Sunday, 18 January 2009
Bibliotherapy: What to read in an English January
We’re about to face the most depressing week of the year – at least according to a mathematical equation which calculates misery according to lack of daylight, mounting debt, failing resolutions, and fading Christmas cheer – and the traditional remedy for January blues (booking a summer holiday abroad) won’t be available to most of us, given the plummeting pound and dire job prospects. Which is why I am re-reading ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ for the umpteenth time, as a reminder of the delights of England.
The fact that Nancy Mitford was living in France when she wrote the novel (first published in 1949) might explain its evocativeness, born out of a powerful nostalgia for a place that is both imaginary, and also vividly real. For ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ is a hymn to Englishness; or as Philip Hensher observes of it, ‘Everyone returns, in the end, from Paris or India or Sicily to England, and everywhere else seems thin and inadequate besides the ecstatic vision of the land.’
There are those, of course, who will dismiss Mitford’s work as snobbish or unrealistic, or point out that her description of the privileged classes in a vanished era no longer has any contemporary relevance. But that argument could equally well be applied to Jane Austen, and life would be sadder without these most English of novelists. If Mitford takes her title from a line in George Orwell’s ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’ – ‘It is not easy to make love in a cold climate when you have no money’ – then her account of the struggle to find love, and in doing so upsetting the conventions of social order, is no less subversive. After all, Cedric Hampton, one of Mitford’s most memorable heroes, is a homosexual from Nova Scotia, who proves himself to be sufficiently lovable to thaw the disapproval of his new-found English relatives.
Hence Cedric forms the antidote to wintry discontent; and as Fanny, the novel’s narrator, declares at the outcome, ‘I thought the whole thing simply splendid, since I like my fellow-beings to be happy and the new state of affairs at Hampton had so greatly increased the sum of human happiness.’ Which is, perhaps, the only sum that truly matters, even as more bills thump through the letterbox this month.