Great gossip is as rare as great literature—rarer, indeed. As an art form it requires a fine balance between delicacy and vulgarity and a naked joy in the foibles of others which is not always given to even the most exquisite literary minds. Thus though the twentieth century has produced “great writers” aplenty, few of them can claim to be first-rate gossips; sometimes, however, this gift is possessed by so-called minor writers, such as Nancy Mitford, a truly original light novelist and a world-class practitioner of the art of tittle-tattle.

One of the most important requisites for fine gossip is a sympathetic recipient, and these Mitford possessed in spades. She numbered among her most frequent correspondents Raymond Mortimer, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Cecil Beaton, and Robert Byron, not to mention her famous and infamous sisters—Pamela, the poultry keeper; Diana, dedicated fascist and wife of Sir Oswald Mosley; Unity, a Nazi and friend of Hitler; Jessica, a Communist transplanted to America; and Deborah, the present Duchess of Devonshire. These were people whose high wit and relish for farce matched Nancy’s own, and her correspondence—teasing, intimate, full of private jokes and public scandal—is one of the most enjoyable of the century. It has now been published, beautifully edited by her niece Charlotte Mosley, twenty years after the author’s death.

There are inevitably a few disappointments. Only one letter to Nancy’s husband, Peter Rodd, has survived, and very few to her publisher, Hamish Hamilton. There is almost no correspondence with her father, the second Lord Redesdale, the most attractive and eccentric member of her family and the inspiration for her greatest comic creation, the ferocious Uncle Matthew of The Pursuit of Love. But fortunately most of Nancy’s friends treasured her letters, and some of the correspondences are little masterpieces in their own right: that with Evelyn Waugh merits separate publication in a book of its own.

These letters are long overdue.

These letters are long overdue. The 1975 memoir of Mitford by Harold Acton, himself a famous gossip, was disappointing: a model of opaque discretion, it was the work of a friend rather than a biographer. It stressed what we already knew—that Mitford was beautiful, gifted, amusing, and aristocratic—while skating over unhappier topics. Though Acton allowed that her wit could be mordant, frequently cruel, he chose not to examine the bitterness that prompted it.

Other books have catered to the British public’s seemingly insatiable obsession with all things Mitford: Jessica Mitford’s first volume of autobiography, Hons and Rebels (1960), Diana Mosley’s memoirs, A Life of Contrasts (1977), David Pryce-Jones’s Unity Mitford (1976), and The House of Mitford (1984) by Jonathan and Catherine Guinness, Diana’s son and granddaughter, have all kept the pot boiling. In these books Nancy herself appears somewhat obliquely, often attacking with caustic barbs but keeping her deeper feelings—how unlike the rest of her family!—under wraps. It was not until 1985 that Selina Hastings, in her excellent Nancy Mitford: A Biography, revealed behind Mitford’s high spirits and sparkling self-presentation a sadder, more pathetic, and unexpectedly valiant figure. The letters—a selection of five hundred out of the surviving eight thousand—help complete the picture.

The Mitford childhood has been amply recorded in the above-mentioned books, and immortalized by Nancy herself in The Pursuit of Love. In its literary version it is idyllic; in reality, we find, Nancy was a lonely and unhappy child, ignored by her mother, snubbed even by a much-loved nanny. The vague, distant Aunt Sadie of the novel is portrayed as a benign figure: her model, Nancy’s mother, was rather less so. “I had the greatest possible respect for her; I liked her company; but I never loved her, for the evident reason that she never loved me. I was never hugged & kissed by her as a small child—indeed I saw very little of her.” As an adult Nancy claimed to have few feelings even for her father; but it is impossible to see the portrait of Uncle Matthew as anything but affectionate, and the truth is probably that Nancy cultivated her indifference to her parents in response to a certain coolness she felt from them. Her letter to Jessica after their father’s funeral describes the futile sadness of incomplete relationships.

I’ve just got back from England. Three funeral services—such tear jerkers . . . with the old hymns (Holy Holy Holy) & the awful words, I was in fountains each time. Then the ashes were done up in the sort of parcel he used to bring back from London, rich thick brown paper & incredibly neat knots & [Pamela] & I & Aunt Iris took it down to Burford & it was buried at Swinbrook. Alas one’s life.

The funniness of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate masks the desperation with which Nancy fought her cloistered life at home. She was the eldest child, and her parents seemed not to realize that the Victorian age had passed and the 1920s were in full swing. She defied their vigilance by joining forces with a group of rather younger men from Oxford, friends of her brother, almost all homosexual: Mark Ogilvie-Grant, Robert Byron, Brian Howard, Harold Acton. The contrast between these colorful aesthetes and Nancy’s philistine family was titillating, and she saw only their attractions. Almost inconceivably innocent, she fell in love with the most outrageous member of the entire group, Hamish St. Clair-Erskine. Amoral, flamboyant, a heavy drinker, the narcissistic Hamish was incapable of returning any affection, particularly that of a woman. (There is much of Hamish in the character of Albert Memorial Gates in Nancy’s first novel, Highland Fling.) Nancy tried to laugh off his bad behavior. “The other day H. said to me in tones of the deepest satisfaction ‘you haven’t known a single happy moment since we met have you.’ Very true as a matter of fact; what he would really like would be for me to die & a few others & then he’d be able to say ‘I bring death on all who love me.’” In vain her friends warned her against him, including Evelyn Waugh, who was to remain perhaps her best friend until his death in 1966. “I’m making such a lot of money with articles,” she wrote in 1930—“£22 since Christmas & more owing to me so I’m saving it up to be married but Evelyn says don’t save it, dress better & catch a better man. Evelyn is always so full of sound common sense. The family have read Vile Bodies & I’m not allowed to know him, so right I think.”

This doomed love set the pattern for Nancy’s entire life. The saddest paradox in the story of this contradictory woman was the fact that while she glorified romantic love above all other emotions, she was able to give her own love only to men who were patently incapable of returning it. There were two great loves in her life—three if one counts her husband—and she could hardly have found three unworthier objects of the unswerving devotion it was in her nature to lavish. Her misery over the affair with Hamish, and later over the more serious one with Gaston Palewski, was real enough; but her knee-jerk habit was always to make a joke of her unhappiness. After a temporary split with Hamish:

I tried to commit suicide by gas, it is a lovely sensation just like taking anaesthetic so I shan’t be sorry any more for schoolmistresses who are found dead in that way, but just in the middle I thought that Romie who I was staying with might have a miscarriage which would be disappointing for her so I got back to bed & was sick. Then next day I thought it would be silly because as we love each other so much everything will probably be all right in the end.

The affair ended definitively in 1933. Nancy was approaching thirty, eager for marriage and independence, and when Peter Rodd proposed, almost jokingly, soon after Hamish jilted her, she took him up on it. Rodd was rather a well-known character in his day—he was the inspiration for Waugh’s Basil Seal—but though his exploits were amusing from a distance, he was an appalling bore in person, posing as an expert on every conceivable subject. (His friend Edward Stanley parodied him: “I know, I know, I am a displaced person/painter/journalist/financier/poet/Italian pimp.”) In spite of his undoubted gifts, “his only genuine success,” Peter Quennell said, “was having married Nancy Mitford.” There are aspects of Peter, or Prod as he was usually called, in both of Linda’s husbands in The Pursuit of Love. Like Tony Kroesig, he was boring and had a pompous family; like Christian Talbot, he was indifferent to his wife’s unhappiness but selfless when it came to the suffering masses. Like Christian, too, Peter took his wife to Perpignan to help refugees from the Spanish Civil War.

In Perpignan, Nancy unexpectedly discovered that she had a political conscience.

In Perpignan, Nancy unexpectedly discovered that she had a political conscience. She had always been understandably wary of political enthusiasm, seeing the terrible rifts it had caused in her own family. The teenaged Jessica’s doctrinaire Communism she considered something of a joke, but Unity and Diana’s fascism was more sinister, and her mother’s enthusiasm for Hitler was to bring an end to the Redesdales’ marriage. In 1935 Nancy had mocked both Unity and Sir Oswald Mosley in Wigs on the Green, and though she instantly regretted having hurt her sister (“Oh dear I wish I had called it mine un comf now because uncomf is what I feel when ever I think about it”), in early days she seldom lost an opportunity to poke fun at fascism:

I hear that [Unity] & Diana are going to stand outside the Polls next polling day & twist people’s arms to prevent their voting, so I have invented (& patented at Gamages) a sham arm which can be screwed on & which makes a noise like Hitler making a speech when twisted so that, mesmerised they will drop it & automatically spring to salute.

But Nancy ceased to find anything to joke about after her experience with the refugees. “If you could have a look,” she wrote to her mother, “as I have, at some of the less agreeable results of fascism in a country I think you would be less anxious for the swastika to become a flag on which the sun never sets. . . . Personally I would join hands with the devil himself to stop any further extension of the disease.” However, Nancy had a more conciliatory character than her sisters, and managed to remain on good terms with all of her family—though, bizarrely, she volunteered to the authorities her opinion that Diana, as a dangerous person, should join her husband in prison for the duration of the war. The disasters of the thirties turned her into a lifelong socialist, and she proudly called herself pink, an adjective Diana qualified as “synthetic cochineal.”

Nancy held several jobs during the war, as an ambulance driver, canteen assistant, and First Aid worker (“Well my job is writing on the foreheads of dead & dying in indelible pencil. What I write I haven’t yet discovered. . . . Meanwhile I sit twiddling my indelible pencil & aching for a forehead to write on”). From 1942 she worked as an assistant in Heywood Hill’s bookshop, which she turned into a salon for the most interesting people in wartime London, but which Americans, because of her rudeness to them, called “The Ministry of Fear.” A brief affair with an officer in the Free French Forces caused an ectopic pregnancy which left her, tragically, unable to have children.

It was during the war that Nancy’s life changed course dramatically. She fell in love with Gaston Palewski, then head of de Gaulle’s cabinet in exile. Her passion would endure for the rest of her life. He was forever her beau ideal, and inspired all the romantic characters of her postwar books: Fabrice de Sauveterre in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, Charles-Edouard de Valhubert in The Blessing, even the character of Louis XIV in her historical work The Sun King. As for Palewski, or “The Colonel” as she called him, he was amused by her, enjoyed her company, but was never in love. Aware of this, she tried hard to to make the best of it (“I suppose the next best thing to having one’s sentiments returned is to have them appreciés”). She moved to Paris to be near the Colonel, and from that moment forth France came to represent to her warmth, romance, and beauty, England ugliness, cold, and her unhappy youth. “Oh my passion for the French. I see all through rose coloured spectacles!”

Her one idea was to be available for Palewski during the rare moments he could spare from his political obligations and his myriad amours. Prod, long unfaithful to Nancy himself, now got short shrift. Her infatuation with him had been brief; she soon saw how he bored her friends, “like Raymond Mortimer & Willie Maugham who like the sound of their own voices punctuated with my giggle, but who hate being told about the origin of toll-gates by Rodd.” Once the Colonel entered her life he always took priority.

I am really fond of Peter you know but the whole thing is complicated, & the person I live for is the Col & if he can’t run in & out of my house at all times I know in the end he will feel lonely & his thoughts will turn to marriage. Also I can’t see what poor Pete gets out of it as I’m not really very nice to him—surely he’d much better marry again & produce an heir to the lands & titles.

Whatever the miseries of Nancy’s affair with Palewski, there is no doubt that with his appearance the quality of her writing reached its height. Largely inspired by her love for him, she wrote The Pursuit of Love with unprecedented ease in 1945, following it with Love in a Cold Climate (1949) and The Blessing (1951). These are widely agreed to be her best novels, far surpassing the four extremely lightweight prewar books. During these years she also wrote her very popular historical works, Madame de Pompadour (1954), Voltaire in Love (1957), The Sun King (1966), and Frederick the Great (1970).

For those who love Nancy Mitford’s books, the most interesting of the letters will be those discussing their gestation, particularly the correspondence with Waugh, her chief professional advisor. She quizzed him at length on the plot and technique of the superbly funny Love in a Cold Climate, though she followed his advice only selectively, since she was nothing if not realistic about her own gifts.

What I wonder is whether I can (am capable of) doing better. You speak of Henry James but he was a man of intellect, you must remember that I am an uneducated woman (viz punctuation). . . . You see I’m afraid that what you really criticize are my own inherent limitations. . . . I can’t do more really than skate over surfaces, for one thing I am rather insensitive as you know, & for another not very clever.

She enjoyed baiting Waugh—“I do think Catholic writers have that advantage, the story is always there to hand, will he won’t he will he won’t he save his soul? Now don’t be cross”—and he her: “The punctuation is pitiable but it never becomes unintelligible so I just shouldn’t try. It is clearly not your subject—like theology.” He was also helpful when it came to her finding a voice and a readership, a critical problem with the historical works. “To be enjoyed by [Diana Cooper] and Pam Berry,” Waugh wrote about Madame de Pompadour; “Write for the sort of reader who knows Louis XV furniture when she sees it but thinks Louis XV was the son of Louis XIV and had his head cut off.”

In 1967 Nancy moved from Paris to Versailles, and in 1968 she contracted a rare form of Hodgkin’s disease that was rooted in the spine. She spent the last years of her life in indescribable pain, a pain intensified by the long-dreaded marriage of the Colonel. Her bravery, her continued wit and high spirits as she slowly died, can only be described as heroic. There were a few bright spots: she was made Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur in 1972, “the only honour I ever coveted,” and shortly thereafter awarded a CBE. “A book I’ve got called Titles . . . says never on an envelope & of course never on a card. In other words ONE knows & nobody else.”

The funniness of the letters, right up to the end, is wonderful; it is also sad, for it shows the extent to which Nancy had trained herself to hide pain and depression. The Colonel was bored by sadness, and Nancy had for years only managed to keep his friendship by amusing him. She did so, valiantly, until the day of her death. Hence the paradox of these wonderful letters: full of jokes, they describe, finally, a painful life.

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  1. Love from Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford, edited by Charlotte Mosley; Houghton Mifflin, 538 pages, $35. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 5, on page 58
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