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 British Fascist Party, Oswald Mosley; they both spent part of the war in prison. The fourth sister, Unity, became a Hitler groupie. She was in Germany when the war broke out, and unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide by shooting herself in the head. Hitler allowed her family to bring her back to England, but she never fully recovered, and died in 1948. The fifth daughter, Jessica, joined the Communist Party and married another unlikely Party member, her cousin Esmond Romilly, a notorious rebel who broke up parties, smashed up houses, and became famous for running away from his boarding school at the age of fifteen to found a magazine for other rebel school boys. He fought with the Republicans in Spain and was killed in the Second World War, flying with the Canadian Air Force. Jessica then married the American lawyer and civil rights activist Bob Treuhaft, and has herself been one ever since. The youngest sister Deborah married the Duke of Devonshire’s son (and in due course became a duchess). This must have been a relief for Lady Redesdale who used to complain that every time she saw the words “peer’s daughter” in a newspaper headline, she knew “it’s going to be something about one of you children.” She meant something bad, of course.
The Pursuit of Love made the Mitford sisters’ childhood almost as familiar to British readers as Christopher Robin Milne’s. Two versions of it have become conflated, because in 1960 Jessica Mitford published hers in the memoir Hons and Rebels. Nancy thought her sister’s book “rather dishonest for an autobiography…altogether there is a coldness about it which I find unattractive, but of course made up for by the great funniness.” Funniness was the Mitfords’ shibboleth, a less sophisticated subspecies of being amusing, which was the shibboleth of Nancy’s whole generation. For thirty years or more after the publication of The Pursuit of Love, fragments of the Honnish language remained in general use (e.g., “we shrieked”—we laughed; “Farv” and “Muv”—father and mother). If Lord and Lady Redesdale had been toys, cuddly replicas of Farv and Muv would have been sold in shops just as Pooh’s and Eyore’s were.
Nancy emerged from the Hons’ cupboard quite uneducated (as were most girls of her class), and became an enthusiastic debutante. Not for long, though. By the time she was nineteen, she felt bored by the kind of young man she met at deb dances and hunt balls, and defected to the aesthetes (“sewers” to Farv). Many of them were what she called “pederasts,” and she fell in love with one called Hamish St. Clair-Erskine. The relationship was unhappy, a worry to both families, and lasted five years. Nancy was shattered when she realized it had to end. She “chose to love someone who was unable to reciprocate her love,” says her editor, “a pattern she was to repeat throughout her life.”
On the rebound she married Lord Rennell’s son Peter Rodd, whom nobody liked very much, and Nancy herself didn’t like for long. He never kept a job, so Nancy tried to earn money from writing, beginning with pieces for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and moving on to novels. During the war she worked in Heywood Hill’s bookshop, a chatty place for upper-class intellectuals to meet. In 1942 she met the love of her life, Gaston Palewski, whom she nicknamed “the Colonel.” He became the irresistible, sophisticated, arrogant, and charming French hero of her novels—Fabrice in The Pursuit of Love, Charles-Edouard in the later ones. Fabrice is charmed by Linda’s lack of sophistication, but (perversely, one might think) lectures her on the values Nancy Mitford was to defend for the rest of her life, especially in her letters to unregenerate philistine England.
Les gens du monde are the only possible ones for friends. You see, they have made a fine art of personal relationships and of all that pertains to them—manners, clothes, beautiful houses, good food, everything that makes life agreeable. It would be silly not to take advantage of that. Friendship is something to be built up carefully, by people with leisure, it is an art, nature does not enter into it. You should never despise social life—de la haute société—I mean, it can be a very satisfying one, entirely artificial, of course, but absorbing. Apart from the life of the intellect and the contemplative religious life which few people are qualified to enjoy, what else is there to distinguish man from animals but his social life?
Palewski had come to London on General de Gaulle’s staff, later became his chef de cabinet, and after the war a key figure in the Rassemblement du Peuple Français. From 1957 to 1962 he was the French ambassador to Rome. Nancy moved to Paris in 1947 to be near him. She no longer lived with her husband, though she helped to keep him afloat: her letters to him sound exasperated but friendly. Palewski was a cruelly capricious lover, allowing her to see him or not, as he thought fit, seeing and being seen with plenty of other women, and refusing to marry her even after she divorced Rodd in 1957; he said he could not marry a divorced Protestant. Twelve years later at the age of sixty-eight, he married Violette de Talleyrand-Périgord, who was both those things. Still, he did not share a house with his wife any more than he had with Nancy, and he came to see her the day she died of leukemia, after five years of more and more excruciating pain, in 1973.
If you abstracted her letters to Palewski from the rest, you would get something like the famous Letters of a Portuguese Nun which, fake as they turned out to be, had the reading public in tears when it was first published. In Nancy’s case the tears would have to be punctuated with shrieks. Funniness is paramount, and its presence intensifies the pathos of her situation:
I’ve just written you a long sad letter which I’ve torn up—I don’t think you like being invited to regard me as a serious character, and anyhow you have enough sadness in your own life—perhaps everybody has…. I’ve been writing to you for hours because the letter I tore up as well as being very sad was also very long. What will happen to me on Sunday mornings when I have to stop writing to you? Oh darling Colonel.
One of her comic ploys was to put imaginary crushing replies by Palewski in brackets after her own fond declarations: May 1947: “You dearest darling Colonel. It is terrible, do be sorry for me. It is really only terrible because of your not being there (‘I know’).” September 1947: “You dear dear darling Colonel life without you is so terrible (‘it must be’) that I don’t see how I can endure spending the winter in Rome.” July 1951: “Korda is to give me seven million 500,000 francs [for a film treatment] so dear dear Colonel I can give you a nice present (‘No’).”
Toujours gai was her motto. “I can’t help seeing my childhood (& the whole of my life) as a hilarious joke.” She thought of herself as happy, or at least she kept saying so. In 1949 she wrote to Evelyn Waugh: “Do you really think it’s more wrong to live in one place than another and wrong to go to fancy dress parties? I don’t live here for food wine & elegant clothes but because I love the people. Like Napoleon I wish to be buried parmi ce peuple que j’ai si bien aimé, & one of my Xmas presents this year was a grave in the Père Lachaise, so I shall be…. Don’t be angry with me for being happy….” In 1952 she described (again to Waugh) meeting Bertrand Russell, “He said to me ‘are you happy?’ ‘Perfectly happy from morning to night.’ ‘Good gracious you’re the first person I’ve ever heard say that.’ Oh dear why are people so sad, I wish I knew.” Her biographer Selina Hastings thought the declarations of happiness were a false front, and when she died her sister Diana wrote, “Her life seems almost too sad to contemplate, despite great successes with her books.”
What made her happy—or anyway distracted her from her unhappiness? Well, friendship, living in France, and grand parties in the international beau monde (in her younger years, any party would do; “I must say I do go to awful sorts of parties…,” she wrote during the worst of her time with Hamish Erskine, “but if one can’t be happy one must be amused don’t you agree?”). The success of her work pleased her, and so did her beautiful apartment in an old hôtel particulier; also pretty seventeenth- and eighteenth-century antiques (especially if presents from or to Palewski), and clothes, which she found irresistible. “The reason I accepted [an unpromising invitation] was I’ve got a very beautiful & expensive dress eating its head off in my cupboard. So far, I’ve only worn it twice, it seems to have cost about £150 an outing [in 1961] so I thought, take it out again & it will go down to only £100.” Just as her writing was rewarded when she was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, her weakness in the face of temptation at the Paris collections was rewarded by becoming an acknowledged élégante. She was mortified by the dowdiness of British women, including her sisters when they came to Paris on a shopping spree; it also gave her wicked pleasure. “Oh the get-ups,” she wrote after attending Princess Alexandra’s wedding. “I never saw worse. I’m sure English women are dowdier than when I was young. The hats were nearly all as though made by somebody who had once heard about flowers but never seen one—huge muffs of horror… Pss M [Princess Margaret] unspeakable, like a hedgehog all in primroses.”
Letters give the reader entrée to a group, a circle, a coterie, a family: Virginia Woolf’s to Bloomsbury, Flaubert’s to the French literary scene in the second half of the nineteenth century, Madame de Sévigné’s to the court of Louis XIV. Nancy Mitford was the Sévigné of her day, with Diana Cooper in the role of the Sun King. Her correspondents belonged to three circles, which overlapped; the first circle was her family, especially her sisters—Jessica among the civil rights workers in Oakland and Deborah in the palace of Chatsworth. The Mosleys settled in France in 1951 and belonged to the Windsor set, which Nancy did not much care for. In 1940 Nancy had denounced her sister Diana as a possible traitor (she referred to her as Lady Q, for Quisling), advising a friend in the Ministry of Economic Warfare “to examine her passport to see how often she went [to Germany]. I also said I regard her as an extremely dangerous person. Not very sisterly behaviour but in such times I think it one’s duty.” Relations between the sisters were cool for a while, but toward the end of Nancy’s life, Diana seems to have been the one closest to her.
The second circle was based on the aesthetes, the Twenties generation of Oxford sewers: Mark Ogilvie-Grant, Heywood Hill, the critic Raymond Mortimer, and the novelists Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh; the last three were not just Nancy’s gossips, but her literary advisers too. When she first began to write, she did it for money; but she came to care more and more for her chosen profession, and to work harder and harder at it, until she was in a position to grumble about other writers’ inaccuracies and diction. Her lack of education was a thorn and grievance, and she was always seeking and gratefully accepting advice: “Clichés pour from my pen & I do try to suppress them by degrees, but never get rid of them all,” she wrote to Powell who had pointed one out; and to Waugh: “Do you think there would exist in London a teacher of punctuation…I did buy a book on the subject but it fogged me worse than ever. I would like to become a good writer, & it should be possible because I see I have the exact temperament required, as well as some talent. Not enough intellect, no education & no technique. C’est embêtant.”
The third circle was really a set of concentric circles. The innermost of them consisted of chic Anglophile French and chic Francophile British habitués of the British embassy in Paris, and spread outward to include the European beau monde in general, from the high aristocracy through café society to the intellectual and artistic fringe. Americans were excluded; Nancy hated everything American just as she adored everything French.
None of these circles is likely to have much moral appeal for today’s readers. But then neither does the court of Louis XIV. As described by Madame de Sévigné, it sounds like a den of heartless, snobbish alligators, all trying to do each other down, but that doesn’t stop it from making good reading. In 1964 Nancy Mitford reviewed a biography of Sévigné in these pages.
Madame de Sévigné was what the French call une force de la nature and does not, I think, lend herself to clever, detailed analysis of every word she wrote. We only need to let her torrent flow over us to know what she would have been like as a friend and lover. An adorable friend; an insupportable lover… She was not a calculating intellectual with one eye on the psychologist of the future but a high-spirited, well-educated woman who was apt to write down whatever popped into her head, knowing that her correspondent would make allowance for overstatement.*
Almost all of this could be applied to Nancy Mitford herself, except (on her own saying) “well-educated.” As for being an “insupportable lover,” that seems unlikely, since she held onto Palewski for so long, even if not exclusively. Charlotte Mosley suggests that he never loved her, but enjoyed her witty company. Insupportable lovers are terrible company. Mosley also thinks Nancy Mitford realized that one day her letters would be published. “Won’t the editor of my letters have a jolly time, I often think,” she wrote to her sister Diana.
Nancy Mitford was far from having “correct” views. Of course, this is true of many in her set. If she sounds worse than most, that is because a cheerful brutality was part of Honnish humor; it was meant to shock. Although in her youth she thought of herself as a socialist, she really only liked what she had been brought up to think of as the “lower orders” if they tilled the soil, were helpful and polite from behind shop counters, or devoted to her as servants. Then she loved them: first Marie, who was her maid and cook until old age forced her to retire; and then a young Moroccan called Hassan, who succeeded her.
Since living—well, not actually living, co-existing—with Hassan now known as the Beamish Boy, my view of le tiers monde is greatly modified. He is a dear soul but the thought of giving him a vote makes me shriek. My considered opinion is that the world has been wretched ever since the abolition of slavery. A bas with Wilberforce. Beamish is a slave…& look how happy we both are. Look I mean come and look…
She was writing to Raymond Mortimer, who would have understood that this was a flight of camp into forbidden territory. Trespassing on sacred ground and bad-taste black humor were part of the Mitford style, a Hon inheritance. Three years later, and five weeks before her death, she wrote: “Hassan is a saint—he charges about into bed pans & so on & is far less embarrassed about all that than I am. Gamp, known as Beastly [the nurse], will not shut the door & Colonel minds.” (The letter, the penultimate in this collection, ends, “The doctors will not give one a date, it is so inconvenient they merely say have everything you want (morphia).”)
This volume should be sold with a sachet of salt taped to the dust jacket, together with George Saintsbury’s defense of Madame de Sévigné against the charge of heartlessness (quoted by Mitford in her review of Sévigné biography): “The historic estimate sufficiently disposes of some of the objections, a little commonsense of the others and a very little charity of the rest.” One or the other of these should make it possible to swallow not only Mitford’s sense of white superiority, but also her snobbery, anti-Americanism, and professed anti-feminism. Much depends on how you react to the personality of the letter writer. I haven’t cared for Madame de Sévigné’s playfulness from the time we plowed through her letters at school, but can’t possibly help liking Nancy Mitford for being so high-spirited, funny, and brave. Besides, the directness and intimacy of her tone persuade one that she was indeed “an adorable friend.”
Charlotte Mosley has chosen the letters in such a way that Mitford’s biographical curve stands out clear and tragic—and heroic toward the end. Her footnotes are amazingly informative, especially on genealogy. Titles, marriages, offspring, and cousinage are established upward, downward, and sideways, even for characters mentioned only en passant. But only if they are more or less armigerous: Waugh and Powell get the full treatment (they married three peers’ daughters between them), but not Raymond Mortimer.
February 17, 1994