Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
published 1949 chapter 3 and chapter 8 events in the mid-1930s
[Two young women, Polly and narrator Fanny, at a country houseparty.] “It was all very dull – this coming-out seems a great great bore – do you enjoy it Fanny?”…
“What I do enjoy” I said truthfully, “is the dressing up.”
“Oh so do I! Do you think about dresses and hats all the time, even in church? I do too. Heavenly tweed, Fanny, I noticed it at once… Is this what you’re going to wear tonight?” Polly went up to the huge red four-poster where my dress was laid out. “How lovely – green velvet and silver, I call that a dream, so soft and delicious, too.” She rubbed a fold of the skirt against her cheek. “Mine’s silver lame, it smells like a bird cage when it gets hot but I do love it. Aren’t you thankful evening skirts are long again?”….
[Later, Polly’s mother is talking with her sister-in-law] “What can be the matter with Polly? So beautiful and no BA at all.” [Lady Montdore is famous for her malapropisms.] “SA” said Lady Patricia faintly “or BO.”
“When we were young none of that existed, thank goodness. SA and BO, perfect rubbish and bosh – one was a beauty or a jolie-laide and that was that. All the same, now that they have been invented I suppose it is better if the girls have them, their partners seem to like it, and Polly hasn’t a vestige, you can see that…”
This blog entry should be read in conjunction with yesterday’s – two women called Frances, at opposite ends of their lives, talking about clothes. Why is the beautiful Polly so bored with coming out? – there is a mystery tied up in her lovelife, which will play out like a Noel Coward Greek tragedy during this book. Polly will have a brief moment “radiating happiness… in a ball dress of last season” getting married, but it will not turn out well, and in the end she will settle for something less, and lose her looks.
Is it necessary to say that SA is sex appeal, BO is body odour? There is an odd connection with A Caribbean Mystery, this blog entry, where Miss Marple reflects on a female character: “not an atom of glamour…What was lacking in Esther had been called by so many names during Miss Marple’s span of existence. ‘Not really attractive to me’ ‘no SA’ ‘lacks come-hither in her eye.’… lacking that something that makes a man’s head turn when he passes a woman in the street.” (She is the woman who is too class-conscious to have an affair with a fellow-employee.)
Lady Montdore, Polly’s mother is (against considerable competition) probably NM’s finest creation: with her ‘worldly greed and snobbishness, her terrible relentless rudeness’ she easily outclasses and outranks The Dowager Lady Grantham, as played by Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey. In this book, Fanny, Polly and Lady Montdore travel home together after a wedding: “Lady Montdore was wonderful when it came to picking over an occasion of that sort, with her gimlet eye nothing escaped her, nor did any charitable inhibitions tone down her comments on what she had observed.” NM points out that people may disapprove and be shocked by such a carryon, but that it makes for lively company and great social events.
Photo of the Baroness de Guestre from the Library of Congress, featured on Flickr (and a dress that in a modern photo you would certainly identify as coming from Phase Eight.)