HIGH SO­CI­ETY

Hope­less ro­mances, sui­cide at­tempts, flir­ta­tions with Fas­cists and dal­liances in the deca­dent world of the Bright Young Things – the colour­ful lives of the six Mit­ford sis­ters lit up Bri­tain be­tween the wars, and Nancy, the el­dest, brought them to life on

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - I50 - By Laura Thomp­son

Nancy Mit­ford was first pub­lished by Harper’s Bazaar in 1931, an event­ful year in which she made her de­but as a novelist and a half­hearted at­tempt at sui­cide. The in­spi­ra­tion for both the book and the de­spair was a feck­less young, ho­mo­sex­ual aris­to­crat named Hamish St Clair-Ersk­ine, with whom Nancy had con­vinced her­self that she was in love. The cen­tral male char­ac­ter of her first novel Highland Fling is based upon Hamish, and is fairly stun­ning in his lack of charm. The book would have been much bet­ter with­out him; as indeed would Nancy’s life. Their ‘ro­mance’ had been go­ing on since 1928 – Hamish seems to have en­cour­aged her be­lief that he was mar­riage­able, or per­haps he him­self wanted to be­lieve it – and she wrote Highland Fling partly to have more money for go­ing about with him (although her friend Eve­lyn Waugh ad­vised her to spend it on bet­ter clothes, to catch a bet­ter man).

Nancy did not re­ally in­tend to kill her­self on Hamish’s ac­count when she put her head into a gas oven – typ­i­cally, she later made a joke of the episode – but it was a pretty clear sign of her con­fused un­hap­pi­ness. She was 26 at the time, which in those days meant ‘the shelf ’, and although her nascent writing ca­reer was point­ing to­wards her true destiny, she did not see it that way. Indeed, she would al­ways in­sist upon the pri­macy of love in a woman’s life. The mag­nif­i­cent nov­els of her ma­tu­rity – The Pur­suit of Love, Love in a Cold Cli­mate and The Bless­ing – are hymns to love, which it is Nancy’s sin­gu­lar gift to ren­der as both il­lu­sory and in­trin­sic.

She was, indeed, the ro­man­tic re­al­ist par ex­cel­lence; as is al­ready ap­par­ent in ‘The Refuge’, the short story pub­lished by Bazaar in Au­gust 1931. In a hint to her own sit­u­a­tion, it tells of a young cou­ple, Lady Josephine Sev­er­all and Giles Stan­worth, who have been in­sep­a­ra­ble for some months but do not be­come en­gaged. Un­like Hamish, Giles longs to marry Josephine, although there is a sug­ges­tion that he is after her money – which Nancy did not have – as well as her beauty. This, mean­while, is Josephine’s re­ply to Giles’ lat­est pro­posal:

‘There’s noth­ing I want so much, even though I don’t sup­pose for a mo­ment that we shall go on lov­ing each other like this, or have half the fun we do now. Still, as you say, it’s a ques­tion even­tu­ally be­tween mar­riage and sep­a­ra­tion, an al­ter­na­tive I don’t per­son­ally care to face.’ Here, then, is a glimpse of au­then­tic Nancy Mit­ford: hon­esty pushed to a point where it be­comes de­li­ciously sub­ver­sive. In The Bless­ing, pub­lished some 20 years later, her hero­ine Grace is faced with a ver­sion of this al­ter­na­tive – mar­riage to an un­faith­ful hus­band, or sep­a­ra­tion from the man upon whom, mal­gré tout, her happiness de­pends – and her sit­u­a­tion is laid out with the same rather ter­ri­fy­ing clar­ity.

It was ex­pressed, how­ever, slightly dif­fer­ently: in Nancy’s ma­ture voice, which para­dox­i­cally had the di­rect­ness of a supremely clever child. It took her some years to re­alise that her unique tal­ent lay in sim­plic­ity, that all she needed to do was say ex­actly what she meant in her own way. Through­out the 1930s she would grad­u­ally purge the in­flu­ences that clogged that sparklingly clear stream. In the early days – and she had be­gun writing only in the very late 1920s, for The Lady magazine founded by her ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther – she was in­evitably in thrall to the style of the times. She took on its satir­i­cal tone, although in fact she was not a satirist. She merely saw things so clearly as to ap­pear to be.

Nor was she ever re­ally a Bright Young Thing, it be­ing her na­ture to pre­fer the ele­gance and courtesy of ‘heav­enly mid­dle age’. Nev­er­the­less she was a fringe mem­ber of the set, and she ap­peared as such in the so­ci­ety pages, along with friends in­clud­ing Harold and Wil­liam Acton, Brian Howard, Oliver Mes­sel and Mark Ogilvie-Grant (who il­lus­trated a cou­ple of her Bazaar fea­tures). Along with her con­nec­tions, it was her shal­low im­mer­sion in that mi­lieu, with its ‘too, too shame-mak­ing’ id­iom and prep-school icon­o­clasm, that helped her to get Highland Fling pub­lished. It had the mod­ish jagged edge of Waugh’s Vile Bod­ies, although very lit­tle of the bril­liance. A bet­ter ex­am­ple of the style is Nancy’s sec­ond story for Bazaar, ‘Mat­ri­mony, Bo­gus’, a deliri­ous skit on the id­io­cies of Lon­don so­ci­ety in which a char­ac­ter muses: ‘Twins are rather

fash­ion­able now… I al­ways won­der what peo­ple did about them be­fore – drowned one, I sup­pose…’

Again, this hints at the Nancy Mit­ford to come. In fact, it re­minds one of Linda Radlett in The Pur­suit of Love, telling her friend Fanny that ‘it’s re­ally kin­der not to look’ at her un­wanted new-born baby. But again, Nancy had found her true voice by that time. Although she of­ten shocked, un­like her younger self, she did not try to shock; and she never judged. She threw a veil of benev­o­lence over all her char­ac­ters, in all their foibles and folly, and – whether or not they ‘de­served’ it – she al­lowed them to be happy.

She was happy her­self, by then. When The Pur­suit of Love was pub­lished in 1945, Nancy moved to Paris, re­main­ing in France un­til her death in 1973. The French sen­si­bil­ity, with its em­pha­sis upon civilised plea­sure, was at­tuned to her own and it al­lowed her to flower quite glo­ri­ously. Her phi­los­o­phy was that of her fu­ture bi­o­graph­i­cal sub­ject, Voltaire: ‘I have de­cided to be happy be­cause it is good for my health.’ In Eng­land she gath­ered the ma­te­rial for her finest writing but she was never par­tic­u­larly happy, cer­tainly not dur­ing the pe­riod when she pro­duced most of her work for Bazaar : three short sto­ries and two es­says be­tween Au­gust 1931 and April 1934.

Nancy was lead­ing a rather odd dou­ble life through­out much of this time. On the one hand, she was gal­li­vant­ing with her friends, who in­cluded some of the most amus­ing men of her gen­er­a­tion, and in Septem­ber 1931, Bazaar in­formed read­ers that she was one of the style-set­ters who had re­cently hol­i­dayed in the South of France (pre­sum­ably with the £90 pro­ceeds from Highland Fling). On the other hand, she was sub­ject to a parental ju­ris­dic­tion that dis­ap­proved of her life­style – Lord and Lady Redes­dale re­fused to speak to her when she shin­gled her hair – and on oc­ca­sion had her prac­ti­cally gated within the fam­ily home in Ox­ford­shire.

The prob­lem, of course, was that Nancy had failed to marry. It was a fail­ure, in those days. She had made her Lon­don de­but in 1923, and the shriek­ing ado­les­cence had gone on far too long. Nat­u­rally she had had suit­ors. She was ex­tremely at­trac­tive, with the body of a pa­tri­cian ath­lete and the droll pret­ti­ness of a Pier­rot; she looked won­der­ful even in the clothes made by her mother’s maid (later she could af­ford the ate­lier of Chris­tian Dior, from which, as she wrote in her 1952 Bazaar es­say ‘What is chic?’, two English duchesses were turned away ‘for be­ing too dowdy’). So the fact that it was Hamish St Clair-Ersk­ine for whom she de­cided to yearn im­plies that she knew, in some ob­scure way, that her destiny lay beyond the usual fe­male sphere of the time. She al­ways chose im­pos­si­ble men, even when those who were en­tirely pos­si­ble were pay­ing court to her.

Yet at the same time Nancy did want to be mar­ried. The story ‘Mat­ri­mony, Bo­gus’ ends, like ‘The Refuge’, with the wed­ding for which she longed, even as she mocked and dodged it. She be­lieved in love, although she un­der­stood it far bet­ter on the page than in life. And the hu­mil­i­a­tion of be­ing an un­mar­ried daugh­ter – the old­est, fur­ther­more, of the six Mit­ford sis­ters – was made worse still by the con­stant gleam­ing pres­ence of her sis­ter Diana, five years her ju­nior, pos­sessed

of a god­dess-like al­lure that could com­mand the wor­ship of al­most ev­ery man she met: in­clud­ing Nancy’s own friends. Eve­lyn Waugh fell madly in love with Diana after her mar­riage, in 1929, to the wildly rich Bryan Guin­ness, whose house in Bel­gravia be­came a de facto sa­lon for mem­bers of both the Bright Young Things and the Blooms­bury Group.

It is un­sur­pris­ing, re­ally, that the oc­ca­sional lit­tle nee­dle jab against her sis­ter should have ap­peared in Nancy’s writ­ings for Bazaar. Diana’s It-girl sta­tus is satirised in ‘Mat­ri­mony, Bo­gus’, which cre­ates an In­sta­gram princess for the 1930s named Lady Rose, whose ev­ery move is drooled over by other girls and in the press: ‘Lady Rose fur­nishes her tower res­i­dence. Young So­ci­ety ma­tron’s orig­i­nal choice of dark ma­roon wall­pa­pers…’ This was ex­actly how the young Mrs Guin­ness was writ­ten about, which must indeed have been in­tensely ir­ri­tat­ing to a woman liv­ing on an al­lowance of £125 a year while wait­ing for a pro­posal from a ho­mo­sex­ual suitor.

Then in 1932, once more as if to un­der­score all that Nancy lacked – hus­band, chil­dren, money – Diana boldly chucked the lot. She walked out on her mar­riage and set up home alone as mis­tress to the leader of the Bri­tish Union of Fas­cists, Oswald Mosley. From this point, after Diana’s great leap into the dark, the Mit­ford fam­ily be­gan to dis­in­te­grate. The skies had threat­ened to fall for Lord and Lady Red es dale when Nancy ap­peared in a pair of trousers, but now they would stand by help­lessly as Nazism se­duced their daugh­ter Unity, com­mu­nism claimed Jessica and their own mar­riage crum­bled be­neath the weight of their daugh­ters’ re­bel­lions. For her own part, Nancy was deeply shaken by the threat to the es­tab­lished or­der: her own dar­ing was of a very dif­fer­ent type.

She dis­liked Mosley, but she gave her sup­port to Diana through­out this pe­riod. The two sis­ters had a par­tic­u­lar bond, as if recog­nis­ing each other as twin pow­ers within the Mit­ford sis­ters; like queens across a chess­board, how­ever, they were also ca­pa­ble of en­mity. In 1940, for ex­am­ple, Nancy de­nounced Diana to the Home Of­fice as a ‘dan­ger­ous per­son’. This was not in it­self the rea­son why Diana was in­terned in Hol­loway for three and a half years: the same fate be­fell most known sup­port­ers of Fas­cism, in­clud­ing Mosley him­self, to whom Diana was then mar­ried. Yet it might also be in­ter­preted as much as an act of dis­loy­alty as of pa­tri­o­tism.

It was also, in Nancy’s mind, an act of re­venge. Five years ear­lier, in the novel Wigs on the Green, Nancy had cre­ated a ver­sion of Mosley named Cap­tain Jack, leader of the Jack­shirts. It was a

light-spir­ited if pointed joke, but where Mosley was con­cerned Diana lost her Mit­ford sense of hu­mour, and she coldly re­quested that her sis­ter with­draw the book; this at a time when Nancy had very lit­tle money and was in dire need of any­thing she earned as a writer. From that point, there would al­ways be ten­sion be­tween the two women. And for Nancy, ever jeal­ous of the di­vine Diana, there was a cer­tain strange sat­is­fac­tion in watch­ing her sis­ter’s dam­ag­ing al­le­giance to Fas­cism and the man she called ‘Sir Ogre’.

In a 1934 Bazaar es­say en­ti­tled ‘Ro­man Hol­i­day’ – os­ten­si­bly a piece of travel writing – Nancy man­aged to drag in Diana’s pol­i­tics when she re­ferred to Mus­solini, with faux-def­er­ence, as ‘none other than the Sir Oswald Mosley of Italy’ (at a time when Mus­solini was bankrolling the Bri­tish Union of Fas­cists). She also made satir­i­cal al­lu­sion to the ‘as­so­ciate of Aryans’, mean­ing a per­son who wor­ships Ger­many. By that time, both Diana and Unity were that kind of per­son, hav­ing not long since at­tended the first Nurem­berg Rally.

What ‘Ro­man Hol­i­day’ does not men­tion is that Nancy vis­ited Rome for a very par­tic­u­lar rea­son: she was on her hon­ey­moon. After Hamish St Clair-Ersk­ine fi­nally found the guts to end their as­so­ci­a­tion in June 1933, she al­most im­me­di­ately be­come en­gaged to a man named Peter Rodd. ‘Won­der­ful what a girl will do on the Re­bound’, as Peter’s al­ter ego says in Wigs on the Green, show­ing Nancy once more to have been wiser in her writing than in her ac­tions.

Peter was a hand­some Bal­liol scholar, but he was hope­less hus­band ma­te­rial; prob­a­bly even Hamish would have been bet­ter. In a let­ter to Mark Ogilvie-Grant sent from Rome, Nancy wrote: ‘I am hav­ing a re­ally dread­ful time, drag­ging a badly sprained an­kle round ma­jor & mi­nor basil­i­cas’. Ironic, of course, but the tone did not en­tirely mask her in­stant dis­ap­point­ment with a man who would prove to be an un­faith­ful wastrel and who – even after her move away from him to France – would be a nui­sance to Nancy all her life.

In her es­say, mean­while, she in­formed the read­ers of Bazaar that ‘all re­ally im­por­tant sights in Rome, such as the Capi­tol, the Fo­rum, Tivoli, the Coli­seum, are called after fa­mous Lon­don cin­e­mas’. Even when there was lit­tle happiness, there were still jokes. ‘There is,’ as she would later say, when slowly dy­ing of an ag­o­nis­ing can­cer, ‘al­ways some­thing to laugh at.’ But be­fore that ter­ri­ble end, and after the war that de­stroyed the en­tity of the Mit­fords along with most of Europe, there would be France, lib­er­ated and lib­er­at­ing: the place where the cre­ator of the Mit­ford mythol­ogy, the woman who wrote her fam­ily back to ex­quis­ite life in The Pur­suit of Love, could find joy in a past that she had es­caped.

Clock­wise from above: an ar­ti­cle by Nancy in the June 1932 is­sue. Nancy in 1935. Unity at the Na­tional So­cial­ist Party headquarters in Mu­nich in 1937. The Au­gust 1931 is­sue

Left: the Mit­ford sis­ters and brother Tom in 1935. Above right: an il­lus­tra­tion from the Au­gust 1930 is­sue of

Bazaar

Above: an il­lus­tra­tion from the Au­gust 1934 is­sue. Right: Diana with her brides­maids on the day of her wed­ding to Bryan Guin­ness in 1929

Right: Diana and Nancy in 1932. Be­low: Nancy’s ar­ti­cle ‘What is chic?’ in the De­cem­ber 1952 is­sue of Bazaar Right: Nancy (top left), Hamish St Clair-Ersk­ine and Anne Arm­strong-Jones (Lord Snow­don’s mother)

The fam­ily, with Nancy (top row, left), in 1926

From left: Unity, Diana and Nancy Mit­ford at a wed­ding in Lon­don in 1932

Nancy on her wed­ding day, with her hus­band Peter Rodd in 1933

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