THE PURSUIT OF LOVE (247 pp.) Nancy MitfordRandom House ($2.50).
Nancy Mitford has written five novels, but her latest has the qualities of a first-rate first novel. This comedy of aristocratic manners that is a best-seller in England has freshness, spontaneity, characters that seem to have stepped out of the author's lifewhich is precisely what most of Pursuit's characters have done.
The Honorable Nancy Freeman-Mitford is eldest (42) and perhaps least strange of the six daughters of David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, second Baron Redesdale. She is the wife of the Hon. Peter Murray Rennell Rodd, who is an ex-lieutenant colonel in the Welsh Guards, a Sahara explorer, and a leftist journalist. Nancy, who now lives in Paris writing the English versions of Anglo-French movies, is politically pinkish, and takes a dim view of her sisters, who include: 1) Unity, famed Hitler-loving Wagnerian blonde; 2) Diana, wife of Fascist Leader Sir Oswald Mosley (she spent most of World War II in jail); 3) Jessica, who eloped to Spain, married Winston Churchill's nephew, the late Esmond Romilly (missing in action since 1941), and is now married to a left-wing San Francisco lawyer; 4) Pamela, wife of Derek Ainslie Jackson, a British physicist who has ridden as a jockey in the Grand National Steeplechase.
Ivan & Spencer. In The Pursuit of Love, Author Mitford draws the political stings from most of these flesh & blood characters, remodels them into a charmed family circle that is as sparkling and daft as a fairy tale. In addition to a lovely heroine who does just what the title suggests, Pursuit stars one of contemporary fiction's best-loved character typesa father who combines the behavior of Ivan the Terrible with the heart of Spencer Tracy.
The setting of most of Pursuit is Alconleigha forbidding country mansion littered with terriers, halberds, "penholders made of tigers' teeth," a dusty collection of rare minerals, pet dormice, horses, French governesses, peasants and pheasants. Winter & summer, day began at 5 a.m., when Lord Alconleigh greeted the dawn with one his favorite records (Drake Is Sailing West, Lads, the "mad" scene from Lucia, or Lo, Here the Gentle Lark, sung by Galli-Curci), and strode on to the lawn cracking a Canadian stock whip. After breakfast, he gave his daughters a brief head start, then hunted them crosscountry with four bloodhounds.
No Ladies' Man. Social life was sparse at Alconleigh, because Lord Alconleigh declined all invitations ("perfectly good food at home," he always said). But every few years he took his daughters to the House of Lords, and left them in the gallery while he retired to a back bench for a snooze. Once, he awoketo speak against admitting peeresses to the House, his objection being that the ladies would try to use the lords' washroom. "It's what they all thought, you know," said daughter Linda, "but he was the only one who dared to say it."
Romantic Linda is the heroine of Pursuit. When she and her sisters grew up, Linda's adolescent dreams ended in her marrying a dry-as-dust son of a governor of the Bank of England. She left him to marry an even drier & dustier Communist, and was at her lowest ebb when her Galahad turned upa French duke whose wicked charms should set U.S. bosoms aflame from coast to coast.