Reading Nancy Mitford at Mitford Manor
It's a strange experience reading a book in its intended setting. I've been back at Asthall Manor, the fictional 'Alconleigh' where Nancy Mitford set her autobiographical novels the Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. I've been sleeping in a room she used as a child and looking at the paintings she decorated the walls with - now crumbling and fading behind perspex covers.
And I've been shown the 'Hons' cupboard' that occupies a central place in the books. Admission was granted only if you had the 'Hon' in front of your name ie, if your father was a Lord of something or other. Favourite people were sometimes made honorary Hons. The Mitfords were all Hons.
"The Hons' meeting place was a disused linen cupboard at the top of the house, small, dark and intensely hot . . . Here we would sit, huddled up on the slatted shelves and talk for hours about life and death." - and sex, as the younger girls interrogated their older siblings in the hope of acquiring forbidden knowledge. The Hons' meeting place is still an airing cupboard and the central heating pipes still run through it. Apparently the Mitford girls used to lie on the slatted shelves among the linen on cold days because it was the warmest room in the house.
The books are still very funny, (I re-read them both while I was there) but she probably wouldn't be allowed to get away with it now - basing the characters so firmly on her relatives and friends. They must have read the books with a shudder - Nancy's pen is merciless. My favourite character was always 'the Bolter', based on Lady Idina Sackville (a cousin of Vita Sackville-West) who was a member of the Happy Valley set and married and divorced 5 times at a period in history when once would have been scandalous enough. She also features in Evenly Waugh's Vile Bodies. Lady Idina's 3rd husband, the Earl of Errol, was murdered in a famous crime that inspired the film White Mischief. They had one daughter who was brought up by Idina's relatives and inspired the character of Fanny, the Bolter's daughter, who is the narrator in Nancy Mitford's novels.
Asthall Manor is very beautiful, though in a very comfortable, homey kind of way. Outside, the walls are drowned in climbing roses that drift petals and scent through the open windows. Inside , it's a family home with piles of books and saggy sofas. You're quite likely to come upon a cat in a basket! This is the wonderful Ziggy.
It's been a strange and wonderful week. On Tuesday I went to Carlisle Cathedral to listen to Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, Imtiaz Dharker and Gillian Clarke reading poetry. On Wednesday I got up at dawn and put on a posh frock to go down to London to go to a friend's Henley Regatta party. Then a train to Asthall Manor for another look at the On Form exhibition that features some of Neil's work. Finally home at the end of the week for the launch of Jacci Bulman's poetry collection 'The Whole Day Through from Waking', published by Cinnamon Press. All very celebratory and a good cheering up from all the doom and gloom around at the moment. Plus Wimbledon on the telly and virtual champagne and strawberries!