The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London Lisa Hilton

Orion, pp.263, 20

The horror of love: Nancy Mitford’s first fiancé was gay; her husband, Peter Rodd, was feckless, spendthrift and unsympathetic, and her great amour, Gaston Palewski, was endlessly unfaithful. She met him during the war in London and was in love with him for the rest of her life.

Palewski was Charles de Gaulle’s right-hand man. He organised the French Resistance in London and commanded the Free French forces in East Africa. After the war, he was appointed De Gaulle’s chief of staff and he became known as the sinister éminence grise behind De Gaulle’s presidency.

He and Nancy shared a love of France, beauty and jokes. He was never faithful to her, but Lisa Hilton stands up for Nancy against those who have called her pathetic and deluded in her affair with Gaston.  Nancy was never under any illusions, and she refused to make monogamy a prerequisite for the relationship:

Gaston had made her no promises, told her no lies, he had simply complacently expected that she would absorb the cruel blows with the dignity and reticence of a Princesse de Clèves. And Nancy did, and there was still love between them, proud, bruised, but enduring.

Even when Gaston married someone else, Nancy put a good face on it. As her sister Deborah wrote to another sister, Pamela:

One simply does not know how much she minds as she is a very private person and so desperately reserved one perhaps never will know.

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Hilton defends Nancy from two other charges: callousness and hypocrisy. She was staying with friends when she heard that her brother had been killed. She came down to dinner that evening immaculately dressed and never mentioned Tom’s death. Stories like this have led some, unfairly, to accuse Nancy of being cold-hearted. ‘Sentimentally, at least, we’re all American now,’ says Hilton, pointing out that English stoicism was ‘a conquest of the self, based on not imposing one’s suffering on others’.  

In 1940, Nancy told the Home Office that her sister Diana was an extremely dangerous person. Diana was sent to Holloway, where Nancy wrote to her and visited regularly. ‘Nancy has been accused of the most grotesque hypocrisy … for playing the supportive sister. But she had done her political duty and now she did her family duty,’ says Hilton.

It must be nervous work adding another book to the cult of Mitford, and at times Hilton seems to suffer from understand-able anxiety: there’s some rather suspect text interpretation — she reads a coded message for Gaston in a scene about diseased minerals in The Pursuit of Love. ‘Considered in this fresh way it is revelatory. Before she even left for Paris, Nancy was letting him know that she was prepared to wait.’ Hilton reaches this conclusion by digging up a reference to minerals in Gaston’s favourite English poet, Lovelace. It’s certainly a fresh way of considering it, but that might be because it’s non-sense.

Occasionally Hilton sounds like a rather over-enthusiastic radio guest; she crams in the references, piles up the pronouns and adds bonus information, so that it becomes difficult to know what she’s talking about:

Gaston had a relationship with Cora Caetani, a widow five years older than himself … He succeeded in obtaining the Legion d’Honneur for Marguerite Caetani, now in her eighties.

What? Who? When?

But these are minor criticisms. It’s a moving portrait of Nancy Mitford; Palewski’s distinguished career means that his sections are a quick-fire history of 30 years of French politics, and their time together gives a seductive glimpse into post-war Paris.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, France, History, London, Non-fiction, Paris, Political history, Relationships