Some are calling it the new Downton Abbey, says Stephen Armstrong in The Sunday Times. But Emily Mortimer’s BBC adaptation of The Pursuit of Love is not just a Sunday-night period piece. Faithful to Nancy Mitford’s book, it is dark at heart. “The novel is so cynical about love,” says Emily Mortimer, who wrote and directed the series, and plays the Bolter. “The last line of the novel, and the last line in my series, is Fanny saying to the Bolter, ‘I do think Fabrice was the great love of her life.’ And the Bolter says, ‘Oh, darling, one always thinks that, every, every time.’” Mortimer gives a throaty chuckle. “It’s true. This girl is just addicted to the idea of love.”
But the novel’s darkness is concealed by Mitford’s endlessly uplifting, wicked humour. “The beatings, the insults, Linda rejecting her baby are dealt with in a way that’s allergic to earnestness,” says Mortimer. “I was guided by Nancy’s approach – avoid earnestness at all costs… That way you can deal with really difficult subjects, so that it’s almost blink and you’ve missed it.” The Bolter abandons her child for a series of lovers – she lives her life “according to her own rules… an incredibly brave thing to do as a woman”. And while Fanny, the narrator, is “careful and observant” choosing a steady path, Linda is devoted to the pursuit of love. Whatever the consequences, she “hurls herself at it”. She flits from a boring banker to a tedious, joyless communist to a glamorous French duke.
Mortimer inherited her fascination with the Mitfords from her father, John: “He loved stories about them trying to kill and pluck a goose, then having it walk out of the larder, so they ended up knitting it a jumper.” Many have shared this fascination with the sisters: Diana, the beautiful and dedicated fascist who married Oswald Mosley; Unity, besotted by Hitler, who shot herself when England declared war on Germany; Jessica, the communist who eloped to Spain with her cousin; Deborah, who became the Duchess of Devonshire; Pamela the animal-lover; and Nancy the novelist.
On BBC1 from 9 May, with Lily James, Dominic West and Andrew Scott, Mortimer’s adaptation should “please Mitford devotees as much as it will shock Downton fans,” says Armstrong, “which you suspect is what Nancy would have wanted”.