Emily Mortimer’s new series The Pursuit of Love was the latest glitzy TV show to hit screens last weekend, in a blur of sex, cigarettes and Andrew Scott surrounded by rainbow coloured pigeons. Adapted from Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel, the show follows best friends Linda Radlett (Lily James) and Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham) as they try to find love and satisfaction in 1930s Britain. The story itself isn’t an especially original one – indeed, the trope of the dowdy, intellectual best friend and her attractive, unstable counterpart has become so hackneyed in popular culture that it produces an immediate sense of déjà vu. In everything from Little Women to My Brilliant Friend, Lady Bird to The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, women are offered a pretty clear choice: do you want to be sexy, or clever? Do you want to be stimulated, or happy? According to Mortimer, you can’t have both.
Mortimer’s series plays on Freud’s famous Madonna-whore complex, in which men can only desire a sexual partner who has been degraded (the whore), while they cannot desire the respected partner (the Madonna). Naomi Woolf later argued that the trope not only prevails in modern culture, but has gotten worse since the sexual revolution, as women contend with the worst aspects of each stereotype. The Pursuit of Love poses the question: what happens when the whore and the Madonna become friends?
The answer is one poignantly staged at the centre of the series, which focuses closely on Linda and Fanny’s friendship. From sweetly domestic scenes in which the girls bathe together (friendship bordering on the erotic in the way that all popular depictions of women doing anything together often do) to Fanny’s quest across war-torn Europe to find Linda, their love for each other teeters on the obsessive. The advantages and disadvantages of each girl’s life are pretty clear: Linda’s chaotic love life leaves her with a string of divorces and a traumatised daughter, whereas Fanny’s dull, domestic bliss is undercut by a constant feeling of dissatisfaction that means she can never truly be happy. “Why did I stay behind with the unadventurous ones?” she implores of her disinterested husband. He can’t answer.
The series is a comedy in the way all feminist comedies are: funny, but with a disturbing undertone of relatability that leaves a nasty taste in your mouth. Even the idyllic Cotswolds setting of the show’s ending, as Emily Beecham drinks tea surrounded by gambling children, can’t disguise the unnecessary tragedy (spoiler alert) of Linda’s death. As Fanny’s Aunt Emily (played by Annabel Mullion) tellingly muses in the episode’s last minute, ‘Let’s hope that these boys granddaughters can be more than just a Bolter or a Sticker, a Linda or a Fanny, but can decide who they are’. The series can only acknowledge its real tragedy right at the end, tentatively imagining a world where female friendships aren’t divided into these two inevitable tropes – where both whore and Madonna get to live happily ever after.
I’m not sure it’s a vision that’s come true. In The Pursuit of Love’s literary equivalent, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet sets a similarly intense female friendship in late 20th century Naples. Elena is nervous, intelligent, insecure; Lila is beautiful, savage and unstable. Have we heard this story before? Although Ferrante’s characters are nowhere near as two-dimensional as Mitford’s, the same trope plays out again and again. Through a combination of war, gang violence and bad decisions, Lila transforms from a character around which the entire world seems to revolve to erratic old woman whose narrative tragically peters out. Mitford, Ferrante and Mortimer are all telling us the same thing: the intensity which makes us fall in love with these characters is impossible to maintain, and their extreme femininity can only lead to death or tragedy.
The Pursuit of Love demonstrates once again, not only the centrality of female friendship in film, literature and life, but the double edged sword that is being a woman. In the oppressive pre-war society of Mitford’s world, the distinction between ‘a Linda or a Fanny’, a whore or a Madonna, is strict enough to destroy the lives of the women that it hopes to enclose. Although we might hope that modern society is one in which women have a more fluid identity, unencumbered by such black and white stereotypes, this trope’s prevalence across contemporary culture acts as a constant reminder of these tragic dynamics.