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Nazis, nicknames and ‘child hunts’: The uniquely bizarre life of Nancy Mitford

·15-min read
<p>Nancy Mitford’s classic novel has been been turned into a three-part BBC One mini-series </p> (Theodora Films Limited & Moonage Pictures Limited/Robert Viglasky)

Nancy Mitford’s classic novel has been been turned into a three-part BBC One mini-series

(Theodora Films Limited & Moonage Pictures Limited/Robert Viglasky)

When Nancy Mitford was writing The Pursuit of Love, she was working as a bookshop assistant in Mayfair. She was so hard up that she would often walk for nearly an hour to work from her home in Maida Vale to save the bus fare. When the book was published in 1945, she made so much money that she boasted that “I sat under a shower of gold”.

This entrancing comic novel, which has been turned into a three-part BBC One mini-series starring Lily James and Emily Beecham, is a fictional account of the Radlett family, set between the two world wars. The book was inspired by her own dismal love life and a freakish, dysfunctional aristocratic upbringing she admitted was “mad”. The Mitfords make the Bluths of Arrested Development look like models of normality.

Born on 28 November 1904, Nancy was the eldest of the six Mitford sisters – she was followed by Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah – and had one brother, four years her junior, called Tom. Their mother, Sydney Bowles, imposed all sorts of arbitrary rules on her daughters. They were banned from eating pork, their nanny had to rinse them in cold water after their baths, no medicines of any kind were allowed, and they were educated by governesses in case the future debutants developed thick calves from playing hockey at school. “I grew up as ignorant as an owl,” Nancy once joked.

She nicknamed her volatile father, David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, the second Baron Redesdale, “Old Subhuman”, partly because of his habit of eating gelatinous, ruby red calf brains for breakfast. He is the model for The Pursuit of Love’s Uncle Matthew – played by Dominic West – a quirky, bad-tempered, xenophobic bully. One of her father’s favourite games, which features in the novel, was called “child hunt”. Nancy and her sister Pamela would be designated the “hare” or the “cold boot” and given a head-start to flee across the fields near their Oxfordshire manor house, before he released the chasing bloodhounds. The dog that found a child first was rewarded by Redesdale with raw meat. Although it was supposedly a bit of fun, Nancy later wrote about her memories of “four great hounds in full cry after two little girls”.

Her father had fought a bloody First World War campaign. In The Pursuit of Love, Nancy describes how, over the chimney piece, “hangs an entrenching tool, with which, in 1915, Uncle Matthew had whacked to death eight Germans one by one as they crawled out of a dug-out”. When Matthew hears that a cosmopolitan neighbour is bringing friends to the Radlett’s ball, he spews out prejudice against “fiendish” foreigners. “I wouldn’t put it past him to bring some foreigners, I hear he sometimes has Frogs and even Wops to stay with him. I will not have my house filled with Wops.”

Nancy’s father developed extreme right-wing opinions when she was a teenager, following financial problems brought on by a series of poor investments. In 1937, he joined the pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic organisation The Link. In real life, Redesdale passed on his hateful views to several of his daughters. Unity became a fervent Nazi groupie, declaring publicly that, “I want everyone to know I’m a Jew hater”. She once etched a swastika into a window using a diamond ring. She ended up befriending Hitler, who used to stroke her hair and call her his “Little Kind”. On the day war was declared, Unity tried to shoot herself in a Munich park. She made a hash of it and was left with brain damage from the bullet lodged in her brain. She lived out her final years on the Scottish island of Inch, dying in 1948.

Hitler had been guest of honour at the wedding of Nancy’s sister Diana, when the socialite married the British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, at the Berlin home of Joseph Goebbels, in October 1936. Nancy briefly flirted with right-wing views, praising Mosley’s Black Shirts, before turning her back on extremism – and on the beliefs of her two sisters. She mocked both in her 1935 novel Wigs on the Green and wrote a letter to a friend saying she wanted to invent “a sham arm which can be screwed on & which makes a noise like Hitler making a speech” to give to Unity and Diana.

Biographer Lisa Hilton, author of The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London, is convinced that Nancy’s experiences of working in a refugee camp during the Spanish Civil War, and later helping Jewish refugees in London during the Second World War, changed her outlook. “She has been accused of anti-Semitism but many of her close friends were Jewish,” says Hilton. “She loathed people who were anti-Semitic and she loathed people who were anti-gay. She saw both as being deeply, deeply uncivilised.”

Things came to a head in 1940 when Diana Mosley was interred in Holloway Prison after Nancy gave evidence against her sister to M15, accusing her of plotting the downfall of democracy in England. Security service documents released by the National Archives in 2003 included a report from January 1941 stating the Nancy Mitford “personally informed the authorities of her sister’s (Lady Mosley’s) treasonable sympathies”. Nancy warned the government that her sister, who regularly visited Hitler, was “a ruthless and shrewd egotist, a devoted fascist and far cleverer and more dangerous than her husband”.

The Mitford family was divided over fascism with two of Nancy’s sisters - Diana and Unity - having close ties to the NazisGetty Images
The Mitford family was divided over fascism with two of Nancy’s sisters - Diana and Unity - having close ties to the NazisGetty Images

Strange as it seems, the two sisters reconciled after the war and Nancy would regularly visit Diana and her husband, whom she always referred to privately as “The Poor Old Leader”. Nicknames were always an enthusiastic hobby in the Mitford family. As youngsters, the Mitford sisters developed a private language called “Boudledidge” (pronounced “Bowdledidge”), with each girl taking on a different persona. Their parents were known as “Marv and Farv”, Diana was known as “Bodley” (a moniker that mocked the size of her skull, taken from the name of publishers Bodley Head), the domesticated Pamela was dubbed “Woman”, Jessica was “Decca”, Unity was “Bobo” and “Heart of Stone” and Deborah was “Debo”, “Nine” or “Stubby” (because of the shape of her legs). Nancy was sometimes known as “Koko”.

Even in middle-age, Nancy retained a cruel streak, continuing to call Deborah, who became Duchess of Devonshire, “Nine”, arguing that her sister, who never read books and declared her favourite reading matter to be the monthly journal of the British Goat Keepers’ Society, had not developed beyond the mental age of nine. “The great advantage of living in a large family is that early lesson of life’s essential unfairness,” Nancy wrote in The Pursuit of Love.

Nancy admitted that she was often “vile” to her younger sisters. Jessica, who described the famous writer as “sharp-tongued and sarcastic”, recalled that Nancy once told her she looked like “the eldest and ugliest of the Brontë sisters”. Deborah, 15 years Nancy’s junior, suffered the worst torments. Nancy would often tell the youngest sibling that “everyone cried when you were born” and she wrote poems specifically designed to upset “Nine”, including one about a little houseless match (“it has no house, it lies alone”) that made her little sister sob. Even holding up a box of matches soon became enough to bring tears to Deborah’s eyes.

Lily James and Emily Beecham both star in the BBC adaptation of ‘The Pursuit of Love’Theodora Films Limited & Moonage Pictures Limited/Robert Viglasky
Lily James and Emily Beecham both star in the BBC adaptation of ‘The Pursuit of Love’Theodora Films Limited & Moonage Pictures Limited/Robert Viglasky

The sibling who tends to be most overlooked in the family drama is Tom Mitford, who was 36 when he was killed in action, in March 1945, in Burma, fighting for the Devonshire Regiment (the Nazi sympathiser had not wanted to fight against Germans, but saw no problem in serving against the Japanese). Nancy was staying with friends when she heard about his death. She reportedly came down to dinner that evening immaculately dressed, never once mentioning her brother.

Perhaps old resentments still festered. Tom played an inadvertent part in Nancy’s unhappy romantic life, having introduced her to one of his former Eton lovers, James “Hamish” St Clair-Erskine. Nancy’s friend Evelyn Waugh warned her about the narcissistic St Clair-Erskine, whom she met in 1928. They became engaged shortly afterwards and Nancy later admitted that she did not have a “single happy moment” with the aristocratic Scot, telling Waugh on one occasion that “what he would really like would be for me to die”. That nearly came about in 1931, when the 26-year-old tried to kill herself by putting her head in a gas oven. She changed her mind at the last moment, bemoaning her life during the two days of sickness that followed. After St Clair-Erskine broke up with her by telephone, Nancy took revenge by turning him into the repellent artist Albert Memorial Gates in her debut novel Highland Fling.

“Her love life was a disaster,” Hilton told the BBC radio show Great Lives in 2019. “She was engaged for five years to Hamish Erskine, who was frankly gay. Then she married Peter Rodd, who was a dreadful womaniser and the most boring man in England. He was feckless and stole all her money.”

The handsome Peter Rodd, son of the first Baron Rennell, was a heavy drinker and another man incapable of showing her real affection. Their 1933 marriage was an emotional catastrophe. Rodd, who had supposedly proposed to two women in the same week he asked Nancy to marry him, was compulsively unfaithful to Nancy. He was also a colossal, pompous bore. Although Nancy tried to get her sisters to call him Prod, they dubbed him “The Old Toll-Gater”, in reference to his habit of rambling on about historical subjects such as turnpike roads and the medieval Norman kingdom of Sicily. He never held down a job and was always on the cadge for money. He appears both as the posh sponger Jasper Aspect in Wigs on the Green and as the shiftless Basil Seal in Waugh’s Black Mischief.

Nancy Mitford had an unhappy marriage to Peter Rodd, ending with divorce in 1957Getty Images
Nancy Mitford had an unhappy marriage to Peter Rodd, ending with divorce in 1957Getty Images

Rodd drained Nancy of the money she earned writing for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and for the small fees – about £100 apiece – that she earned for her first four novels: The cool reception for her 1940 novel Pigeon Pie, as well as her mounting unhappiness with Rodd, were factors in the way she threw herself into the war effort with such zeal. As well as helping refugees, she was an ambulance driver, a canteen assistant and a first aid worker, during which stint she was allocated the task of writing the names of the dead on their heads in indelible pencil.

In 1941, after suffering repeated miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy, she was sent to hospital for a hysterectomy. Nancy later revealed that her mother’s reaction was to say: “Ovaries? I thought one had 700, like caviar.” One biographer believes the traumatic event marked a turning point. “The brutal removal of her ability to have children liberated her into creativity,” says Laura Thompson, author of Life in a Cold Climate: Nancy Mitford – A Portrait of a Contradictory Woman.

A year later, Nancy began thinking about a new novel exploring her family and her own romantic life. It came at a time when she had fallen deeply in love with a new lover, Colonel Gaston Palewski, a top officer in Charles de Gaulle’s cabinet, who was co-ordinating France’s war effort from London. Although the chubby, balding Palewski was described as having rancid breath and a “face like an unpeeled King Edward potato”, he was a passionate lover and the model for the suave French duke Fabrice de Sauveterre in The Pursuit of Love (he’s played by Call My Agent!’s Assaad Bouab in Emily Mortimer’s BBC adaptation).

Assaad Bouab plays Gaston Palewski alongside James, based on the great love of Mitford’s lifeTheodora Films Limited & Moonage Pictures Limited/Robert Viglasky
Assaad Bouab plays Gaston Palewski alongside James, based on the great love of Mitford’s lifeTheodora Films Limited & Moonage Pictures Limited/Robert Viglasky

The Pursuit of Love, the book that would finally give Nancy financial independence, was written while she was working at Heywood Hill Bookshop in Curzon Street. Thankfully, publishers Hamish Hamilton accepted her offer of a new novel, after she’d written to say: "I expect your list is enormous, & you may not want it". Something about working at the bookshop seemed to inspire Nancy, who said she “read enormously” to educate herself as a child. She was sometimes disparaging about her own “indifferent novels”, underplaying books that are full of wisdom, humour and bitingly original descriptions. The Pursuit of Love is told through the eyes of Linda Radlett’s cousin, Fanny Logan. When Fanny is shown Linda’s new-born baby, she remarks that it is “the usual horrid sight of a howling orange in a fine black wig”. This was daringly unsentimental writing for 1945.

Zoë Heller, who wrote the introduction to a 2010 edition of The Pursuit of Love, described Nancy as “a genius”, declaring that “beneath the brittle surface of Mitford’s wit there is something infinitely more melancholy at work – something that is apt to snag you and pull you into its dark undertow when you are least expecting it.”

The Pursuit of Love (the title was suggested by Waugh) was published on 10 December 1945. It sold 200,000 copies in its first year. At one point, the irascible Uncle Matthew yells at Fanny for using the description “notepaper” when she should have said “writing paper”. The mores and foibles of the English upper class society remained a subject close to Mitford’s heart. A 1955 essay in Encounter magazine called “The English Aristocracy” was a deliberately teasing, inflammatory guide to the etiquette of language. She detailed the correct “U” (upper class) things to say, offering the vulgar “non-U” (non-upper class) alternative. The essay proved so popular that it was expanded into a book called Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy.

She offered lots of examples: false teeth was U, dentures was non-U; sick was U, ill was non-U; chimneypiece was U, mantelpiece was non-U; a person “had one’s bath” if they were U and “took a bath” if they were non-U. My favourite is her particularly stern instruction to anyone whose guests insisted on “braying the word ‘cheers’ as they clink their glasses”. She advised her readers that “silence is the only possible U-response”.

The book secured her reputation as an insufferable snob. Not that she was worried. When she was interviewed by the BBC in 1970, she was asked if she was “grieved” by what the public thought of her. “Not in the least bit. I don’t care,” she replied, playing the pantomime villain and using a strangulated cut-glass accent. “I haven’t cultivated this. I suppose in some way I have given them reason to think so.”

Mitford spent her remaining years in France, where she died in 1973 aged 68Getty Images
Mitford spent her remaining years in France, where she died in 1973 aged 68Getty Images

By the time of Noblesse Oblige, Nancy had long separated from Rodd (they divorced in 1957), and was living in Paris, finally able to indulge her lifelong passion for Dior clothing. “I’d much rather be glamorous than dowdy,” she said. Although she desperately wanted to marry Palewski, she was upset to discover he was as much a philanderer as Rodd. She again sought an outlet in fiction. Her penultimate novel, The Blessing, was about an English woman who moves to Paris after falling for a glamorous Frenchman named Charles-Edouard, only to find that he is a serial womaniser. Mitford’s melancholy feelings about her relationship with Palewski are best captured in a bleak passage in The Pursuit of Love, in which Fanny tells her mother that she thought Linda would have been happy with Fabrice, “the great love of her life”.

“Oh, dulling,” Fanny’s mother replies sadly, “one always thinks that. Every, every time.”

In 1960, 11 years after The Pursuit of Love’s sequel Love in a Cold Climate, Mitford wrapped up the story of the Radletts in Don’t Tell Alfred, the final instalment of this wonderful trilogy. Thereafter, she concentrated on journalism, essays and historical books, including finely observed historical biographies of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XIV and Frederick the Great. “My greatest fear as a writer is of boring the public. I am so frightened in life of being a bore,” she said in 1970. By then she had moved to a small house in Versailles, from where she sent a letter to Pamela reporting how “terribly pleased” she was to have been made Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur, “the only honour I ever coveted”.

The last four years of her life were excruciating. She contracted a rare form of Hodgkin’s disease that attacked her spine. She described the pain as “something close to torture”. Shortly before the 68-year-old’s death, on 30 June 1973, Nancy Mitford said she was already making her society plans for the afterlife, explaining. “I’ve always felt the great importance of getting into the right set at once on arrival in heaven.”

She died knowing that her lifelong pursuit of love had delivered one final, bitter sting in the tail. On the day she informed Palewski – the love of her life and the man to whom she’d dedicated her famous best-seller – about her terminal cancer, he told her, with horrendously bad timing, his big news: he was soon to marry the younger, distinctly "U" aristocrat, Hélène Violette de Talleyrand-Périgord.

Back in the war years, when Nancy was pouring her new-found love for Palewski into The Pursuit of Love, she wrote a letter to Waugh telling him that she was so “excited” by writing her new novel that her fingers “itched for a pen”. She also informed him that she had just sat for a sculpture and was pondering her legacy, and how she would “perpetuate myself”. The answer lay in the book she was writing. The Pursuit of Love is a masterpiece, one still enthralling readers and viewers nearly 80 years on.

The Pursuit of Love begins on BBC One on Sunday 9 May at 9pm

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