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
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
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