I recently binge-watched the BBC adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s famous novel, The Pursuit of Love. Published in 1945, it’s widely known to be semi-autobiographical, and tells the story of the Radlett family, an eccentric upper-class English family who live in a crumbling stately home called Alconleigh and have the usual in-jokes and traditions common to posh English families at that time. The TV adaptation is fantastic (and it’s coming to US screens later this year, courtesy of Amazon Prime).
The Pursuit of Love
Both the book and the recent series are narrated by Fanny Logan, a cousin of the Radlett family who spends a lot of time with them at Alconleigh during her childhood. Fanny is being raised by her Aunt Emily in the frequent absence of her mother, who is a serial monogamist nicknamed “The Bolter” for her habit of running off with man after man. “She ran away so often,” reads the book, “and with so many different people, that she became known to her family and friends as the Bolter.”
In the series, The Bolter pops in and out of Fanny’s life, saying things like “Are you terribly poor? You have such a tiny house!” and “You didn’t marry for love, did you?” and while she is clearly living a wild, enjoyable life that she loves, it’s a life tainted by the “Bolter” title and associated scandal and it becomes a life that Fanny wants no part of.
So, after she and her closest cousin Linda Radlett enter the high society scene and Linda immediately becomes a “Bolter in training” (she realizes on her wedding day that her first husband is the wrong choice, and runs away after their daughter is born, chasing her next love to the Pyrenees to help Spanish refugees, and then later leaving him for a French duke), Fanny settles very quickly into what — to Linda, and to Fanny’s mother — appears to be stifling domesticity. She has baby after baby with her studious Oxford-professor husband, potters in the garden over picnics, and is the voice of calm and reason in everybody’s lives.
As the story goes on, Fanny appears more and more resentful of her role, despite the fact she gravitated to it deliberately. As she waves Linda off on the train to the Pyrenees, her resentment bubbles over. She points out that she must always pick up the pieces, stay home and look after everyone, while Linda gets to travel the world and follow her heart. It’s clear that despite her vocal disapproval she envies Linda her free-spirited adventuring.
Bolters and Stickers
“I’m a Sticker,” Fanny says of herself towards the end of the series, referring disparagingly to her determination to stay by her husband’s side and do the right thing regardless of her conflicted feelings. “Quite the good little Sticker.” She seethes with untold potential; pregnant again and exhausted, she spits secretly with the realization that she only ever, really, had two choices, and both of them were made for her by the world she lives in.
It’s a world that is, inevitably, dominated by men. She could either be approved of, or she could be disapproved of. By them. By the world they have built and that they rule. At one point Linda cries — having left her husband, only to learn he had a fairly public mistress all along anyway and is grateful of the chance to marry her — “I do think it’s unfair that when I’m unfaithful it’s disgusting, but when my husband is, no one bans him from anything!”. Well, quite. It was ever thus.
There is a poignant scene at the end of the series in which Fanny sits, in an uneasy but clearly now peaceful truce, in the garden with her mother (The Bolter), and her aunt Emily, who was a Sticker and raised her. They are surrounded by Fanny’s children, and they are taking tea. With uncharacteristic honesty, The Bolter wistfully observes that “The lives of women like Fanny and me aren’t so much fun when one begins to get older.”
And then Aunt Emily —keeping her eyes on Fanny’s sons, who run in happy circles around them — interjects, in a quiet but firm comment that brought real tears to my eyes when I watched it, “Well. Let’s hope that in years to come, these boys’ granddaughters can be more than just a Bolter or a Sticker. Or a Linda or a Fanny. That they can decide who they are, irrespective of who they marry.”
The Pursuit of Love is set in the period up to and including the Second World War, in the 1930s and 1940s. Those boys’ granddaughters are my contemporaries, or perhaps younger than me. And I thought, watching it: well, of course we are! We women are so much more, these days, than just Bolters or Stickers. We can decide who we are, irrespective of who we marry. Aunt Emily — speaking for Nancy Mitford — well, she got her wish, didn’t she?
But have things really changed so much? Feminism and the Women’s Movement have taken great strides and earned us rights that Fanny and Linda could not have dreamed of. Things like equal pay for equal work, the right to paid maternity leave, access to birth control and abortions, and a purported right to choose whether to be stay-at-home mothers like Fanny or to take up paid employment, like Linda, who has a happy spell working at a Communist bookstore and reveals a shrewd head for business.
On the other hand, though, how often do we get told we can have it all, only to learn just slightly too late that this was a clear case of toxic positivity in action and we’ve based important choices on a poorly-researched lie? We might put motherhood on hold for a career, only to feel desperate for a baby in our forties and realize it’s not as simple as we thought it would be to make one happen. Or we might choose the path of stay-at-home motherhood only to reach the middle of our mothering years and feel, like Fanny, trapped and suffocated by domesticity.
But would our route out of that sense of captivity, if we were desperate enough actually to escape, really be so much smoother than hers would have been? We might not get called Bolters or be the subject of scandal for having a succession of husbands. But even women who leave their family homes for the most valid reasons – domestic abuse, say, or repeated infidelity – can find themselves labelled “selfish” or “self-centered”.
And while similar accusations might be leveled at a man, they wouldn’t be as vitriolic. They would not have the same same sting. They would not be backed by the same sense of genuine shame, of genuinely having let people down. Because men have been having “second acts” and leaving their families to pursue them since time immemorial. It’s what men do.
Women, just like in Mitford’s day, are simply held to a higher standard – even today. I think that’s what Mitford hoped would have changed by now and I also think, sadly, that it hasn’t changed quite as much as it ought to have done.
No, we might have more palatable words for our various choices now, and some might be more commonplace (such as divorce and remarriage without scandal), but our position still doesn’t equal that of a man’s in society. We will always be left with the bigger emotional burden, and we’ll always be having to try to look our best while we’re bearing it.
No. Sadly, I have to believe that some part of a woman’s lot will still, always, come down to Bolting or Sticking. Even if it’s a wrangle that we have only inside our own heads, or with our own inbuilt prejudice.