Author: Nancy Mitford, 1960.
Genre: Period Fiction. Satire. Chick Lit. Politics.
Other Details: Paperback. 240 pages. 2010 edition with Introduction by Sophie Dahl.
As with the previous two novels in Nancy Mitford's loose trilogy, In Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, this is narrated by Fanny Wincham. It is now the late 1950s and Fanny is middle-aged living a quiet life in Oxford with her husband Alfred, an Oxford Don. Then quite unexpectedly Alfred is appointed as the English Ambassador to France. Fanny's life is completely uprooted as she and Alfred move into the grand Embassy in Paris. The novel is quite episodic as Fanny deals with various crises associated with her family and day-to-day life at the Embassy.
This short novel just sparkled. In fact, although I loved the earlier ones, this was my favourite of the three. That may be due to the more contemporary setting, which I recalled from childhood, or that Fanny, who had been very much on the sidelines in the others, finally takes centre stage. I also loved Northey, the daughter of Fanny's cousin, who comes to Paris to work as Fanny's social secretary. She is a delightful character but dreadful secretary, spending much more time on her social life than on her duties. Northey is also prone to taking on all kinds of causes, mainly linked to animal welfare. Her good-intentioned but misguided efforts provided many comic moments throughout the novel. Through Fanny's interactions with her own four free-thinking sons and Northey there is a lot of satire directed towards the youth culture of the time.
Overall there is something of a Restoration comedy about the novel with plenty of plot twists along with the glamour of 1950s Parisian society. Mitford obviously had a great deal of affection for France and the French, though still pokes fun at the often strained British-French relationship. She is less affectionate towards tabloid journalists. She takes huge swipes in the direction of The Daily Mail (renamed The Daily Post for the novel) through Paris-based tabloid journalist, Amyas Mockbar, who continually writes scandalous stories based on very little fact to inflame readers back in the UK. It certainly shows that things haven't changed all that much since the 1950s!
Aside from all this delightful fun there was one chapter that struck me as quite poignant. When Fanny and a French companion take a country drive they stop and reflect upon the world they were born into and how the World Wars had changed civilisation irrevocably though these changes were lost upon the new generation.
While it isn't necessary to read the previous novels, quite a few characters from them are mentioned or make cameo appearances. In the edition I read Sophie Dahl's Introduction refreshed my memory and would prove useful to readers who have not have read the others. I have linked to it below as she included it on her website.
Sophie Dahl on 'Don't Tell Alfred' - her Introduction to the 2010 Penguin edition with details on background to the novel .