Monday, January 20, 2014

A mixed blessing

The Blessing, Nancy Mitford

I was lucky enough to find a first edition of this some years ago - still with its original Cecil Beaton-designed cover - on the "Old & Interesting" shelves at Half Price Books.  Why did it take me so long to read it?  Partly I think because it's a story of an Englishwoman who marries a Frenchman in the midst of World War II, bears him a son, and then goes to live with him in France, where complications ensure.  And I was remembering the story of Linda, in The Pursuit of Love, who meets a Frenchman and bears him a son in the midst of World War II, but doesn't get to live in Paris afterwards; and of course Nancy Mitford's long relationship in Paris with her "Colonel," Gaston Palewski, which feels such a sad one in the end.  But this is a very different story, and now that I've finally read it, it's my new favorite Mitford book.

This is the story of Grace Allingham, who one day receives an impetuous and demanding visitor, a "tall, dark and elegant" officer in the French Air Force.  He is just back from the Middle East, where he met Grace's fiancé Hughie Palgrave.  On the spot he invites her out to dinner, and she accepts without even knowing his name, which she learns later is Charles-Edouard de Valhubert. A month later they are married, in a registry office.  Charles-Edouard goes back to the war, leaving Grace at her father's country place, where she soon learns she is pregnant.  After the birth of the baby, a black-eyed child named Sigismond, the "blessing" of the title, she spends the next seven years in the country, seeing Charles-Edouard only once in all that time.  Then he telephones one day to say he is England, comes down to Bunbury, and announces that they are all going to France the next day.

All this takes place in the first three chapters.  Much of the rest of the book is the story of Grace's adjustment to France, first at the family's country estate in Provence, and then later in Paris, where things become more difficult.  Grace also has to adjust to a different kind of marriage than she expected, one with a husband who, while he loves her, cannot sustain life with just one woman.  Though she honestly believed herself to be free from jealousy, she quickly has that belief tested and tried, under the scrutiny of Parisian society.  Sigismond comes to realize the advantages that fall to the child of divided parents, and in a rather cold-blooded campaign, this little boy of seven does everything he can to keep his parents apart.  At one point, while Grace and Sigi are staying in England, Hughie takes them to visit his nephew at Eton, with an eye to pulling some strings to get Sigi a place.  It is described as a cold dank Dickensian place with iron bedsteads and short rations, and by the end I was hoping that "the blessing" would be sent there for a good long term.

I feel the same kind of difficulty in talking about Nancy Mitford's books as I do P.G. Wodehouse's or Elizabeth von Arnim's.  The plot is the least of their stories, but it's almost impossible to capture the charm of them, so I fall back on details of plot and character. 

I noticed at least two "Mitfordisms" in the book that delighted me.  At one point, Grace asks her old Nanny, now caring for Sigi, "Do you admit," a phrase that pops up constantly in the letters between the Mitford sisters (the editor, Charlotte Mosley, says that "Deborah was instigator of the frequent plea...").  There is also a mention of Heywood Hill's bookshop in London, where Nancy worked during the war.  Alex at Thinking in Fragments recently reviewed The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street, a book of the letters between Nancy and Heywood Hill, and I was lucky enough to come across a copy (also at Half Price Books).  I'm also guessing that the Allinghams' country estate is named for Oscar Wilde's Bunbury.  He is the great hero of Linda and Fanny in The Pursuit of Love, after all, though Uncle Matthew considers him such a sewer.

I still have Don't Tell Alfred on the TBR stacks, so I can look forward to another trip to Paris with Nancy Mitford.


  1. I love the idea of an 'old and interesting' shelf! I think I have some of those...

  2. Audrey, that's practically the theme of my blog - and a few others I know :)

  3. I never look at the Old & Interesting shelves when I go to HPB - I need to start!
    I read half of The Pursuit of Love a few years ago and then lost the book during my move. I have since found it and want to finish it. That Uncle Matthew!
    I can't imagine my husband showing up after seven years of not seeing him and then moving away with him. I would think it would be very awkward.

  4. I read "Don't Tell Alfred" last year for my TBR Pile challenge, but I didn't realize that "The Blessing" came in between that and the first two books. I liked it but it was a little confusing since I inadvertently skipped a volume. I loved the first Mitford books so I really want to get to this one -- I also have Wigs on the Green and Hons and Rebels, plus the biography of the sisters. Need to get to work on my Mitford books!

  5. Anbolyn, I almost always find something in that section - at least in the better HPB (I have the Houston-area ones ranked). I would not want to live in the same neighborhood as Uncle Matthew, let alone the same house, but he cracks me up to read about!

    Karen, this isn't part of the books about Fanny & the Radletts. I have a section of the TBR stacks for the Mitfords - a book by Deborah Devonshire, and her letters with Patrick Leigh Fermor, as well as a couple of Nancy's books. They are so fascinating!

  6. I don't know how to talk about 'charm' - I'm a 'oh you'll have to believe me... gush gush' type. You've done far better at explaining *why*! I haven't read this one, though I have read Don't Tell Alfred, which I am hoping to relive with the real cast as I work my way through the Duff Cooper Diaries. Apparently Mitford's portrayal of Diana Cooper as the former ambassadress is both spot on and rather wicked.

  7. vicki, I was looking at my copy of Alfred last night, and the introduction mentions Diana Cooper, and also a gossip columnist who threatened a slander suit over his portrayal. I hadn't realized the Valhuberts are in that book - which makes sense, giving the setting. I'm looking forward to meeting them again as well!

  8. I have a copy of the sisters letters sitting on my nightstand just waiting for me to finish the bedtime reading I'm in the middle of at the moment, Lisa. I will look out for you 'mitfordisms'.

  9. I wish we had Half Price Books around here - the very ideal of an old & interesting shelf is so appealing. Have yet to read Nancy Mitford, but The Pursuit of Love and Love in Cold Climate are on my shelves.

  10. Alex, I had my copy of the shelf yesterday to check a couple of things, and ended up reading pages of it - and the same thing happened just now. It could be dangerous for night-time reading!

    JoAnn, you never know what's going to turn up on those shelves! I still regret leaving the 1905 Baedeker guide to Paris on the shelves. You've got the best introduction to Nancy Mitford on your shelves, I think.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!