From Nancy Mitford to Euro 2020, ‘Englishness’ can change – and for the better
In some ways, Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love ought not to be as beloved by readers as it is. Its mise-en-scène is so antithetical to the experiences of those growing up today that it should be utterly alienating. And yet it is not. Its wit, its romance and its poignancy still have enormous power. This last aspect – the gentle melancholia that mists the novel – is somewhat stripped away by the recently screened BBC TV adaptation, the arch, stylised aesthetic of which places an ironic distance between the action and the viewer.
But for all the apparent silliness of The Pursuit of Love, it is a serious novel, whose subject is, above all, Englishness. True, this Englishness is a monument to past ideals. It is also an Englishness that is oblivious to any notion of cultural or political distinctiveness in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland; like other writers of the time, not least George Orwell, Mitford appears to have collapsed British identity into an idea of England in a way that would be unacceptable today.