The Blessing by Nancy Mitford
[The early days of WW2, and Englishwoman Grace is about to marry a glamorous Frenchman, after a very short courtship]
Grace went out and bought a hat, and dressing for her wedding consisted in putting on this hat. As the occasion was so momentous she took a long time, trying it a little more to the right, to the left, to the back.
Nanny fussed about the room in a rustle of tissue paper.
‘Like this, Nan?’
‘Darling, you’re not looking, Or like this?’
‘I don’t see much difference.’ Deep sigh. ‘I can’t say this is the sort of wedding I’d hoped for.’
‘I know. It’s a shame, but there you are. The war…. Oh darling, this hat. It’s not quite right, is it?’
‘Never mind, dear, nobody’s going to look at you.’
‘On my wedding day?’
But when Charles-Edouard met them at the registry office he looked at her and said, ‘This hat is terrible, perhaps you’d better take it off.’
Grace did so with some relief, shook out her pretty golden hair, and gave the hat to Nanny, who, since it was made of flowers, looked rather like a small, cross, elderly bridesmaid clasping a bouquet.
commentary: In March 1951, after reading The Blessing in MS, pre-publication, Evelyn Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford:
The Blessing is admirable, deliciously funny, consistent and complete; by far the best of your writings; I do congratulate you with all my heart & thank you for the dedication.Anyone familiar with Waugh’s personal writings and letters will know what high praise this is, and how unusual – he never tried to be polite or tactful, and other works of hers got some very harsh words from him. So he must have loved this book.
This is mystifying.
Three of Nancy Mitford’s post-war books – The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, and Don’t Tell Alfred, all frequent flyers on the blog – are among my favourite novels of all time, and I have read them many times. The pre-war ‘comedies’ are fairly awful, and I usually file this one along with them – and rarely re-read. After reading a biography of Nancy (there’s a list of books about the Mitfords at the end of this blogpost) I gave it another go, and, yes, it is still a mess. There are some excellent scenes in it, some great conversations, and marvellous clothes. There are dinner parties and a ball. But all these good things are linked together with a ridiculous non-plot, and horrible and unbelievable characters. And – some really terrible sexual politics.
Grace, above, marries in a whirlwind: and then her aristocratic French husband disappears off to the war, leaving her pregnant. When he returns he carries her off to France, to spend time in a country chateau in Provence, and a fancy house in Paris. The child, Sigi, and his Nanny are two of the most tiresome characters you could imagine, and there are also swathes of ‘satirical’ discussions of America, France and the UK. Grace – as foretold from the brief scene above – is going to find out that France is superior to the UK in every way, and that she is uneducated and badly-dressed and has absurd expectations of marriage.
Eventually she walks in on her husband in bed with someone else and leaves him. The rest of the book concerns Sigi’s attempts to keep his parents apart (because of the possibilities of playing them off, and finding generous would-be step-parents) despite its being clear that they could still be happier together: this was probably more original on publication than it seems now. But – and this does beggar belief, even in 1951 – every single other character thinks Grace is stupid to have left him, and many of them believe she is very much in the wrong because she doesn’t understand Charles-Edouard’s way of life. All her friends, and her father, are impatient with her for being quite so puritanical: they give her a hard time and tell her she is a fool.
Unfortunately, this for me nibbles away at the enjoyment of the other scenes. But as a whole the book seems to lack plot and structure – it is a series of scenes each designed to show some point Mitford wants to make about life, morals, people. Such a pity.
The fortune-telling, the balldresses, the fancy dress party, the discussions of snobbery and the French upper classes – all these were very enjoyable. There is Madame Rocher who 'spread out the ten yards of her Dior skirt and settled herself comfortably with cushions.'
And what a great opportunity to show some fashions of the right time – Grace has to get some cotton summer dresses in Provence, and later goes in to mourning. The coloured fashion pics are from a French magazine called Le Petit Echo de la Mode – a marvellous resource which long-time blog supporter and friend JS recently introduced to me.
The black and white photos are from Kristine’s photostream. Top one is a 1940 ensemble.
The other is a tulle Dior balldress, photographed in the Paris Opera House, 1948.