Love From Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford
edited by Charlotte Mosley
Houghton Mifflin, 538 pp., $35.00
When Nancy Mitford started on her first biography, a life of Madame de Pompadour, she found it difficult to imagine who her readers would be. So she asked her friend Evelyn Waugh to “just put on a P.C. the name of a typical reader—he whom I should be out to entertain without irritating.” He suggested two friends to whom a number of letters in this collection are addressed:
Honks & Pam Berry [i.e., Lady Diana Cooper, the wife of the British ambassador in Paris and a famous beauty, and Lady Pamela Berry, the wife of the proprietor of The Daily Telegraph and a famous political hostess]…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.
She did. It can’t have been too difficult, because these were the people who loved her novels; more intellectually demanding readers loved them too, when they first came out, but probably wouldn’t so much now.
From the late Forties through the Fifties and Sixties, Nancy Mitford was a social star in France, where she lived, and a literary star in England, where she refused to live. Both stardoms originated in her fifth novel, The Pursuit of Love. When it was published in 1945, she acquired an instant pack of fans, avid for more, and faithful through three subsequent novels. Though popular, none of them nor her biographies of Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire, Louis XIV, and Frederick the Great had quite the same impact as The Pursuit of Love, nor could they have been expected to. Like Catcher in the Rye or Lucky Jim, The Pursuit of Love went off like a rocket scattering a new brand of jokes in a new idiom.
The story is a whooped-up version of Mitford’s childhood and youth in a rustic upper-class milieu with built-in snob appeal. Elements of her own and some of her sisters’ careers are combined in the heroine’s adventures, and in her character too: Linda is romantic, goofy, headstrong, and artlessly witty, an aristocratic species of Lorelei Lee; except that she is digging for love, not gold, and would have to invert Lorelei’s famous dictum: “Kissing your hand may make you feel very, very good, but a diamond and sapphire bracelet lasts forever.” Linda is loaded with charm, and so is the dialogue, a lot of which is in Honnish, the private language of the Hons’ cupboard, a disused linen store where the young Mitford sisters congregated to wait impatiently for love, meanwhile exchanging gossip, secrets, and unreliable information about sex and childbirth.
Nancy Mitford was born in 1904, the eldest child of Lord Redesdale, an eccentric backwoods peer who produced five more daughters and a son. The son was killed in the Second World War. The second daughter, Pamela, led a fairly uneventful life. The third, Diana, took as her second husband the leader of the …