Nancy Mitford

Images above: Portrait of Nancy Mitford by Bassano Ltd, July 1932, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery; Rose Cottage garden door, photograph Joanna Raikes

Nancy Mitford, 20th century novelist who lived at Strand on the Green

Nancy Mitford (1904-73) is best known for her novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, which described the racy lifestyle of the aristocracy in the early part of the 20th century, but she also wrote biographies and a heap of newspaper articles.

Historians are a bit sniffy about her ability as a biographer. She had very little in the way of formal education and was self-taught as a writer. But Lady Antonia Fraser, who like Nancy Mitford is known both as a novelist and a historian, considered her biographies of Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire, Louis XIV, the Sun King and Frederick the Great made an important contribution to the genre.

While Nancy Mitford was living in Chiswick between 1934 and 1936 she was busy writing a comic novel about fascism.

Images above: the Mitford children: Pamela, Nancy, Diana and Tom, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

The notorious Mitford sisters

Nancy’s novels remain popular. BBC Drama has recently remade The Pursuit of Love as a TV series to be aired in 2021, starring Lily James and Dominic West. Journalist and author India Knight chose The Pursuit of Love as her favourite book of the 20th Century for the celebration of the 70th Cheltenham Book Festival in 2019.

But when you hear the name ‘Mitford’, impressions of social scandal and dodgy political views jockey for position in the memory with the image of a successful author, for popular though she still is as a writer, she is also saddled with the reputation of her infamous family. She is as well-known as a socialite and a member of the Mitford clan as she is for her writing.

 

Images above: Unity Mitford portrait by Bassano Ltd, February 1932; Diana Mitford, later Lady Mosley, portrait by Bassano Ltd, January 1932, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Nancy was the eldest of the notorious Mitford sisters – six of them, including Unity, who adored Hitler and tried to commit suicide in Germany when war was declared; Diana, whose husband Oswald Mosely led the British Union of Fascists, and Jessica, who eloped to marry her cousin Esmond Romilly, who fought on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish civil war.

‘Nancy and her sisters were educated at home and relied mainly on one another for company. Her high spirits and funniness lit up the family atmosphere but she was also a remorseless tease. The jokes, rivalries and passions of the Mitford childhood went straight into her highly autobiographical novels’. Nancymitford.com

 

Nancy Mitford the socialite

‘As a debutante Nancy enjoyed a conventional succession of seasons during that hectic period immortalized by Evelyn Waugh, when Noel Coward represented the younger generation of gate-crashers and jazz was in the air’ wrote her biographer and lifelong friend Harold Acton.

Nancy was popular. She was beautiful, witty and very well connected:

‘a delicious creature, quite pyrotechnical’ wrote one of Acton’s Etonian friends.

Nancy’s father was the Hon. David Freeman-Mitford, later 2nd Baron Redesdale. The Mitfords were descended from Clementina, the second daughter of David Ogilvy, 10th Earl of Airlie, which linked them to some of Britain’s most prominent aristocratic families: the Russells (dukes of Bedford), the Churchills (dukes of Marlborough) and, via Princess Alexandra, the British Royal Family.

Nancy’s youngest sister Deborah married Lord Andrew Cavendish, who became the 11th Duke of Devonshire, whose family had owned Chiswick House until 1929, when it was sold by his grandfather to Middlesex County Council. ‘Debo’ and her husband based themselves at Chatsworth House.

Image above: BBC Adaptation of The Pursuit of Love, with Lily James as Linda Radlett, courtesy of the BBC

The ‘Bright Young Things’

Nancy and her sisters and their brother Tom were at the centre of an upper-class social set whom the press dubbed the ‘Bright Young Things’, who spent much of the 1920s and ‘30s partying.

They included artists and writers such as the novelists Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, PG Wodehouse and GK Chesterton, poets John Betjeman, Rupert Graves and Hilaire Belloc, playwright and composer Noel Coward, cubist painter Georges Braque and fashion photographer Cecil Beaton; actors and dancers such as Tallulah Bankhead, Rudolph Valentino and Adele Astaire (older sister of Fred), and assorted Churchills, Mountbattens, Curzons, Guinnesses, Vanderbilts, Sitwells, Herberts, Sassoons, Ponsonbys and Sackville-Wests amongst other famous names.

Novelist EM Forster, who moved to Chiswick in 1939 and the artist who painted the best-known portrait of him, Dora Carrington, were both associated with this privileged clique, as was Patrick Hamilton, another novelist who lived in Chiswick in the 1920s and ‘30s.

John Betjeman, who wrote the high society gossip column The Londoners Diary for the Evening Standard in the 1920s was known to be in love with Nancy’s sister Pamela. Nancy based one of her characters in her second book Christmas Pudding on him: Paul Fotheringay, ‘a somewhat ridiculous writer who is terrified of horses’. Betjeman also has connections with Chiswick. He never lived here but was at the forefront of the campaign to save Bedford Park from redevelopment in the 1960s.

Images above: Cecil Beaton, 1930, by Howard Costner; Evelyn Waugh, 1930, by Howard Costner; EM Forster, June 1938, by Howard Costner, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

These ‘jeunesse dorée’ – gilded youth – were known for their extravagant fancy dress parties, pranks and stunts such as the joke launch of a so-called abstract artist, and elaborate treasure hunts through night-time London. Drink and drugs played a large part in the proceedings, as documented by Daily Express journalist Tom Driberg. Their carrying on was described in Anthony Powell’s series Dance to the Music of Time and satirized by Waugh in his 1930 novel Vile Bodies:

“Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood . . . – all the succession and repetition of massed humanity . . . Those vile bodies.”

Vile Bodies was dedicated to Nancy’s sister Diana and her first husband Bryan Guinness, an heir of the brewing family.

‘We hardly saw the light of day, except at dawn’ wrote Nancy. ‘If one can’t be happy one must be amused don’t you agree?’

She was a prolific letter writer and her correspondence with another one of her social set, Mark Ogilvy-Grant, reads like a diary:

‘My life recently has been one huge whirl of gaiety and I’ve had no time even to think, let alone write letters … a ball at Blenheim the other night … it was grand fun. I motored from London in an open Rolls in my ball dress, the misery of it. Edward James motored me back in his car which becomes a bed at will…’ November 1930.

Mark was one of her best friends and much of her correspondence to him describes her on-again, off- again relationship with Hamish St Clair Erskine. She had been unofficially engaged to Erskine for five years when he announced he was marrying someone else. She was then 29 and she settled for the Hon Peter Rodd within a month of the break-up. He was part of the same social set. They were married in 1933 and they moved to Chiswick after their December honeymoon in Rome.

They lived at Rose Cottage, on the corner of Hearne Rd, Strand on the Green and for a while she was happy, continuing to live the life of the entitled London socialite. You can just imagine them arriving home at first light, somewhat the worse for wear after a night on the tiles, just as the early shift was arriving at the Pier House Laundry (then one of the biggest laundries in London; now the headquarters of Fuller’s pub chain) a few doors down.

Images above: Rose Cottage, Strand on the Green, photograph Joanna Raikes; Nancy Mitford by Bassano Ltd, October 1932, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Living at Strand on the Green

In a letter to an aunt years later she wrote:

‘Dear Rose Cottage, I’ve never liked a house more – I often think of it and the reflection of the river on my bedroom ceiling’.

The house is detached and double fronted, with a walled garden affording privacy. She worked in the drawing room, whose bay window overlooked the river. Somehow it seems entirely in keeping that a previous occupant of Rose Cottage had been The Great Sequah, a Victorian travelling showman who performed dentistry while dressed as a Native American chief.

By her standards living at Rose Cottage was slumming it. She wrote to Mark Ogilvy-Grant in August 1933:

‘We are going to be married in early October and then live at Strand on the Green … We’re going to be damned poor you see.”

Then once they’d moved in, she wrote:

‘I am awfully busy learning how to be a rather wonderful old housewife. My marriage, contracted to the amazement of all so late in life, is providing me with a variety of interests, new but not distasteful, and besides, a feeling of shelter and security hitherto untasted by me’.

She was already a published author when she moved to Strand on the Green. Encouraged by her friend Evelyn Waugh, she submitted articles which were published in magazines. The Lady engaged her to write a regular column in 1930 and the following year she published her first novel, Highland Fling, closely followed in 1932 by Christmas Pudding. The characters in her novels were mainly her friends and family and the settings were those she had known growing up.

Images above: Nancy Mitford portraits by Bassano Ltd, August 1935, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Wigs on the Green

By 1934 she was on her third novel Wigs on the Green, a satire on Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist movement. This too was evidently a subject close to home. She had briefly flirted with membership of the ‘Blackshirts’ herself in 1931, although her enthusiasm was short-lived and she soon became an outspoken opponent of the British Union of Fascists and fascism. In Wigs on the Green she sent up her sister Diana as Eugenia Malmains, one of the richest girls in England and an ardent supporter of Captain Jack and the Union Jackshirts.

She treats fascism with her trademark insouciance:

“Is your husband an Aryan?” “I really don’t quite know what an Aryan is.” “Well, it’s quite easy. A non-Aryan is the missing link between man and beast. That can be proved by the fact that no animals, except the Baltic goose, have blue eyes.” “How about Siamese cats?” said Jasper. “That’s true. But Siamese cats possess, to a notable degree, the Nordic virtue of faithfulness.” “Indeed they don’t,” said Poppy. “We had one last summer and he brought back a different wife every night. Even Anthony was quite shocked.”

She fell out with Diana and Unity over its publication and when her publishers asked her permission to reprint the book in 1951 she said no. In a letter to Evelyn Waugh she wrote, “Too much has happened for jokes about Nazis to be regarded as funny or as anything but the worst of taste.” First published in 1935, it wasn’t republished until 2017.

Images above: Nancy Mitford portraits by Bassano Ltd, September 1941, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Her relationship with Peter Rodd was also beginning to go sour. Biographers describe him as ‘irresponsible, unfaithful, a bore and unable to hold down a regular job’ and as the model for Evelyn Waugh’s unscrupulous, amoral character Basil Seal in Black Mischief (published 1932). Perhaps no surprise then that the marriage didn’t last long, especially as she had a couple of miscarriages and there were no children to keep them together. They separated and after the war she divorced him and moved to Paris. She lived the rest of her life in France.

She told her friend Robert Byron that her husband objected to her spending so many hours writing. During 1937 – 38 she was editing the letters of her cousins the Stanleys of Alderley for publication, working on them for nine or ten hours a day. He resented her writing just as she no doubt resented him spending time with his mistresses.

He went off to France to work with Spanish refugees from the Civil War, where she joined him in May 1939. When the Second World War broke out their separation was enforced; he away fighting, she living at in a house in Blomfield Rd, Maida Vale.

Her fourth novel Pigeon Pie (1940), a comedy about spying, was not a commercial success. It was around the time of publication, with her husband away fighting, that she suffered her second miscarriage. She went to live with her old governess Zella. On 12 September 1940 she wrote to her mother:

‘I have gone to live with Zella for the present as I can’t very well be here quite alone at night. I don’t at all advise you to come to London, it is not very agreeable I assure you’.

It is sometimes said that she wrote The Pursuit of Love while living in Chiswick. She didn’t, she wrote it later, but she did bring a bit of vivacity and colour to the neighbourhood in the 1930s.

Images above: Wigs on the Green; The Pursuit of Love; Love in a Cold Climate book covers

Success as a novelist

Nancy was rather ashamed of her early novels. When Pigeon Pie flopped she almost gave up writing, but with Waugh’s encouragement, she began planning a new novel in 1944. She was working at Heywood Hill bookshop in Curzon Street, Mayfair as an assistant. ‘It was the best fun in the world’ wrote Nancy’s sister Deborah.

‘She earned £3 a week and lived in Maida Vale and often walked home to save the bus fare.’ One evening Nancy forgot to lock up. She arrived the following morning to find the shop ‘full of wandering people trying to buy books from each other’.

Heywood Hill was not so amused but to this day the shop remains indebted to her:

‘Her gregarious character and witty repartee helped establish Heywood Hill’s shop as a centre of English social and literary life during the 1940s’.

She introduced her friends Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton. Waugh described the shop at the time as: ‘a centre for all that was left of fashionable and intellectual London’.

In March 1945 Nancy was given three months’ leave from the shop to write The Pursuit of Love. When it was published in December 1945 it was, according to Mitford’s biographer Selina Hastings:

“an instant and phenomenal success … the perfect antidote to the long war years of hardship and austerity, providing the undernourished public with its favourite ingredients: love, childhood and the English upper classes”.

Images above: Andrew Scott as Lord Merlin, Dominic West as Uncle Matthew and Lily James as Linda Radlett in the BBC adaptation of The Pursuit of Love

The Pursuit of Love

Nancy herself described the book as semi-autobiographical. The key character grows up with a big family in the countryside, with hunting and country pursuits taking up a large part of her time. She has little or no education, as her father considers that educating a woman beyond teaching her to ride and play the piano spoiled a woman. She is launched in London society, presented at court and finds a husband in short order, believing herself to be in love. Disappointed, she divorces him, marries someone else and goes off to France with her second husband to work with refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Abandoning him, she falls immediately into a love affair with a rich Duke in Paris. When the Germans invade France he goes off to fight and she comes back to London.

All those things happened to Nancy, except that she only married once and her wartime affairs with French officers took place in London, not Paris. She had a fling with one Free French officer, André Roy, and then met the love of her life, Gaston Palewski, a French colonel attached to General Charles de Gaulle’s London staff. Whereas the chief protagonist of the book, Linda, was installed in a sumptuous apartment in Paris by her lover before the war, Nancy didn’t move there until it ended. Linda’s French Duke Fabrice de Sauveterre was based on Palewski and the book was dedicated to him.

Some of the narrator Fanny’s comments in the book are especially barbed and pointed:

‘I think Linda’s marriage was a failure almost from the beginning, but really I never knew much about it. Nobody did. She had married in the face of a good deal of opposition; the opposition proved to have been entirely well founded, and, Linda being what she was, maintained, for as long as possible, a perfect shop-front’.

‘Linda now proceeded to fritter away years of her youth, with nothing whatever to show for them. If she had had an intellectual upbringing the place of all this pointless chatter, jokes and parties might have been taken by a serious interest in the arts, or by reading; if she had been happy in her marriage that side of her nature which craved for company could have found its fulfilment by the nursery fender; things being as they were, however, all was frippery and silliness’.

Images above: Emily Beecham as Fanny Logan, with Lily James as Linda Radlett in the BBC’s adaptation of The Pursuit of Love

Love in a Cold Climate

Love in a Cold Climate, the sequel to The Pursuit of Love followed in 1948, with many of the same characters and the same country house settings. It did even better than its predecessor. The Blessing, set in France, followed in 1951. It was another semi-autobiographical romance. Dedicated to Evelyn Waugh, he found it “admirable, deliciously funny, consistent and complete, by far the best of your writings”.

In her last novel, Don’t Tell Alfred she revived Fanny Wincham, (née Logan) the narrator of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, and placed her in a Paris setting as wife of the British ambassador. In real life Nancy had become friends of Duff Cooper, the British Ambassador in Paris, and his wife Lady Diana Cooper. Published in October 1960, the book was popular with the public, but received indifferent reviews and was disliked by some of her friends.

From there on in she stuck to writing biographies and spent her last years living in Versailles, near the palace of her most famous biographical subject, Louis XIV. In April 1972 the French government made her a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, and later that year the British government appointed her a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She died in 1973.

Find out more about the cultural history of Chiswick

Rose Cottage is one of 21 sites of literary interest on the Trail of Books & Writers, produced by Torin Douglas, Director of the Chiswick Book Festival. There is also a Chiswick Timeline Art Trail created by Karen Liebreich and Sarah Cruz of Abundance London, a trail around the sites of Georgian Chiswick: In Georgian footsteps, produced by the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society and William Hogarth Trust, and a guide to Chiswick House and Gardens, produced by Chiswick House and Gardens Trust.

Download the trail maps here:

Trail of Books & Writers

Trail of Art & Artists

In Georgian Footsteps

Guide to Chiswick House and Gardens

Harold Acton’s biography of Nancy Mitford is published by Gibson Square Books.

The Chiswick Calendar would like to thank the National Portrait Gallery for their permission to republish portraits of Nancy Mitford and people she knew.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Explore Chiswick’s cultural history online and on foot

See also: EM Forster, Edwardian novelist who lived in Arlington Park Mansions, overlooking Turnham Green

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