, Lord Merlin (Fleabag’s “Hot Priest,” Andrew Scott) is a more modish version of the Mitfords’ neighbor, Lord Berners. Linda Radlett’s inspiration, however, is not as clear-cut; she appears to be a pastiche of the Mitford sisters. One of Linda’s clearest points of overlap with Nancy Mitford is her love of a French military hero; the novel was dedicated to Gaston Palewski (fictionized as Fabrice de Sauveterre and played by Assaad Bouab), with whom Nancy had a decades-long affair from World War II until her death in 1973.
The ridiculousness of the Radletts and their peers is combined with a kind of hollowness. Lord Merlin dyes his pigeons lurid colors for amusement and dances the nights away, but seems to do so joylessly. Likewise, when Linda finds herself out of her depth in assisting Spanish refugees near the Pyrenees, she blithely remarks, “Goodness! Everyone’s got so serious all of a sudden,” to which her second husband Christian Talbot (James Frecheville) responds, “Well, the world’s gotten rather serious all of a sudden.” If socialites like the Radletts and the Mitfords are so vapid, why do they persist in American and British entertainment? Moreover, will Pursuit be readapted in another 20 years? (Undoubtedly, since the novel will reach its centenary in 2045.) Although Mitford’s novel has received limited critical analysis due to its categorization as a guilty pleasure rather than serious literature, it conveys something important about historical and contemporary cultural tastes. The Pursuit of Love reveals the heady ideological mix of 1930s Britain: the affection for Hitler, the support of leftist revolutionary causes, and the total antipathy to either political position. It provided (and still provides) an unvarnished glimpse of the messiness and intensity of upper-class life, mirroring depictions of wealth in the contemporary press. Today, it also illustrates historical functions of privilege and highlights current understandings of celebrity.
The novel and its adaptations belong to a broader corpus of Bright Young People fiction, which includes Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930) and its 2003 film adaptation Bright Young Things by Stephen Fry, as well as works by Noël Coward, Harold Acton, Henry Green, and Anthony Powell. Beginning in 1924, the Bright Young People — a loosely knit group of largely upper-class individuals — captivated the newspaper reading public with accounts of their fantastic parties, while simultaneously attracting condemnation from fellow aristocrats for damaging their already declining reputation. Famous for being famous (though some like Mitford and Waugh had literary ambitions), the Bright Young People’s appearance in the interwar gossip column presented a stark contrast to the dour political and economic realities of the time. For instance, Mitford complained via letter to travel writer Robert Byron in September 1931, “My allowance (already nearly non existent) is being cut down to about half as far as I can make out. Apparently while I was sunbathing on the Côte d’Azur there was a crisis in the old country. It is all too drab for words.” The unnamed crisis in her obtuse letter was likely Britain’s abandonment of the gold standard. Far from being a long weekend, the interwar years in Britain saw labor unrest, depression, and political uncertainty. Yet gossip writers, novelists, and playwrights — often from the ranks of the Bright Young People themselves — continued to churn out stories of upper-class excess even as the shadow of another Continental war loomed.
Lacking the irreverent humor of the television show Dickinson or the seriousness of a period drama, The Pursuit of Love doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. This reflects the novel itself: so deeply comic and fundamentally tragic, it is difficult to characterize clearly.
In the second episode of the miniseries, Linda dances the night away to Bryan Ferry’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” as the flash of the camera moves viewers ever forward in time. There’s a repetitiveness and an emptiness to it all, perhaps best described by Elisa Gabbert in her article on classic party fiction: “Parties, like genes, exist to self-replicate. This partly explains why they all look the same. In Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, Brenda is pleased with a party because it is ‘exactly what she wished it to be, an accurate replica of all the best parties she had been to in the last year; the same band, the same supper and, above all, the same guests.’” Fanny similarly narrates in the same episode, “At the cinema, theatre, opera, ballet, dinner, supper, nightclubs, parties, dances, all day, all night, endless, endless chat.” When party going becomes that habitual, one wonders if the guests are even enjoying themselves. Yet while the exuberant movement from one party to the next is ultimately unsatisfying for Linda, it is perhaps more appealing than ever to modern viewers after more than a year of COVID-19 induced isolation.
The Pursuit of Love will be enjoyable watching for audiences interested in the lives of elites, but it does differ from conventions of the genre. Mitford does not provide Whartonesque morality — Linda Radlett is no Lily Bart, and seems not to fear a damaged reputation even after two failed marriages and a relationship with a known lothario. Likewise, the Radletts are not the Crawleys of Downton Abbey, whose commitment to noblesse oblige creates an almost hagiographic, deeply nostalgic, and thus somewhat warped, portrayal of aristocratic life. Where Mortimer’s The Pursuit of Love excels, in contrast to many other representations of highborn women, is in pulling back the curtain and revealing an unpolished look at the sheer absurdity of the leisure class. Yet as a result, the miniseries is tonally confused — lacking the irreverent humor of the television show Dickinson or the seriousness of a period drama, The Pursuit of Love doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. This reflects the novel itself: so deeply comic and fundamentally tragic, it is difficult to characterize clearly.
The same ambiguity appears in historical publications that referenced the Bright Young People almost weekly during the late 1920s. Columns written by the members themselves — for example, Patrick Balfour and Tom Driberg — happily report on elaborate theme parties, although fellow elites thought their gauche behavior might inspire critique from below and thereby spread socialism in Britain. Despite (or perhaps due to) this moralizing, the Bright Young People remained press fixtures long after the group ceased to exist in any meaningful way. And the same critiques persist even to this day. A recent opinion piece by Guy Walters on Mail Plus, a digital arm of the Daily Mail — ironically, the publication wherein the Bright Young People debuted — railed against lingering “Mitfordmania” and dismissed the Mitfords themselves as “cruel, boring and fascist.”
Now, as in Mitford’s time, there is no shortage of media coverage about the idle rich and consequent critiques of their lifestyle. A 2012 piece in The Atlantic discussed how the aftereffects of the 2008 recession killed Gossip Girl, a show described by some contemporary critics as “mind-blowingly inappropriate,” “a nasty piece of work,” and “every parent’s nightmare,” echoing 1920s anxieties about youthful indiscretions. Yet despite further economic downturn in the intervening years, the series has been rebooted for HBO Max. The continued demand for such entertainment demonstrates audiences’ lingering love for gaining access to worlds unknown, where privilege and prestige reign supreme. Today’s Bright Young People, the Kardashians, appeared on their television show from 2007–2021 in a 20-season run, likewise filling blogs and tabloid pages with hollowness and repetition. (Although the Kardashians are seemingly more aware of their self-constructed image than the Bright Young People were in their time.)
Was this adaptation of The Pursuit of Love necessary? Almost certainly not. While reviewing last year’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, also starring Lily James, Rachel Syme highlights the tediousness of such projects: “They really do think we’ll watch anything. And perhaps, in the end, they are right.” This genre is, confoundingly, as enjoyable as it is problematic and inevitable. Therefore, since a resurgence of Bright Young People fiction will surely materialize as the 2020s progress, viewers must consume it more carefully. As a few modern headlines emphasize, far from merely “roaring” with jazz and parties, the 1920s and 1930s saw a series of crises that culminated in another global conflict. The Pursuit of Love is perhaps more attuned to this than other fiction in the genre, with the Spanish Civil War and the Blitz looming over Linda’s life. However, it is important to remember that amidst the endless parties and frivolity, something darker is always simmering below the gilded surface.
The Pursuit of Love is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
THOMAS J. SOJKA
Thomas J. Sojka (@tomsojka) is a PhD candidate in history at Boston University, where he researches elite sociability, party going, and gossip in interwar Britain.