Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Icebergs, Shipwrecks and Stock Whips


Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love (1945)

The volume in the photo contains two Nancy Mitford novels, The Pursuit of Love and its sequel of sorts, Love in a Cold Climate. Both novels mention Canada, but as they were originally published separately – and as Love in a Cold Climate has numerous references to Canada – I’ll give each one its own post.

For Those Unacquainted with the Mitfords…

If you’re not familiar with the whole cult surrounding the Mitford family, then this Wikipedia entry is at least a starting point; Mary S. Lovell’s book The Sisters is essentially a combined biography of the whole family, though with the focus on the daughters. Or you could read The Pursuit of Love, which is one of the books that helped create the cult in the first place: the Radlett family in the book is based on the Mitford clan, with the characters of Aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew representing Nancy Mitford’s parents. (Another key book in the creation of the family mythology is Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which we’ve already considered.)

The experiences of Linda Radlett, the main character in The Pursuit of Love, are modelled on Nancy Mitford’s own, though the book is actually narrated by Fanny, a cousin of the Radletts’, perhaps to give some slight authorial distance.

And Now, the Important Stuff: Canada

There are only two passing references to Canada in The Pursuit of Love, and both come in the early chapters that deal with the childhood experiences of Fanny and the Radlett children at Alconleigh, the Radletts’ country estate.

When a child I spent my Christmas holidays at Alconleigh, it was a regular feature of my life, and, while some of the them slipped by with nothing much to remember, others were distinguished by violent occurrences and had a definite character of their own…. There was the unforgettable holiday when Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie went to Canada. The Radlett children would rush for the newspapers every day hoping to see that their parents’ ship had gone down with all aboard; they yearned to be total orphans – especially Linda, who saw herself as Katy in What Katy Did, the reins of the household gathered into small but capable hands. The ship met with no iceberg and weathered the Atlantic storms, but meanwhile we had a wonderful holiday, free from rules.  (6)

Here Canada, or at least the journey to Canada, is clearly associated with great distance and considerable danger; enough danger, in fact, that the death of parents, and consequent freeing of their children from troublesome parental rules, is a real possibility. The reference to Atlantic storms suggests the approach to a wild, uncivilized place; the mention of an iceberg focuses our reputation as a cold, Northern land. 

The iceberg also recalls the Titanic, which famously ran into an iceberg south of Newfoundland and sank in 1912, when Nancy Mitford would have been around 8 years old. Perhaps she is recalling that here.

The obvious (unanswered) question that arises from the passage is, why were they going to Canada in the first place? Winter doesn’t seem the ideal time for a holiday in a place even colder than England. Did they just want to see another part of the world? Did they have relations in Canada? There’s no way to tell, but it seems like a bit of a compliment that these two English aristocrats braved the storms and icebergs to visit our humble land. 

A few pages later we get this:

Uncle Matthew was no respecter of other people’s early morning sleep, and after five o’clock one could not count on any, for he raged round the house, clanking cups of tea, shouting at his dogs, roaring at the housemaids, cracking the stock whips which he had brought back from Canada on the lawn with a noise greater than gunfire, and all to the accompaniment of Galli Curci on his gramophone, an abnormally loud one, with an enormous horn, through which would be shrieked ‘Una voce poco fa’ – ‘The Mad Song’ from Lucia – ‘Lo, here the gen-tel lar-ha-hark’ – and so on, played at top speed, thus rendering them even higher and more screeching than they ought to be.  (22)

In case you were wondering, a stock whip is not the same as a bull whip. Stock whips are used for mustering cattle, so the whip’s Canadian provenance suggests a place full of livestock and cowboys – though stock whips actually seem to have originated in Australia, not Canada, so why Uncle Matthew should have a stock whip from Canada is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps he acquired it on his trip there, when he didn’t drown in a shipwreck?

Uncle Matthew is portrayed in the novel as prone to wild rages, and here the Canadian whip is associated with the angry, out-of-control side of his character; the fact that the whip is from a country probably viewed as half-savage by the English aristocracy of the time perhaps adds an extra element of violent primitivism to the description of his behaviour (though one could read it more as quaint eccentricity).

So there’s not a lot new about Canada here: it’s a distant country, getting there can be dangerous, the livestock and wild animals probably outnumber the humans – and yet it’s worth visiting, though it’s not clear why. Interestingly, the Mitfords really had been to Canada: David Mitford (father of Nancy, Jessica et al.) even owned “a dear little gold mine” (Jessica’s phrase) here, which he thought would make him rich. Alas, it didn’t.

Some General Observations

As a writer, Mitford hovers somewhere between a novelist and a memoirist; most of her best-known works are fictionalizations of her own experiences or the experiences of her family members and friends, and you can see even in these brief passages her tendency to create run-on sentences by constantly adding further specific details to her descriptions, as if jotting down memories as they occur to her.

She does, however, make some notable alterations to the family history. I’ll mention just one: in The Pursuit of Love, Linda’s first marriage is to Tony Kroesig, the son of a rich banker of German descent. Much is made of Uncle Matthew’s disgust at his daughter marrying a German, and when the Second World War breaks out the Kroesigs are portrayed as sympathetic to Hitler and scheming to get their money out of England, while the Radletts would never think of leaving and are all ready to fight and die for their beloved homeland.

In reality, of course, two of Nancy Mitford’s sisters were staunch fascists and ardent supporters of Hitler – a fact she elides in the novel by removing those sentiments from her family, and by extension the English aristocracy as a whole (where they weren’t exactly unknown), and ascribing them instead to the nouveau-riche, recently arrived Kroesigs. Which seems a bit unfair, but there it is.


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One thought on “Icebergs, Shipwrecks and Stock Whips

  1. Pingback: Mother Runs Off … to Canada | Wow - Canada!

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