Much to my shame, I have never read Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love. The story centres around the trials and tribulations of society darling Linda Radlett as she negotiates love, loss and life. It is narrated by her ever subservient best friend, and cousin, Fanny Logan, But having binged all three episodes of the BBC adaptation, I am beginning to wonder how the novel passed me by.
Putting the book aside, Emily Mortimer’s directorial debut is saturated with the licentious and the ludicrous. Even before the series was released, it was surrounded by scandal and production was cloaked in controversy. Last year, pictures surfaced of the married Dominic West getting rather too close to Lily James in Rome. There was uproar as West put on a sheepish face to the press and went to re-establish his role as the doting husband and loving father. Many awaited the series for evidence of their chemistry and an explanation for the affair. Instead, were greeted by a very different dynamic; West was the Radlett patriarch to James’ teenage Linda. Scenes in which he talks about giving her a “thrashing”, or when they get up close and personal while getting ready to go hunting take on very different significance. At the revelation of such an unexpected new dynamic, viewer response was mixed. Those who couldn’t separate fiction from reality sadly missed out by switching off.
However, if you aren’t watching for scandal, the series does not let itself down. You could quite happily watch it for the sets, costumes and gardens alone. It combines the scenery of Downton Abbey with the pastels and life of Autumn de Wilde’s recent take on Emma. At one point in episode two, Lily James’ Linda Radlett looks more suited to appearing on the cover of a mock ‘wartime’ Vogue than aiding refugees for the communists. This is one of the many instances that is jarring with the audience, even if it does not take away from the overall effect.
Another incongruous moment comes from the entire presence of Andrew Scott as the outrageous Lord Merlin. He is discordant in the best and worst way simply because he steals every scene he is in. I spent much of my time waiting for him to appear, rather than watching events unfold. Swanning around in varying shades of cream tailoring, he portrays farce with such sincerity that you begin to consider the logistics of dyeing two pigeons hot pink and baby blue. Second only to him is Emily Mortimer’s The Bolter, the mother of Fanny who flees (or bolts) whenever responsibility is thrust upon her, only to opulently pop up again six months later with a new man in tow. She provides a constant foil to the English institution which presides in its bastardised way over the Radlett household. Yet, all the while she seems to be the one who best knows what is going on in the world. An honourable mention must be given to Freddie Fox who, as the pompous Etonian turned Oxfordian, oozes arrogance and contempt to perfection. In one performance he provides everything to despise, and he does it magnificently.
Mortimer’s adaptation swiftly passes from raucous country estate to secret airing cupboard, through a night-life London – perfectly set to Bryan Ferry’s ‘The ‘In’ Crowd’ – and across war-torn Europe, to finally end up back at the Radlett Family seat, Alconleigh. Throughout the frequent misadventures we are left with the sense of two constants, Linda will always leave and Fanny will always wait.
Linda Radlett, if played in the wrong way, could be very annoying. She is flaky, she never sees beyond her own immediate prospects, and she is possibly one of the most self-absorbed characters I have ever come across. On one occasion she abandons Fanny, who has come to makes sure she is alive in Paris, because the man she currently in love with is on his way. Linda lives for herself and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Yet, at the same time, she is spontaneous, filled with hope and above all filled with life. It is a testament to James’ ability to layer innocence over iniquity that while watching her you cannot escape the feeling that you hate how much you love her. The snide remarks about her sister looking like the “oldest, ugliest Brontë sister” and contemptuous looks of scorn at the men in her life only add to the joy of beholding her. In this regard, Mortimer has created the perfect dynamic. Throughout the episodes we watch Fanny become more and more frustrated with Linda. Yet, every time she is left with failed hopes and let down by false promises, she keeps coming back for more. Similarly, every time Linda annoys us as viewers, she manages to win us back with a smile here, or comment there. We, like Fanny, are putty in her capable hands. For Fanny it is almost like an addiction; she knows Linda is not good for her, but she equally doesn’t seem to be able to live without her.
Here might be the crux of this new release. Sometimes subtly and sometimes obtusely, The Pursuit of Love forms an expression of female love and power. Yes, on the surface it is a chronicle of Linda’s romantic liaisons. But underneath, you see the love story between our two female leads. They go through thick and thin together and come out the other side changed. This “meeting of minds” – to use Linda’s misused appreciation of her relationship with Christian the communist – is extended throughout the relationships between wider female characters. The discussion of female autonomy is immediately set up in the first episode when West, who spends most of his time being a comical boar in either a dressing gown or black tie, laments the “gate post” thighs and useless knowledge Fanny has acquired by going to school. We are presented with the opinion that beyond “church, stables and tennis court” there is nothing a woman needs. This assumption is dismantled gradually but confidently throughout the series. Links to Virginia Woolf and the reconstruction of the role of the female in the household add to the light-hearted feminist tone permeating the series.
However, in the conclusion to the final episode this all becomes a little too much. Fanny, The Bolter and Aunt Emily watch the children play and hypothesise about the probability of future female education and equality. This sentiment fit with the overall tone of the series and if it had been intermingled within the bulk of the dialogue with more subtlety it might have worked. But, being thrust into the end of the final episode as an attempt at leaving an empowering last impression, it falls a little flat. A part of me feels a little let down by the unnecessary addition but then again, a part of me understands the effort. The ending is recovered – unsurprisingly – by a final wide shot of Scott carrying away Linda’s French Bulldog, encouraging us to feeling something similar to Linda’s sense of the whole world being ours for the taking.