Book & Bottle pairs books with booze—a surrogate for my fantasy of one day owning a combination bookstore and bar.
Having once written my own London-to-Cotswolds story, I can’t believe it took me this long to discover Christmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford’s 1932 riff on the city-girl-goes-country trope. But it did, and it happened with a bit of serendipity, the way all the best book purchases do. (Shoutout to the tiny-but-perfect The Story of Books‘s bookstore in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, for facilitating said serendipitous moment.)
The plot of Christmas Pudding centers on a love triangle between Paul Fotheringay, a budding London novelist who has written an earnest book mistaken by critics for a comic masterpiece; Philadelphia (Delphie!) Bobbin, the beautiful, sullen daughter of Cotswold matriarch Lady Bobbin; and Lord Michael Lewes, a diplomat just returned from Cairo and first cousin of Delphie (what can I say, it was written at a time when the cousin thing was less taboo).
The heart of the tale, however, is with its two female leads, who orchestrate the events of the slim novel like master puppeteers. Mitford’s country mouse is the fox-hunting-obsessed widow, Lady Bobbin, who loathes London and all things frivolous. Town mouse is the former courtesan, Amabelle Fortescue, who managed to transition into the upper echelons of London society by marrying a member of parliament. Said MP thoughtfully died a respectable three years hence, leaving Amabelle to entertain all and sundry, including us readers.
Amabelle and Lady Bobbin’s worlds collide when Amabelle decides to take a house in Lady Bobbin’s neck of the Cotswolds over Christmas, a whim she explains to her gobsmacked best friend like this:
I read a book about the Cotswolds once when I was waiting for a train at Oban, I don’t know why, but I bought it off a book-stall. I suppose I wanted change for a pound note.
Amabelle’s rented house turns out to be more olde worlde than old world, which one of her house guests sends up wonderfully with his interior design suggestions:
You ought to send up to Soloman’s for some rushes to strew about the floor; then, when you’ve hung a couple of Fortmason hams on to those hooks in the ceiling and dressed all your servants in leather jerkins, you’ll have arrived at the true atmosphere of Ye. If I think of any other homey touches, I’ll let you know.
(Did I mention I have a whole chapter in my book Americashire about trawling the antique arcades and architectural yards of Gloucestershire for such homey touches? I’m ashamed to say that until a decade of winter finally destroyed it, the backyard of our Cotswold cottage boasted a wagon wheel poised jauntily against the stonewall of a shed.)
Despite its architectural shortcomings, Amabelle’s rented house, Mulberrie Farm, turns into the social hub of the hamlet, where residents of Lady Bobbin’s home, the joyless and champagne-free zone of Compton Bobbin, secrete themselves daily for card games and general merriment. To keep warm, they fortify themselves with cherry brandy, which seems an obvious choice of a bottle for the reader to enjoy with this book, especially when compared to the warm beer and cider cup on offer from Lady Bobbin.
Regardless of their different approaches to hospitality, Mitford imbues both women with more than enough comedy to sustain this delightful Cotswold jaunt. May your own holiday season be filled with parties hosted by the Amabelle’s of the world, and a stocking stuffed with cherry brandy, a shiny new flask, and a paperback that manages to be as effervescent and scathing as this one.
And finally, since it’s the gift-giving time of year, it seemed opportune to take a look back at my Book & Bottle blog posts from 2019 and glean a few gift ideas for the bibulous bibliophiles in your life. (I’ve amended some of my original bottle recommendations to be a bit more gift-y.)
- Sayaka Murata’s wonderful, offbeat, and stocking-size novel, Convenience Store Woman, with a bottle of premium sake;
- Anne Fadiman’s memoir about her bibulous bibliophile dad, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, and a bottle of Burgundy or Bordeaux;
- Max Porter’s Lanny, and a bottle of fancy British gin (I like the Sipsmith labels, which evoke the English folk-story feel of this novel);
- Ling Ma’s Severance, which melds zombie dystopia with literary fiction, and a bottle of decent whisky;
- Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding, packaged up with a bottle of brandy.