Nancy Mitford: A Biography
Noblesse Oblige: An enquiry into the identifiable characteristics of the English aristocracy
The Water Beetle
In one of Evelyn Waugh’s short stories there is a debutante whose comment on almost everything that happens is: “Goodness how sad.” The exclamation would make an excellent title for Selina Hastings’s book: “Goodness How Sad: A Life of Nancy Mitford.” At any rate, that is how her biographer seems to see her. From the birth of her sister Pam, she explains, when Nancy was three and Nanny transferred her affections to the new baby, Nancy “came first with nobody.” And right at the end, when she is dying horribly slowly of leukemia, Selina Hastings quotes the third sister (Lady Mosley): “The awful thing is, she doesn’t come first with anybody.”
With the heartless cri de coeur “goodness how sad,” Waugh mimicked the debutante voice. It was the voice in which Nancy Mitford began to write her clear, direct, free-running prose. She sobered it up as time went on, but sensibly never quite stifled it. Even in the painstakingly researched biographies she wrote in middle age it still rings engagingly in the impetuous expression of her partis pris: “Louvois…that horrible man” or “the Abbé (Bernis), his dear little face puckered with worry.” When first heard, the voice was as original, fresh, and amusing as the gold digger voice of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and in her most successful novels Nancy Mitford cleverly used a first-person narrator. “The charm of your writing,” Evelyn Waugh teased her in 1955, when her fame was at its height, “depends on your refusal to recognise a distinction between girlish chatter and literary language.” Four years later he was re-reading Voltaire in Love (1957) and praising it unreservedly: “You write so deceptively frivolously that one races on chuckling from page to page without noticing the solid structure.”
The two were great friends, and after Nancy followed her lover to Paris in 1946 and settled there, she and Waugh became busy correspondents. Waugh tutored her in Catholic doctrine and theology, which she needed to work up for her biographies of Madame de Pompadour and Louis XIV; she helped him with his French; and he never stopped picking holes in her English spelling, punctuation, and diction—especially her diction, because, while she was always keen to try a new word, modern coinages turned him green.
What they were really arguing about, of course, was not so much writing as social usage—“U and non-U.” The now rather tired and tiresome controversy on that subject was originally collected and published in 1956 under the title of Nancy Mitford’s contribution, Noblesse Oblige. It has just been reissued in paper-back for the umpteenth time, and contains the scholarly paper on U and non-U speech by Professor Alan Ross which started the whole affair. Also included are Waugh’s avuncular “Open Letter to the Honble Mrs. Peter Rodd (NANCY MITFORD) on a Very Serious Subject,” and contributions by other arbiters, all anxious to put in their tuppence worth, as Nanny might have said. Waugh did much better in a private letter to Nancy: “I wish in your Upper-class Usage you had touched on a point that has long intrigued me. Almost everyone I know has some personal antipathy which they condemn as middle-class quite irrationally.” (Nancy’s pet aversion was mixed borders.) The best that can be said now for Noblesse Oblige is that it contains John Betjeman’s classic poem “How to Get On in Society,” with its memorable first line, “Phone for the fish-knives, Norman,” and is, presumably, the ancestor of The Preppy Handbook, The Sloane Ranger Handbook, and similar concoctions that give a lot of not quite innocent pleasure.
Pleasure was Nancy Mitford’s lodestar, the only effective antidote to sadness. The six Mitford girls’ childhood is exceptionally well documented and has also given much pleasure: apart from the large autobiographical element in Nancy’s novels and the memoir of her by Harold Acton (particularly enjoyable because he quotes so much from her high-spirited letters), there is Jessica Mitford’s account of her youth, Hons and Rebels; Diana Mosley’s autobiography; David Pryce-Jones’s life of Unity Mitford; Jonathan and Catherine Guinness’s The House of Mitford; and numbers of other memoirs figuring Mitfords. The merry Hons huddled in the airing cupboard are as familiar as the solemn children scribbling in the parlor of Haworth Parsonage, which was not much bigger. But were the Hons really so merry? “What’s the time, darling?” Linda asks Jassy in The Pursuit of Love.
“A quarter to six?”
“Better than that.”
“Not quite so good.”
The boredom and frustration were asphyxiating. When Nancy published “Blor” (reprinted in The Water Beetle), a portrait of the good nanny who eventually supplanted a succession of “cruel” or indifferent ones, her mother, Lady Redesdale, was upset because Blor emerged as the only loving character in her daughter’s childhood. “Oh goodness,” Nancy apologized, “I thought it would make you laugh…. Of course the trouble is that I see my childhood (& in fact most of life) as a hilarious joke.” This does not sound very reassuring: “shrieking” (Mitford for shrieking with laughter) can be a coverup, and Selena Hastings spots it.
As soon as she was old enough, therefore, Nancy turned to what her father, Lord Redesdale, and his look-alike Uncle Matthew in The Pursuit of Love called “sewers.” (Wilamowitz-Hastings explains that the word derives from the Tamil sua = pig.) Any literate, cultivated, urban male was a “sewer,” and aesthetes were the most extreme form. “The oddly chosen battleground of Nancy’s generation,” wrote Jessica Mitford, “was that of Athletes versus Aesthetes—sometimes called the Hearties and the Arties.” Jessica was the fourth sister, much younger than Nancy. Her generation’s battleground was communists versus bourgeois and fascists. But for Nancy, the aesthetes represented liberty and pleasure. The way they carried on was as different as possible from the Mitford way, so brutally lacking in physical comfort, intellectual stimulation, and aesthetic enjoyment. For five years Nancy was in love with perhaps the most unsuitable sewer of them all, a devastatingly charming, effete, narcissistic, and tipsy homosexual called Hamish Erskine. She was still in love with him when, in 1931 (she was nearly twenty-seven and her first novel-Highland Fling had just come out), she finally broke off their engagement. The decision made her unhappy enough to think of gas ovens, but she chose parties instead: “If one can’t be happy one must be amused don’t you agree,” she wrote to Mark Ogilvie-Grant, another sewer.
Nearly twenty years later, in The Blessing, breakfast in bed has taken the place of parties. It comes up “pretty to look at, piping hot, and carefully presented” (Waugh can’t have cared much for that sentence, if he noticed it) for sad Grace who is still in love with the husband she has left because of his unfaithfulness, as Nancy left Erskine for being generally impossible. “Not for the first time” Grace thinks “it would be difficult for someone who led such an intensely comfortable life as she did to be quite submerged in unhappiness. There were too many daily pleasures, of which breakfast in bed was not the least.” Like Nancy, Grace is a stoic hedonist. Pleasure consoles.
In Madame de Pompadour “Pleasure” is a chapter heading. “Versailles in the eighteenth century,” the chapter begins, “presented the unedifying but cheerful spectacle of several thousand people living for pleasure and very much enjoying themselves.” This was what Nancy would have liked to believe, perhaps, but her own account of life at the court of Louis XV does not bear it out. It was full of miseries: tortures of boredom, envy, jealousy, disgrace, and injustice were exacerbated by the lack of privacy and the necessity of putting on a brave face. However, putting on a brave face was Nancy’s own forte.
Madame de Pompadour was the first of the biographies. “The pure pleasure of writing without the misery of inventing,” she sighed. It’s true that invention was not her strong point. Her plots are weak and her characters pale, when they are not caricatures or else portraits—simple or composite—of family and acquaintances.
When Madame de Pompadour appeared in 1954, the historian A.J.P. Taylor had fun with it in the Manchester Guardian: “[The Pursuit of Love] characters have appeared again, this time in fancy dress. They now claim to be leading figures in French history, revolving round Louis XV and his famous mistress, Madame de Pompadour.” Nancy was only slightly annoyed; in fact, she’d already said more or less the same thing: “I do love it [doing the biography] because of the shrieks. They were all exactly like ONE.” In The Sun King she discovered that Madame Montespan’s family, the Mortemarts, were Mitfords under the skin:
She, her two sisters and their brother were always together; they were extremely brilliant. They had a way of talking…which people found irresistible. Their lazy, languishing, wailing voices would build up an episode, piling unexpected exaggerations upon comic images until the listeners were helpless with laughter. Among themselves they used a private language. They were malicious, but good natured.
Still, the Mitford takeover of the French court in the seventeenth and eighteeth centuries makes it come alive in a way no other writer has managed—except, of course, Madame de Sévigné and Saint-Simon, who were in the thick of it but are not much read by the middlebrow English public. As for the rest—politics and battles—well, you can see that Nancy Mitford did her homework in the Bibliothèque Nationale.* She fell in love first with a Frenchman and then with France, rather as she had fallen in love with sewers: Frenchness was the antithesis of her family’s ultra-English milieu, habits, and values. She set up a dichotomy and banged away at it in everything she wrote from 1945 on: the French climate is warm, the English climate cold, and the same goes for French and English houses respectively; the French countryside is more beautiful that the English, but mercifully the French prefer the town anyway, while the English prefer the boredom of country life; the English are thick, the French quick and witty; French women smell delicious and dress well, English women dress appallingly and do not smell at all. (Nancy was obsessed with clothes. When the French ambassadress visited the highbrow bookshop where she worked during the war she couldn’t “sleep on account of her clothes, wondering how mine could be made over but of course they couldn’t.”) The litany continues: French food is delectable, English food beneath contempt; the French are interested in art, the English not; they set out to please, the English don’t bother. And so on.
The Frenchman who changed Nancy’s life was Gaston Palewski. Selina Hastings sums him up perfectly. He “was possessed of all the qualities that, to an English eye, epitomise the sophisticated Frenchman: he was charming, he was amusing, he was a great lover of the arts and an incorrigible womaniser.” He became Fabrice in The Pursuit of Love and Charles-Edouard in The Blessing and Don’t Tell Alfred, not to speak of his infiltrating Nancy’s portraits of Louis XIV and Louis XV and other charmers of the past. She first met him in 1942 when he had been recalled from commanding the Free French forces in East Africa to become General de Gaulle’s directeur de cabinet in London.
By this time Nancy was living apart from Peter Rodd, whom she had married ten years earlier. As husband material, Peter Rodd was as unpromising as Hamish Erskine, though for different reasons. Instead of being gay he was a womanizer, just as fond of the bottle, and more narcissistic still. He was handsome, clever, pompous, a bore and a ne’er-do-well. “Nearly everything he did turned out badly.” He was exactly the same age as Nancy, but in a photograph unkindly reproduced here she looks like a cross mother restraining her grown-up son. Still for a short while she was happy: “Well, the happiness,” she wrote to Mark Ogilvie-Grant. “Oh goodness gracious I am happy. You must get married darling, everybody should this minute if they want a receipt for absolute bliss.”
In Palewski’s case the trouble was not so much his character as the fact that, through the long years of their relationship (nearly thirty), he was never in love with Nancy, though much entertained by her company. She loved him to distraction. They did not live together. He would take her out or dine at her house, spend the night, and be back in his own bed in time to be called by his valet. The woman who came first with him was the Duchesse de Sagan. In 1969 he married her. For Nancy, already showing symptoms of her final illness, “it was almost literally a death-blow, the bitterness of it exacerbated by the fact that Gaston’s wife was a divorced woman: for years Nancy had accepted the face-saving excuse that he could never marry her because he dare not risk his political career [he had been ambassador to Italy and minister for atomic energy] by marrying a divorcée. Now retired from politics, he could marry where he chose, and his choice was not Nancy. She admitted her misery to no one…[her] manner studiedly casual.”
Nancy’s English heroines all have to learn painfully what her French ones know by instinct: to catch a man, you must devote all your energy and attention to pleasing and amusing him; you must enter into the subjects he cares about, make him comfortable, flatter him. When you have caught him you must redouble your efforts; when he begins to be unfaithful you must behave like the Duchesse de Choiseul, wife of Louis XV’s foreign minister, who “took the situation philosophically and made friends with her husband’s mistresses.” And you must never, never sulk or make a fuss.
Nancy’s love was never quite requited. The other great sadness in her life was that after several miscarriages she had to have a hysterectomy. She would have loved a child. Her feeling for children comes out in her fond attitude to the wicked child-hero of The Blessing, and in the captivating way she writes about historical children: the little Duc du Maine, for instance, Louis XIV’s oldest child by Madame de Montespan, or Louis XV’s child-bride:
His fiancée, who lived in the palace, was still only five; a golden-haired darling, she appeared with him at all state functions, trotted around after him like a little pet, and was considered absolutely sweet. But boys of fifteen loathe sweet little girls and he felt humiliated at having such a small fiancée.
Perhaps her sister’s lack of children was one of the things in Diana Mosley’s mind when she wrote, after Nancy’s death, “her life seems almost too sad to contemplate, despite great successes with her books.”
Success not only with her books. In the tout Paris of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, Nancy was a star, and the chief adornment of the British embassy. She did not always behave well there. When the dowdy Harveys succeeded the fashionable Coopers as incumbents in late 1947, Nancy enthusiastically joined Lady Diana Cooper’s game of “Being Beastly to the Harveys”: “We all proudly say we shan’t write our names in their book.” But, says Selina Hastings, “true to form, Nancy had only to dine with the new Ambassador and his wife a couple of times for her to turn from hunting with the hounds to running with the hare.”
It is not the only time she sounds a little reproachful. She gives the impression that while she feels sorry for Nancy in an almost sisterly way, and very much admires her funniness, panache, and guts, she finds it more difficult to be fond of her than perhaps she thought she would when her project began. Rereading the Mitford oeuvre can produce the same effect. In spite of the gaiety, jokes, charm, and apparent frivolity, there is something insistently didactic about it: frivolity, in fact, is being solemnly preached—and courage in adversity too. Toujours gai is the motto—the French version, really, of the British stiff upper lip, only adorned with a soupçon of silky down instead of the bristling Redesdale moustache.
There is a lot to be said for stiff upper lips, but solemnity about frivolity is hard to take, and so are its concomitants: the worship of chic, and the snobbish contempt for dowdy, unfashionable appearance, manners, and views. The miniapotheosis in Don’t Tell Alfred of mousy Fanny (named after the heroine of Mansfield Park?) neither quite convinces nor quite makes amends. As for the lecturettes on taste in general and French architecture, decoration, ébénisterie, and gardening in particular, they have a place in the biographies; but in the later novels they clutter up the action like glossy magazines lying pointlessly around.
There is something prophetic about Fanny’s summing up of her dashing mother, the Bolter, in The Pursuit of Love:
She was curiously dated in her manner, and seemed still to be living in the 1920’s. It was as though, at the age of thirty-five, having refused to grow any older, she had pickled herself, both mentally and physically, ignoring the fact that the world was changing and that she was withering fast…. Her conversation, her point of view, the very slang she used, all belonged to the ‘twenties, that period now deader than the dodo.
The difference between Fanny’s present, the Forties, and ours, is that we have le goût rétro, and it helps to keep Nancy Mitford’s books enjoyable. For they belong to their period as much as Dior’s New Look, which caused her such excitement. The most dated thing about her is her recipe for success in the pursuit of love. The notion that there should be such a thing at all must be anathema to feminists of both genders.
Like her friend Waugh, Nancy Mitford was a brilliant mimic. Her comic entertainment has tremendous charm. It is a charade acted with the drawing-room curtains as back cloth. It’s fun and even flattering to be asked to share the private jokes, but after a bit the mind wanders and longs for something more solid and varied. Waugh provides it. His jokes are even funnier, but his performance is given with proper scenery, suggesting a world beyond the orangerie, and on a solid stage constructed of Christian metaphysics. So his novels are comedies or tragicomedies, while hers are just fun and games.
The odd one out among the biographies is Frederick II of Prussia. Nancy Mitford developed an unexpected empathy with this sarcastic, lonely man, though it's true they shared Francophilia and an impatience with fools.↩
The odd one out among the biographies is Frederick II of Prussia. Nancy Mitford developed an unexpected empathy with this sarcastic, lonely man, though it’s true they shared Francophilia and an impatience with fools.↩