Mark McGinness

The genius of Nancy Mitford

The Mitford sisters, from left to right: Unity; Diana and Nancy (Credit: Getty images)

Nancy, the first – and perhaps most famous – of the six Mitford girls, died half-a-century ago on 30 June. The lives of the Mitford sisters seem as remote today as Jane Austen’s Bennett sisters. It is almost impossible to separate the family from their fictional equivalents. The books that made them so, Nancy’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, have become classics, still in print today, creating cult figures of her already notorious family.

The intensely autobiographical nature of her fiction might suggest a lack of creative imagination but the real-life models she was so brilliantly able to draw on – with little embellishment – made it all the more fascinating for appearing to be true. Published in December 1945, The Pursuit of Love, an hilarious, high-spirited and sweepingly romantic tale came at just the right time to a country exhausted and numb after six years of war. That spirit in a setting of country house madness makes it still so eminently readable. Bristling, philistine Matthew Radlett (Lord Alconleigh) is Nancy’s father and supremely detached Aunt Sadie is a – less sympathetic – portrait of her mother. Both the heroine’s husbands are milder composites of Nancy’s unsatisfactory husband, Peter Rodd (Prodd).

Nancy trumped her success with Love in a Cold Climate four years later; again drawing on life with the Radletts, but focussing on their neighbours – Lady Montdore (a version of her mother-in-law), and Cedric Hampton, the image of Bright Young Thing, Stephen Tennant. But the figure who inspired Nancy and appeared, in one guise or another, in all her writing was Charles de Gaulle’s chef de cabinet, Colonel Gaston Palewski. They met in 1942 and she fell irrevocably in love – with him, and France. He was Fabrice, duc de Sauveterre, in both of her best novels.

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