When Pursuing Love Is the Only Option

from The Atlantic

Jul 31, 2021, 11:00:00 AM

In the final episode of The Pursuit of Love, Linda Radlett (played by Lily James), the dazzlingly romantic and impractical heroine of Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel, is taken shopping by a formidable French aristocrat. Linda parades a series of outfits, blowing kisses and laughing, then feigns abashed surprise when Fabrice (Assaad Bouab), her new lover, declares that they’ll take it all. Later, she struts down a Parisian boulevard, a shopping bag in each gloved hand and a black straw hat perched on her head, intoxicated by the rush of someone spending his money on her. If the scene seems familiar, that’s because it’s almost a frame-by-frame restaging of the Rodeo Drive interlude in Pretty Woman, minus the pizza and the shaming of snobby saleswomen. (Big mistake. Huge!)

I gasped watching this scene, like a priest finding a copy of Playboy hidden inside a hymnal. For someone who grew up, like so many English readers, clutching dog-eared Mitford novels in the bath, juxtaposing that world of upper-class eccentricity with ’90s rom-coms felt almost heretical. The actor Emily Mortimer, who wrote and adapted the new three-part series for the BBC and Amazon, clearly worships at the Mitfordian altar herself—her script is littered with nods to the real-life Mitford Six, as Nancy and her sisters were called. But Mortimer’s approach is iconoclastic. Her 1930s England is characterized not by moldering antiquities and Debrett’s but by aesthetic overload: Sleater-Kinney and New Order songs, Studio 54–style excess, more flowers than a Kardashian wedding.

The point, I think, is to deliberately tweak the conventions of period drama to make you consider how constrained by fairy-tale expectations women have always been. The more you watch, the more you understand how, as a character, Linda fits into any decade: an intelligent, beautiful woman cursed by the fact that her only opportunities for self-improvement lie in sex and marriage.

[Read: The real housewives of Jane Austen]

A brief introduction to the Mitford sisters for the uninitiated: Nancy was the eldest of seven children born to a member of the landed gentry, and her childhood, only slightly fictionalized in The Pursuit of Love in the form of the Radlett family, was chaotic, chilly, and yet utterly beguiling to read about. The narrator of the novel, Fanny Logan (played in the series by Emily Beecham), is a cousin of the Radletts’ who spends school holidays at their estate, Alconleigh, marveling at the family’s wild emotional swings and absurd conversations. The largely uneducated children discuss taboo subjects (sex, abortion, lecherous relatives) with an oddly blithe detachment—Fanny’s new stepfather will soon be “playing rough games and pinching you in bed, see if he doesn’t,” Louisa, Linda’s elder sister, tells Fanny. And they deeply fear the Radlett patriarch, the erratic, jingoistic Uncle Matthew (played by Dominic West in the series), and long to escape his tyrannical clutches, even as they consider him to be “the criterion of English manhood.”

Despite their eagerness to leave home, many of the Mitford sisters in real life later found themselves drawn to even more troubling men than their father; Diana Mitford left her husband for Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists, and Unity Mitford fell madly in love with Adolf Hitler. They’re difficult women to empathize with, which is what makes Mortimer’s adaptation feel curious: It isn’t at all easy to translate the characters of The Pursuit of Love into Everywomen. Their aristocratic brio makes them more otherworldly than relatable. And yet who hasn’t longed to love and be loved, or looked into the fire for an escape from the sizzling pan, or felt conflicted about the space between right-but-repulsive and wrong-but-romantic? Why, for women, is marriage still consistently interpreted as the most meaningful path to happiness?


Mortimer’s stylistic choices enhance the idea that, for centuries, women have been pigeonholed into lives with limited choices. As debutantes, Linda and Fanny get wheeled around ballrooms by elderly members of the House of Lords, prize cattle promenaded for an aristocratic marriage market. Later, when Linda abandons her first unhappy marriage for the hedonism of the “society” circuit, she’s shown cavorting at a nightclub in a metallic lamé gown while Bryan Ferry’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” plays, so gloriously and anachronistically ’70s that the only thing missing is a tray piled high with cocaine. As a director, Mortimer has an eye trained toward beauty and visual punch, at the cost of realism. Her characters frolic in what feels like perpetual spring; they lunch al fresco in sunny English gardens amid bouquets of clashing flowers and bowls piled high with tropical fruits. (Imagine pineapples as symbols of conspicuous consumption.) She stages theatrical tableaux, as when introducing Lord Merlin (Andrew Scott), a bohemian aristocrat who saves Linda’s ball by voguing with his glamorous friends to the sounds of T. Rex’s “Dandy in the Underworld.”

Her other significant change is the retooling of the relationship between Fanny and Linda, the central fixture of the novel. In Mitford’s writing, the pair serve as opposing examples of womanhood who are nevertheless deeply attached to each other; Fanny becomes a dutiful, slightly mousy wife to an Oxford lecturer and bears one child after another, while Linda chases a series of men and abandons her only daughter, whom she dislikes furiously from birth. (Mortimer alludes to Linda’s possible postnatal depression, possibly aware that bad mothers are more frowned upon culturally now than in the 1940s, but doesn’t dwell on it.) Fanny neutrally observes, rather than resents, Linda’s foibles; after Linda falls in love with a communist, she recalls how Linda’s craving “for love, personal and particular, centred upon herself; wider love, for the poor, the sad, and the unattractive, had no appeal for her.”

[Read: Making peace with Jane Austen’s marriage plots]

In the series, their friendship becomes fraught with conflict and resentment. Fanny, abandoned by her own mother (a woman, played by Mortimer, who’s left so many husbands that she’s known simply as “the Bolter”), is enraged by Linda’s coldness toward her own child, and upbraids her with some amount of spite. There’s a Ferrante-esque flavor to the show’s portrayal of female friendship, with its fiercely physical intimacy and inevitable envy. But I found the emotional naturalism hard to take with the ostentatious playacting of the rest of the production. Mitford’s novels ask readers to sense trauma beneath the surface but never to fuss over it. Her humor is barbed and Phoebe Waller-Bridge–dark. In the novel, Fanny comforts Linda ahead of a long journey by telling her that perhaps she won’t be lonely, because foreigners “are greatly given, I believe, to rape.” (Linda replies, “Yes, that would be nice, so long as they didn’t find my stays,” one of only three rape jokes I’ve ever laughed at.) But real, discernible human emotion, as anathematic to the upper classes as the animal-rights movement, is rarely to be found.

Still, Mortimer’s insistence that Linda is more relatable than she seems is easier to take when it comes with so much spectacle. There hasn’t been a more vibrantly visual show on television this year. There are fur coats and scarlet lipstick, pastel dresses and picturesque cottages, all as aesthetically pleasing as a Pinterest vision board. But beneath it is a sturdy critique of 20th-century gender roles, and all the ways in which women are cursed if they follow the rules and shamed if they don’t. The system may have changed since then, but the expectations linger. “Sometimes,” Linda tells Fanny in one scene, paraphrasing Simone de Beauvoir, “I don’t think we’re born women at all. It’s like our wings get clipped and then everyone’s so surprised when we don’t know how to fly.”