I read this book as part of the Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford, and perhaps it works better after reading “The Pursuit of Love”, “Love in a Cold Climate” and “The Blessing”. On the other hand, it is a funny, well written and memorable novel that I think would stand alone. A late book in the Mitford set, it was published in 1960 and reflects some of the confusions felt by the pre Second World War generation in the face of new pressures.
Fanny, narrator of the previous novels whose role in those books was not major, suddenly becomes centre stage as “On the day which was to be such a turning point in my life” she learns that Alfred, her safe, dependable husband, has been made British Ambassador to Paris. This completely unexpected appointment, as far as she is concerned, not unnaturally throws her into a panic. She lacks the clothes, the social background and generally a clue about what that means. Her son Basil, who she was trying to track down on that very day, has become a travel agent through the good offices of her mother’s latest husband, and her other son, David, has embraced new philosophy, a wife and a baby. The two younger boys are plotting at Eton, aided by the ambitious Sigismond, anti hero of “The Blessing”. All these boys will come to the Embassy at some point to add to the general mayhem of which Alfred is not to be told.
The confusion and panic of living life in a goldfish bowl of press and social interest is added to when the previous Ambassador’s wife continues to hold court in a part of the Embassy, confusing the picture as Fanny makes her first attempts at entertaining on a grand style. A gossip columnist for a newspaper becomes entrenched and the confusion really erupts with the arrival of Northey. This relative is supposed to be acting as a social secretary, but instead she becomes the object of attraction for French government ministers, visitors, and most other males who visit the Embassy. She also develops an unfortunate attachment to any animals, including badgers and live lobsters, who she deems in need of help. So there are situations which verge on the edge of diplomatic incidents as she rescues animals great and small and variously has them liberated or established in the grounds. She also has a delightful technique for borrowing against her wages which means that she dabbles in the stock exchange. There is also a riot, a tottering government and Uncle Matthew for Fanny to contend with, all to be kept from Alfred who (presumably) has higher concerns, including disputed islands which cause problems for all.
This is perhaps not the social satire which Mitford is best known for, nor does it have the melodrama and emotional impact of some of her other novels. It does feature many of the characters which stride through those books, even if toned down and domesticated. I enjoyed it as an amusing semi domestic tale of crisis and sort of resolution that could be translated to many lives, as impossible relatives and children reduce the most level headed person to semi despair. It all convinces me that this was Mitford having fun, not really trying to criticise or comment, but expressing her bafflement at a new world in which pop music has replaced politics, cocktail parties require military planning, and families in their extended form cannot be expected to behave rationally. A light read perhaps, but good fun and an enjoyable novel.