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Although from different backgrounds, both socially and professionally, the stylistic approach of Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Jane Howard (known as Jane), and Lucia Berlin were markedly similar. Everything they had gone through in their lives – their difficult upbringings, relationships with their family and friends, and love affairs – were woven into the text of their stories, for better or worse. As an admirer of all three women, I find the clues within their fiction canon an intriguing puzzle. Interestingly, only Jane wrote an autobiography (titled Slipstream), whereas Nancy threatened to write her memoirs but never got around to it, and Lucia made a start but never completed hers. Perhaps the early deaths of both Nancy and Lucia, in 1973 and 2004 respectively, brought their factual writing to a halt. Using one’s peers and experiences to craft fiction is nothing new, but the aforementioned women did it with such authenticity that the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred.
It was with her fifth novel, The Pursuit of Love, published in 1945 that Nancy unashamedly used her sisters and parents personalities, as well as their experiences, in her work. Each character is a mishmash of their collective lives; from their initiation into secret societies (the Hons’ Cupboard), love affairs, and to the dialogue they spoke, it had all happened in real life. And so, as a Mitford enthusiast, this gives Nancy’s work a feeling of de ja vu. This, we are aware of because of the extensive publications detailing the Mitfords letters; from nursery teases to political leanings, she collected each nugget and put it into her books. Her earlier work – written in haste to supplement her pithy allowance borrowed fragments from her misadventures with the Bright Young Things – lacks a venomous bite. The pathos of a young woman of 18 coming out in society, hoping to find a husband to not only elevate her rank in society but unburden her parents, is heartbreaking when dissected. Love did not come into the equation, and Nancy often chased the four lettered word with little success.
The sequel, Love in a Cold Climate, had darker undertones and seemed to express more of Nancy’s own personal woes than those of her sisters, but in essence they are present in the text. Her wartime affair with a Free French Officer, riddled with tuberculous, saw Nancy become pregnant while her husband was fighting overseas. The child, who was very much wanted by Nancy – she had had several miscarriages throughout her unsuccessful marriage – resulted in an ectopic pregnancy, the consequence of which meant a hysterectomy. This, she never really got over and when Debo, the youngest and sweetest sister, gave birth to a baby which died shortly after, Nancy compared the death of a child to the loss of a manuscript. The remark, though callous, foregrounds the importance of her work. In the end, when lovers had strung her along and then left her, and her husband squandered her earnings and then divorced her, her writing was all she had to give her a sense of purpose. Concluding Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy has Linda die in childbirth, having conceived a child with her French lover. As we know from reading both books, Linda had married a rich descendant of a German family, bore a daughter whom she disliked, and left him for a Communist sympathiser. Shades of Diana, though it was a fascist for whom she left her husband Bryan Guinness. Communism was perhaps a nod to sister Decca. But the tragic ending, a combination of both reality and fiction, could explain how Nancy felt after losing her chance to have children, and the fate which she felt Diana deserved. ‘Nancy is a very curious character,’ her mother, Lady Redesdale, had once said. As a compulsive Mitford reader, I am grateful for her idiosyncrasies.
However, during the pursuit of their writing career, all three women had, at one point in their lives, worked in the literary field. During the war, Nancy worked at Heywood Hill, a smart bookshop on Curzon Street in Mayfair; Jane reviewed books for Queen magazine; and Lucia accepted the post of visiting teacher and then associate professor at the University of Colorado – her creative writing workshops were especially popular with students. Any serious writer who is good at what they do will lament the reading of books as the secret to their success, and their bookish professions must have enriched their work. Their work appeared in periodicals before it made it to book form, with Nancy writing for The Lady and Vogue, Jane working for the Daily Express, and Lucia’s early short stories appearing in The Atlantic and The Noble Savage.
In comparison to the American Lucia, Nancy and Jane were the products of their social classes. Nancy was born into an aristocratic family but with financial difficulties, and Jane was born into an upper-middle-class family whose fortune was derived from a successful timber business. Both used the backgrounds of their parents and forebears in their books. Nancy drew on her parents ‘muv and farve’ for her portrayal of Aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate – the mother vague and disinterested in her children but enthralled with domesticity, and the father a philistine character with narrow interests and an equally small mind. Jane, too, crafted an exact portrait of her parents, in the form of Villy and Edward, in her hugely successful Cazalet series – her own mother, as in the series of books, was a former ballerina who struggled with ‘the horrid side to married life’ and showed little interest in Jane but adored her sons; and her father, as in the character of Edward, lavished praise on to his daughter and, in her mid teens, began to abuse her. Although detailed in Slipstream, Jane had already exorcised those childhood demons in the Cazalets, and she cast herself as Louise, the daughter of Edward and Villy. Both Nancy and Jane’s settings took place in large country houses in the English countryside, surrounded by various cousins, aunts and uncles, and siblings where a healthy dose of rivalry existed. Nannies and governesses make an appearance, as do maids and cooks, and chauffeurs. And although competent and successful writers, Nancy and Jane were acutely aware of their lack of education and all their lives they endeavoured to make up for this.
Lucia, however, was perhaps the most complex of the women and her writing reflects this. Hers was a myriad of themes and settings, with down and out addicts roaming the streets, to debutantes waltzing in the sultry heat of Chile. Perhaps it was her American birth, or perhaps it was unique to her family life, that allowed her to move through several rungs of the social ladder with ease and, despite being well educated and working in ordinary professions during her literary career, it is difficult to categorise her. Whereas Nancy and Jane’s complexities lay within their emotional range, Lucia’s were physical and they were displayed with startling honestly. Born in Alaska in 1936, her father worked as a mining engineer and her mother began to drink heavily shortly after her birth. Alcoholism haunted the maternal side of Lucia’s family, and she, too, would suffer because of it and then overcome her addiction. The Second World War saw the family move to Texas and her father went overseas with the army. Here, in her grandparents home, she was subjected to a sinister environment provoked by her grandfather’s, uncle’s, and mother’s drinking, her grandmother’s religious fanaticism, and then her grandfather’s sexual abuse. This, she mentions in several of her short stories, predominantly Dr. H.A. Moynihan, which centres on her dentist grandfather. Unlike Nancy and Jane, she never wrote a full length novel, the closest was Andado which offers a snippet (though told as fiction) of her teenage self leaving her family home to receive the hospitality of an upper-class gentleman in the Chilean countryside only to be raped during her stay. I should also note that, in Love in a Cold Climate, Polly marries her childhood abuser. And in the Cazalet series, beginning with the first book The Light Years, Louise is ashamed when her father makes several passes at her but she does not begrudge him or think him wicked. Jane shared this view of her own father. There are too many of Lucia’s short stories to list and the dissection of each one deserves its own retrospective, but as with Nancy and Jane, the darker elements of her upbringing and adulthood are on display: her failed marriages (she was married three times), the birth of her four sons, abandonment, addiction, poverty, and her various careers. While Nancy’s and Jane’s novels have a limited setting – the English countryside, London, Paris, New York, and the respectable resorts of the Riviera – Lucia takes her reader on a visual journey across America, to the deserts of Texas and the Mexican border (in one story it is for a family reunion, another for an abortion), to Puerto Vallarta where she had eloped; to downtown New York, the urban sprawl of the West Coast, and the grandeur and upheaval of pre-revolution Chile.
The common thread, at least in terms of romance, was the (acknowledged) feeling that Nancy, Jane, and Lucia had made a mess of their lives. With the exception of Nancy, Jane and Lucia married in their teens and had children young. Nancy, marrying at the age of 29, had done so on the rebound from a failed love affair. Both Jane and Lucia would remarry several times, choosing unsuitable men and sacrificing their own happiness and career development in doing so. Nancy seemed to use this as an incentive to make her professional life a success. Each poured this into their characterisations: Nancy’s regret at being childless, and at being at the disposal of her lover; Jane’s in having abandoned her child to pursue her own interests; and Lucia’s at feeling guilty for drinking during her sons’ childhood. This tinged their novels with a sense of pathos, and also evoked sympathy. Somewhere, in the depths of their prose and plot, their women readers could relate.
During their lifetime, Nancy and Jane would reap the merits of their literary careers and enjoy fame and fortune. It offered them a comfortable and secure lifestyle, something that was lacking in other areas of their lives. Lucia’s literary fame, however, is far more extraordinary. Published by independent presses, she had a small but devoted readership but was somewhat undiscovered. In 2015 a posthumous collection of her short stories were compiled in A Manual for Cleaning Women and it was published to international acclaim. Now a household name, Lucia Berlin has risen to the ranks of Nancy Mitford and Elizabeth Jane Howard. All three, I believe, deserve their place as great female writers, not only for their unique stylistic approach, but their contribution to the world of literature.