Review: Darling by India Knight

If you love Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love as much as I do, you'll understand why I approached India Knight's Darling with a little trepidation. 

Knight has updated Mitford's hilarious, tragic novel about the Radlett family (largely based on the Mitfords' own aristocratic and eccentric childhood) to the 21st century. a daring move that could have proved disastrous, but thank goodness doesn't. Knight has managed largely to stick to the original plot (such as it is) while introducing instantly recognisable details of modern life. Darling is a triumph.

In The Pursuit of Love, Uncle Matthew is a wealthy member of the (rarely visited) House of Lords, presiding over his large family at Alconleigh, the ancestral home. He is fierce, opinionated, prejudiced and volatile, but also sentimental, loving and unpredictably kind. 

In Darling Matthew is an aging rock star, former singer in the phenomenally successful band Sin. Born working class, he has made his fortune, married his third wife Sadie, and withdrawn to the Norfolk countryside,

..because Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie felt that their children should have as wholesome and unpolluted an upbringing as possible, far away from London, he because of his own rackety past and because he knew that his children would forever be objects of deep curiosity, Aunt Sadie because, as she once said, 'Clean air is worth more than gold...'
So the Radlett children - Louisa, Linda, Jassy and Robin, and their cousin Fanny - are banned from having electronic devices of any kind. And they are, of course, bored silly. 

Sadie is no longer a somewhat frumpy housewife. She's a beautiful former private chef who used to run a restaurant on the King's Road called Peas and Paneer, and refused to marry Matthew until he'd given up the drugs. Matthew is still madly in love with her; the children are constantly appalled by their displays of affection

....they were demonstratively, cringe makingly in love, even now.

'Sadie's bloody sexy' said Uncle Matthew with a wolfish leer.

'So traumatic for us, when you say things like that' said Jassy...'you have no idea. The older we get, the more inappropriate it becomes.'

Sadie home educates the children, with lessons entitled 'How to make a perfect lasagne' and 'My composting method.'  When you have money, you can get by on such knowledge. 

Fanny, the narrator, lives with Matthew's sister, Aunt Emily in a cottage in the grounds, her own irresponsible mother, Matthew and Emily's sister aka 'The Bolter', having bolted as usual. Aunt Emily's new husband Davey is now an author of glossy coffee table books and an interior designer with an address book Nicky Haslam would kill for. He's also a total hypochondriac obsessed with his dietary requirements. The children think Matthew will hate him on sight. Needless to say, they are wrong,

'Have you met Davey? Marvellous man. Nothing he doesn't know. So clever. he writes books! He takes pictures! Knows all about everything.'
They all love him on sight, and really, who wouldn't?

Louisa, the oldest child, still wants to marry a duke and live the Country Life dream.

'I just want to get married, have babies, live somewhere really nice  and become a lifestyle I marry my lord, then we have children, then I take pictures of the house and the children and of me, looking all golden with the light streaming in, and then I get tons of followers who love me, and then people give me things.'

The last thing Linda wants is respectability, and at Louisa's 21st birthday party (to which the other members of Sin turn up, and reveal themselves to have become completely conventional) she meets her route to escape - Merlin Berners, the Radletts' nearest neighbour, a highly successful fashion designer and enfant terrible son of an artist called Tintagel, who arrives astride a black horse, followed by his entourage of wildly exciting friends,

 'You're not bringing that horse in here like Bianca Jagger at Studio 54' Matthew said. 'Clever you' said Merlin 'That was exactly my reference', 

One woman wore what appeared to be a floor length mantilla with nothing underneath...'What's with Widow Twankey in the full length veil?' demanded Uncle Matthew, 'And why is that boy' he spluttered 'wearing a codpiece?'
Linda is transfixed. Merlin - charming and polite at all times - takes her under his wing and sees her through, amongst other things, two disastrous marriages. She is of course stunning, and he dresses her in his finest - though he refuses to make her his very best wedding gown for her first marriage to the awful banker Tony Kroesig, because he dislikes the groom so much,

'He's everything they taught you not to be' said Merlin 'But mainly he's boring...If you're so keen on marriage, marry someone else. Marry me.'

'I hate to break it to you Merl' said Linda, smiling for the first time 'but you are massively massively homosexual.'

'You'd still have more fun being married to me for two seconds than in a lifetime of being married to Tony.'

She models for him (making lots of money), and although she eventually tires of the drug-fuelled party scene, the two of them remain close over many years. Wouldn't we all love to have a friend like Merlin? Thrilling, daring and rich, elegant, entertaining and kind. I know I would. 

(In 2021 Emily Mortimer directed a new adaptation of The Pursuit of Love for BBC1. It's worth watching if only for Andrew Scott's tour de force as Merlin, and especially the dance he performs at Louisa's party.You can find the dance on YouTube.)

The story continues along Mitford's lines - Linda's exploits, the awful time she has with the tastelessly wealthy Kroesigs, then her relationship with the humourless activist Christian, writer of dreadful poetry, author of Fish with the Worm ('Is it about angling?' asks Linda) who's desperate to show off his alleged working class credentials, but has actually had an Eton education and lives in a Hampstead flat inherited from his grandmother.

And finally Linda's escape to Paris and her first encounter with the love of her life, Fabrice. Though as The Bolter remarks to Fanny
'Oh darling, one always thinks that...Every, every time.'
And she should know.

Knight handles the technicalities of the plot easily. Linda is on her uppers in Paris because she has had her phone stolen on the Eurostar, and without that, as we all know, she has access to neither her bank account nor her hotel booking. Louisa finally makes enough money to renovate her husband's castle by appearing on a reality show, and Davey and Matthew discover Instagram and enthusiastically post on it  every morning. 

Fanny, meanwhile, has (to Matthew's disgust) been to university (this certainly could not have happened in the original) and married Alfred, an Oxford don - this of course sounding just as plausible as it did in 1945. Some things never change.

Darling is an exuberant, enjoyable read. It's very funny, sometimes moving, and very entertaining. I loved it. 


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