26th Nov 2010
Bookish Birthdays: Nancy Mitford
This Sunday would have seen the 106th birthday of an enduring icon of the modern British aristocracy in all the haughty glory, madness and arrogance of its inter-war heyday and subsequent decline into irrelevance. Nancy Mitford, the oldest of the six famous sisters, is as well-known for creating much of this imagery as she is for embodying it.
Born on November 28 1904, the daughter of Lord Redesdale, she was a leading member of the frantic social scene of the 1920s. She was known for her wit and besides working as a journalist she turned into a chronicler of her generation with her first novel – 1931′s Highland Fling – depicting a typically uproarious house party for the glamorous set.
More work set in the same milieux followed but she didn’t enjoy great success as a writer until after the Second World War, by which time the books had lost their edge of reportage to become time capsules of a world which had been all but obliterated.
At their publication the linked novels The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949) were both huge best-sellers. Drawing heavily on her own family and friends for her cast, Mitford’s stories of romantic misadventures among the upper class are sharply witty but also shot through with a sense of the cruelty and shallowness of high society, as well as a hard-edged look at the follies and prejudices of the aristocracy, which make them bleaker affairs than the chummy fun of P.G. Wodehouse while being no less enjoyable.
For all her piercing social gaze, though, Nancy remained more of an amused observer than a genuine critic. While three of her sisters became involved in extremist politics – Diana and Unity on the right, Jessica on the left – she never engaged herself in serious politics or social commentary.
Even her satire on British fascism, Wigs on the Green, contents itself with poking fairly gentle fun at the overblown self-importance of the movement. Even as she laughed at those around her, she remained indisputably part of their world: she was responsible, in her 1954 essay The English Aristocracy, for popularising the idea of ‘U’ and ‘Non-U’ speech – which suggested that vocabulary choices made infallible class indicators – and happily described herself as a snob.
Sharing many of the foibles of her characters, she served as her own model for their romantic travails. After a five year affair with a gay man and a failed marriage to a feckless minor aristocrat, she fell heavily in love with Colonel Gaston Palewski, Chief of Staff to Charles de Gaulle.
Following the war, she moved to Paris to be closer to him and was to live the rest of her life in France. Although they always remained close, her intensity of feeling for him was not returned and he was constantly unfaithful to her even before marrying another woman in 1969. She nonetheless wrote him into her two most celebrated novels in the lightly fictionalised form of Fabrice, Duc de Sauveterre.
Although in her Parisian exile she played up to her image as quintessentially English, she eventually turned her career away from fiction in favour of writing French history, including a well-received biography of Louis XIV.
She died in Versailles in 1973 and is buried alongside three of her sisters in Oxfordshire. Her life and work are now thoroughly wrapped up in the general Mitford legacy, constantly refreshed with new biographies and memoirs.
Nonetheless, her own books, which remain ruthlessly entertaining distillations of a precise time and place, have earned their own niche in literary history.