Mitford’s sparkling intelligence and sense of humor came right in time to light up these gray days, heavy with fog and rain. The fog was (is!) real, although not so very gray (dirty-white would be a more accurate description). Rains, fictional, were flooding the Lisbon (in Saramago’s novel) and this murky atmosphere was spilling out of the book… But, as I have said, a more cheery air is reigning now. This novel of Mitford’s adds its share of magic to the December holiday spirit.
But however witty, amusing and light in its tone, Love in a Cold Climate is not to be mistaken as a light read. Underneath all the eccentricities of the characters, there is much unhappiness and suffering.
I well remember the sheer delight of reading The Pursuit of Love, thinking it has something of the quality of life lived, thinking it is ‘real’ (later I came to know that the novel is indeed heavily autobiographical). The same thing is now happening with Love in a Cold Climate… And I simply have to share one of my favorite scenes:
They were very much taken up at this time with the study and practice of psycho-analysis. They got hold of a book on the subject (‘Elliston’s library, would you believe it?’) and several days of peace ensued while they read it out to each other in the Hon’s cupboard, after which they proceeded to action.
‘Come and be analysed,’ was their parrot cry. ‘Let us rid you of the poison that is clogging your mental processes, by telling you all about yourselves. Now, suppose we begin with Fa, he’s the simplest proposition in the house.’ ‘What d’you mean, simple?’ ‘ABC to us. No no, not your hand you dear old thing, we’ve grown out of palmistry ages ago, this is science.’
‘All right, let’s hear it.’
‘Well, so then you’re a very straightforward case of frustration – wanted to be a gamekeeper, were obliged to be a lord – followed, as is usual, by the development of over-compensation so that now you’re a psycho-neurotic of the obsessive and hysterical type engrafted on to a paranoid and schizoid personality.’
‘Children, you are not to say these things about your father.’
‘Scientific truths are nothing to object to, Sadie, and in our experience everybody enjoys learning about themselves. Would you care for us to test your intelligence level with an ink blot, Fa?’
‘We could do it to you all in turn and mark you if you like. It’s quite easy, you show the subject an ordinary blot of ink on white paper, and, according to the picture it makes for each individual (you understand what I mean, does it look like a spider, or the Himalayas, everybody sees something different), a practised questioner can immediately assess his intelligence level.’
‘Are you practised questioners?’
‘Well, we’ve practised on each other and all the Joshes and Mrs Aster. And we’ve noted the results in our scientific notebook, so come on.’
Uncle Matthew gazed at the blot for a while and then said that it looked to him very much like an ordinary ink blot, and reminded him of nothing so much as Stephens’ Blue-Black.
‘It’s just as I had feared,’ said Jassy, ‘and shows a positively sub-human level- even Baby Josh did better than that. Oh, dear, sub-human, that’s bad -‘ Jassy had now overstepped the boundary in the perpetual game of Tom Tiddler’s Ground that she played with her father. He roared at her in a sudden rage and sent her to bed. She went off chanting ‘paranoid and schizoid, paranoid and schizoid’ which had taken the place of ‘Man’s long agony’. She said to me afterwards. ‘Of course. it’s rather grave for all of us because, whether you believe in heredity or environment, either way we are boiled, shut up here with this old sub-human of a father.’