Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford

December 1, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford (1932) French title: Christmas Pudding.

Mitford_ChristmasIt may seem a bit early to publish a billet about a book entitled Christmas Pudding but I think it’s timely because I understood that now is the right time to prepare Christmas puddings. I don’t know if British people still have some for Christmas but after reading about it several times, I was curious and I had to try to make one once, just like I experimented with eggnog. Preparing our Christmas pudding four weeks in advance had my husband worried. “Are you sure we won’t get food poisoning?” “How do you know it won’t be rotten by Christmas” and “Isn’t it gross to eat something that’s been prepared so long before?” Well isn’t it gross to eat mould in your Roquefort or cheeses that smell like teenage sneakers? Everything is relative.

Back to Nancy Mitford’s delightful Christmas Pudding. We’re in 1932, in England. Paul Fotheringay has the blues. His fiancée Marcella Bracket treats him like dirt and he’s just published his first book, Crazy Capers and the critics are devastating. You think he’s just another depressed starving author? Not really. Paul’s book received glorious reviews from several worthy newspapers, like this one:

It reminded me sometimes of Mr. Wodehouse at his funniest, and sometimes of Mr. Evelyn Waugh at his most cynical, and yet it had striking originality.

mitford_christmas_frenchGreat references, no? The problem is Paul never intended to write something funny. For him, his novel is a poignant tragedy, so he feels totally misunderstood and humiliated. He’s trying to forget his ordeal at the Tate gallery where he meets a friend, Walter Monteath. Together, they decide to drop by Amabelle Fortescue, a common acquaintance and former courtesan. Amabelle tries to console Paul and suggests that he writes a biography, something to be taken seriously. Paul mulls over this idea and decides he’d like to write the biography of an English poetess of the 19th century, Lady Maria Almanack. He writes a letter to her descendant, Lady Bobbin. She refuses to give him access to Lady Maria’s journal.

Meanwhile, Amabelle has decided to spend Christmas in the country, in Gloucestershire. She rents a house near Lady Bobbin’s manor and invites her friends Walter and Sally Monteath. She’s also very fond of Boby Bobbin, Lady Bobbin’s son and she’s looking forward to seeing him. Bobby is still in Eton and he’s supposed to come back home for the holidays. He is also acquainted with Paul and they get along quite well.

Lady Bobbin is extremely outdoorsy and loves country life. She’d rather read Horse and Hound than Knit and Sew and she can’t understand that her son doesn’t like spending time in the fields, hunting or riding. In her mind, Bobby needs to spend time with a man who will teach him how to improve his mind and his riding. Lady Bobbin is in dire need of a tutor.

Amabelle and Bobby manage to have her hire Paul as Bobby’s tutor. So now Paul is staying at Lady Bobbin’s for Christmas, under the name of Paul Fisher and under the pretence of tutoring Paul. The bargain is clear: Bobby doesn’t need to study or stay outside and Paul has free access to Lady Maria’s journals. A win-win situation.

The joyful pair will simulate outdoorsy activities while actually spending time at Amabelle’s, gossiping and playing bridge. Throw into the mix Bobby’s sister Philadelphia, Michael Lewes aka Lady Bobbin’s cousin and former admirer of Amabelle’s and a nice local major and you have the most delightful ingredients for a Christmas pudding. I won’t say more about the plot and Christmas among this group of friends.

Mitford’s novel was exactly what I needed between chapters of Wandering Stars by JM G Le Clézio which is beautiful but intense. It brought a healthy dose of fresh humour. I chuckled, I laughed, I giggled, I had a grand time. This novel is to Britishness what baguettes are to Frenchness. They keep calling each other ‘darling’ and it’s like their tongue was speaking with their pinkie in the air.

Nancy Mitford reminded me of Evelyn Waugh, not surprisingly. She’s a ferocious observer of her world and she portrays this group of people with a harshness totally masqueraded as utter politeness. See here, when Sally Monteath says that their still unnamed daughter, whose baptism is scheduled in a couple of weeks, is rather ill and might not live. Her future godfather replies:

‘D’you think she’s likely to live or not?’ said Paul. ‘Because if there’s any doubt perhaps I could use your telephone, Amabelle, to call up the jewellers and see if I’m in time to stop them engraving that mug. It’s such an expensive sort, and I don’t want it spoilt for nothing, I must say.’

Here’s Compton Bobbin, Lady Bobbin’s manoir:

Nevertheless, a large, square and not unhandsome building, it bears testimony, on closer acquaintance, to the fact that it has in the past been inhabited by persons of taste and culture. But these persons have been so long dead, and the evidences of their existence have been so adequately concealed by the generations which succeeded them, that their former presence in the place is something to be supposed rather than immediately perceived.

Isn’t that a blow for Lady Bobbin? And what about Paul, obliged to ride in order to back up his cover story:

Paul, his unreasonable terror of horses now quite overcome by his unreasonable terror of Lady Bobbin, whose cold gimlet eye seemed to be reading his every emotion, decided that here was one of the few occasions in a man’s life on which death would be preferable to dishonour, and advanced towards the mounting block with a slight swagger which he hoped was reminiscent of a French marquis approaching the scaffold.

The pages ooze with wit, jokes and the plot progresses at a nice pace. Nancy Mitford mocks the older generation but shows how hers take pleasure in idleness. She portrays a sort of decadence and the tail of the Roaring Twenties. Paul and Walter wouldn’t imagine working beyond writing books and articles. This group of friends is still idle and partying but there’s a feeling that this will end if they want to settle down. Walter and Sally have a baby, Paul knows he needs to find a job. It is the 1929 economic crisis and champagne is scarcer: Lady Bobbin serves beer to her party.

The most enjoyable remains her biting sense of humour. Mitford belonged to the partying crowd of the Roaring Twenties. She was friend with Evelyn Waugh and one of the Bright Young People. I guess some of her friends and acquaintances found resemblances with real life people when they read her novel.

I owe this wonderful reading time to Barb from Leaves and Pages because I picked Christmas Pudding after reading her review last year. Thanks!

PS: I’m not going to start another cover-induced rant but look at these covers! The British and the French ones are equally insulting to Nancy Mitford’s mind.

  1. December 1, 2015 at 11:13 pm

    It sounds massive, massive, fun. I looked it up, it’s only 155 pages which is spot on, and there’s an edition available with a much better cover (those are both quite ghastly, you’re absolutely right) – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Christmas-Pudding-Capuchin-Classics-Mitford/dp/1907429212

    Sadly that edition is now second hand only, but for that cover rather than the one’s above it’s worth the extra effort.

    Not that I’ve yet finished my #TBR20 of course. It’ll need to be a Christmas holiday exception (though I’ll be reading it hopefully post #TBR20, but to have it for Christmas I’ll have to buy it before finishing my last four of the 20).

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    • December 1, 2015 at 11:19 pm

      You’ll like it, I’m sure.
      I’ll take the blame for you detour on the #TBR20 route if you decide to buy it and read it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • December 1, 2015 at 11:30 pm

        The advantage for me so far about tbr20 is all about pushing myself to read titles I’ve long wanted to read but keep not getting round to. The not buying part of it is proving chafing. 20s too many.

        There’s also a kindle version, but I do like the cover of the version I linked to.

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        • December 2, 2015 at 9:58 pm

          Same for me: the objective was to finally read books that have been sitting on the shelves for a while. Still two to go. I hope I’ll be done by the end of December.
          It’s hard to keep the promise not to buy anything. I slipped and got two Australian books and accepted a review copy of a Krudy. (How can I resist an offer to read Hungarian literature?)

          I have the Kindle version of Christmas Pudding, it’s easier for me to read in English on the Kindle.

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  2. December 1, 2015 at 11:29 pm

    I have a copy of this but haven’t got to it yet. I agree w/max. It sounds like huge fun. I have a few Xmas titles for this month to review.

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    • December 2, 2015 at 9:56 pm

      You’ll have a lot of fun with this. It’s like Lucky Jim in the Roaring Twenties. Huge fun. You’ll probably notice jokes I missed, as a non-English native.

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  3. December 1, 2015 at 11:53 pm

    It is indeed time to be making Christmas puddings – in fact it’s a little late, I usually make mine on Cup Day by events conspired against that this year. I have a very old recipe called Meredith’s Mother’s Christmas pudding and I’ve been making it every year for 40 years now. (There are horrible store-bought puds around, do not ever make the mistake of thinking that they represent the real thing).
    Anyway, the book sounds great and I shall make sure I hunt out a copy. I wonder what our Aussie covers are like…

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    • December 2, 2015 at 10:16 pm

      What’s Cup Day?
      The recipe is actually on your blog, here. Thanks, the ingredients are simple enough. (no exotic stuff like “beef kidney fat”)

      It’s an entertaining read, well-written, witty. I’d say it’s a good one to stay home by the fire and drink tea but it’s not exactly that kind of season for you right now. 🙂

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      • December 2, 2015 at 11:34 pm

        Ha ha, Emma, don’t you know I live in Melbourne where we have four seasons in a day! It might be summer, but we’ve had the heater on this week – admittedly only for ten minutes to take the chill off the room, but still…
        Anyway, Cup Day is another Melbourne idiosyncrasy: it’s the public holiday that we get to celebrate a horse race. The Melbourne Cup is ‘the race that stops the nation’ – everybody has a bet, and everybody stops what they are doing to listen to/watch the race. It’s a great fashion day, people dress up more for The Cup than they do for a wedding, and some women spend a fortune in the hope of winning Fashions on the Field. I’ve never actually been to it (which is a bit unAustralian of me) but I’ve had Cup Day barbecues at my house where the men had to come in dress suits and the women in hats. If they don’t, we don’t let them in the Members Enclosure and they have to stay on the other side of the garden. (Cup Day is the only day that women here wear proper millinery hats). We are the only place in the world where people get a day off work because of a horse race, and we’re proud of it!

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        • December 5, 2015 at 7:29 pm

          Sorry but for me the weather in Melbourne is what I see during the tennis tournament in January and the poor European players always seem to suffer a great deal from the scorching heat.

          Cup Day sounds so…British. Fascinating tradition, I’d really never heard of it.

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  4. December 2, 2015 at 9:41 am

    This does sound very good, Emma. Sometimes you just want to have fun with a book and this type of story would fit the bill perfectly. It’s been such a long time since I read anything by Nancy Mitford – Love in a Cold Climate was my last, I think. Have you read it?

    The Mitford sisters lived fascinating lives – the story of their family is quite something.

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    • December 2, 2015 at 10:27 pm

      It’s a great book when you’re looking for good Entertainment. Very relaxing and funny.

      I haven’t read Love in a Cold Climate.

      These sisters did have a fascinating life. I Wonder if Nancy Mitford knew Romain Gary and Lesley Blanch in London during the war. It’s highly probable that they met. It’s Nancy Mitford had an affair with a French man, Gaston Palewski. He was of Polish origin, fighting with de Gaulle from London. I don’t see how they missed each other, Gary speaking Polish, being in the air force too. They both became diplomats. It must have been a small world. Plus Lesley Blanch was Mitford’s age, she was writing for Vogue…

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  5. December 2, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    By coincidence I was just talking to some relatives about Christmas pudding. May be next year I will try to make it. Hopefully you will enjoy yours.

    This sounds like a really good book. I think that the title might put folks off as it may be mistaken for one of the commercialized novels that are popular this time of year. As you allude to, the cover art does not help the issue.

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    • December 2, 2015 at 10:33 pm

      Well, according to the recipe I have in my cookbook of British specialties, it must be done 8 weeks before Christmas. So next Halloween, instead of carving pumpkins, you’ll have to chase beef kidney fat to make your Christmas pudding. 🙂 Unless you try Lisa’s recipe. (I put the link in my comment to her message)

      The title might be unfortunate nowadays but that’s what Nancy Mitford picked, there’s no getting around it. But the covers! Nothing will do except ones with a reference to the 1920s and the socialite life.

      Like

  6. December 2, 2015 at 7:26 pm

    Oh, my, I love the quotes you included! This does sound super funny–and British!

    Like

    • December 2, 2015 at 10:34 pm

      I have tons of quotes. It was hard to decide which ones to include in the post.
      Go for it, you’ll have a nice time.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Tom Cunliffe
    December 3, 2015 at 6:33 pm

    A very good review Emma – I have not read Nancy Mitford but your description of the book is exactly as I imagined a Mitford book to be. I am sure your comparison with Evelyn Waugh is exactly right – same class of people, same period.

    I regret most British people now buy their Christmas puddings – you were brave to attempt one, but your husband should have no worries about it going “off”. They will last at least a year due to the preserving powers of the sugar and alcohol.

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    • December 5, 2015 at 7:21 pm

      Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford were friends; I Wonder if the writer Paul in Christmas Pudding has anything to do with Waugh or any of their friends.

      Re-Christmas Pudding: I didn’t have a choice, if I wanted a Christmas Pudding, I had to make one. There aren’t any in the stores here. It’s foie gras time, not pudding time. 🙂

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  1. December 29, 2015 at 11:29 pm
  2. January 8, 2016 at 2:24 am

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