Nancy Freeman-Mitford CBE (28 November 1904 – 30 June 1973), known as Nancy Mitford, was an English novelist, biographer and journalist. One of the Mitford sisters, she was regarded as one of the "Bright Young People" on the London social scene in the inter-war years. She wrote several novels about upper-class life in England and France and was considered a sharp and often provocative wit. She also established a reputation for herself as a writer of popular historical biographies.
Mitford enjoyed a privileged childhood as the eldest daughter of the Hon. David Freeman-Mitford, later 2nd Baron Redesdale. Educated privately, she had no training as a writer before publishing her first novel in 1931. This early effort and the three that followed it created little stir; it was her two semi-autobiographical postwar novels, The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949), that established her reputation.
Nancy Mitford married Peter Rodd in 1933 and they divorced in 1957 after a lengthy separation. During the Second World War she formed a liaison with a Free French officer, Gaston Palewski who became the love of her life, although he was never her formal lover. After the war Mitford settled in France and lived there until her death, maintaining social contact with her many English friends through letters and regular visits.
During the 1950s Nancy Mitford was identified with the concept of "U" (upper) and "non-U" language, whereby social origins and standing were identified by words used in everyday speech. She had intended this as a joke, but many took it seriously, and Mitford was considered an authority on manners and breeding—possibly her most recognised legacy. Her later years were bitter-sweet, the success of her biographical studies of Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire and King Louis XIV contrasting with the ultimate failure of her relationship with Palewski. From the late 1960s her health deteriorated, and she endured several years of painful illness before her death in 1973.
Nancy Mitford's father, David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford was a tea planter in Ceylon he who fought in the Boer War of 1899–1902 and was severely wounded, and her mother Sydney Bowles was the elder daughter of Thomas Gibson Bowles, a journalist, editor and magazine proprietor whose publications included Vanity Fair and The Lady.
Nancy Mitford´s father worked as business manager of The Lady magazine, a post provided by her maternal grandfather, although he remained in this position for ten years, he had little interest in reading and knew nothing of business.
Nancy Mitford´s parents married on 16 February 1904, and she was born on 28 November the same year, her day-to-day upbringing was delegated to her nanny and nursemaid, within the framework of her mother´s short-lived belief that children should never be corrected or be spoken to in anger. Before this experiment was discontinued, Nancy had become self-centred and uncontrollable.
In summer of 1910 Nancy attended the nearby Francis Holland School and the few months she spent there represented almost the whole of her formal schooling; in the autumn the family moved to a larger house in Victoria Road, Kensington, after which Nancy was educated at home by successive governesses. Summers were spent at the family's cottage near High Wycombe, in Buckinghamshire, or with the children's Redesdale grandparents at Batsford Park.
In 1916, after the death of Bertie Mitford, Nancy Mitford´s grandfather, her father David became the 2nd Baron Redesdale. and her mother quickly took possession of Batsford House, much of which had been shut up for many years, and occupied the portion of it that she could afford to heat. The children had the run of the house and grounds, and were taught together in the schoolroom. This was a source of frustration for Nancy, whose lively intelligence required greater stimulus. She spent many hours reading in the Batsford House library.
The Redesdale estates were extensive, but uneconomical. At the end of the war Nancy´s father decided to sell Batsford Park and move his increasing family to less extravagant accommodation.
The new family home was Asthall Manor, a Jacobean mansion near Swinbrook in Oxfordshire. This was intended as a short-term measure while a new house was built on land nearby. The family stayed in Asthall Manor for seven years, and it became the basis of many of the family scenes which Nancy was later to portray in her semi-autobiographical novels.
In 1921, after years of pleading for proper schooling, Nancy was allowed a year's boarding at Hatherop Castle, an informal private establishment for young ladies of good family. Here Nancy learned French and other subjects, played organised games and joined a Girl Guide troop. It was her first extended experience of life away from home, and she enjoyed it.The following year she was allowed to accompany four sisters on a cultural trip to Paris, Florence and Venice; her letters home are full of expressions of wonder at the sights and treasures: "I had no idea I was so fond of pictures ... if only I had a room of my own I would make it a regular picture gallery".
Nancy's eighteenth birthday in November 1922 was the occasion for a grand "coming-out" ball, marking the beginning of her entry into Society. This was followed in June 1923 by her presentation at Court—a formal introduction to King George V at Buckingham Palace—after which she was officially "out" and could attend the balls and parties that constituted the London Season. She spent much of the next few years in a round of social events, making new friends and mixing with the "Bright Young People" of 1920s London. Nancy declared that "we hardly saw the light of day, except at dawn".
In 1926 Asthall Manor was finally sold. While the new house at Swinbrook was made ready, the female members of the family were sent for three months to Paris, a period which began Nancy's "lifelong love affair" with France.
Although she was now of age, her father maintained an aggressive hostility towards most of her male friends, these tended towards the frivolous, the aesthetic and the effeminate. Among them was Hamish St Clair Erskine, the second son of the 5th Earl of Rosslyn, an Oxford undergraduate four years Nancy's junior, who met her in 1928 and they became unofficially engaged, despite his homosexuality (of which Nancy may not have been aware). Against a backdrop of negativity from family and friends the affair endured sporadically for several years, and when it ended in 1933, Nancy wrote to him: "I thought in your soul you loved me & that in the end we should have children & look back on life together when we are old".
“Isn’t it awful to love clothes as much as I do, you know, I am not vain at all.¨
As a means of augmenting the meagre allowance provided by her father, Nancy Mitford began writing, encouraged by Evelyn Waugh, whom she met via her friend Evelyn Gardner. Her first efforts, anonymous contributions to gossip columns in society magazines, led to occasional signed articles, and in 1930 The Lady engaged her to write a regular column. That winter, she embarked on a full-length novel, Highland Fling, in which various characters—mostly identifiable among her friends, acquaintances and family—attend a Scottish house-party which develops chaotically. The book made little impact when it was published in March 1931, and she immediately began work on another, Christmas Pudding, Like the earlier novel, the plot centres on a clash between the "Bright Young People" and the older generation.
In 1932 when Nancy Mitford´s sister Diana Mitford deserted her husband to become the mistress of Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, she was the only one who offered her sister support, regularly visiting her and keeping her up to date with family news and social gossip.
On 4 December 1933, Nancy Mitford married Peter Rodd, the second son of Sir Rennell Rodd, a diplomat and politician who was ennobled that year as Baron Rennell. The couple settled into a cottage at Strand-on-the-Green on the western edges of London. Mitford's initial delight in the marriage was soon tempered by money worries, Rodd's fecklessness and her dislike of his family.
By 1936, Nancy Mitford´s marriage was in trouble, her husband began to be unfaithful to her, and for the next few years, she suffered several miscarriages, with the last one led to a hysterectomy in November 1941.
She settled in London after convalescence, and there in September 1942 she met Gaston Palewski, a French colonel attached to General Charles de Gaulle's London staff who became the love of her life—though her feelings were never fully reciprocated—and an inspiration for much of her future writing.
In 1944, with Evelyn Waugh's encouragement, Nancy Mitford began planning a new novel. In March 1945 she was given three months' leave from the shop to write it.The Pursuit of Love is a heavily autobiographical romantic comedy in which many of her family and acquaintances appear in thin disguises. The book sold 200,000 copies within a year of publication, and firmly established Mitford as a best-selling author.
At the end of the war Peter Rodd returned to Nancy from the war, but their marriage was essentially over; although remaining on friendly terms, the couple led separate lives, and in April 1946, Nancy left London to make her permanent home in Paris and never lived in England again.
During her first 18 months in Paris Mitford lived in several short-term lodgings while enjoying a hectic social life, the hub of which was the British Embassy under the regime of the ambassador, Duff Cooper, and his socialite wife Lady Diana Cooper. Eventually Mitford found a comfortable apartment, with a maid, at No. 7 rue Monsieur on the Left Bank, close to Palewski's residence.
Settled there in comfort, she established a pattern to her life that she mostly followed for the next 20 years, her precise timetable determined by Palewski's varying availability. Her socialising, entertaining and working were interspersed with regular short visits to family and friends in England and summers generally spent in Venice.
In 1948 Nancy Mitford completed a new novel, a sequel to The Pursuit of Love she called Love in a Cold Climate, with the same country house ambience as the earlier book and many of the same characters. The novel's reception was even warmer than that of its predecessor; In 1950 she translated and adapted André Roussin's play La petite hutte ("The Little Hut"), in preparation for its successful West End début in August, and the play ran for 1,261 performances, and provided Mitford with a steady £300 per month in royalties. The same year The Sunday Times asked her to contribute a regular column, which she did for four years. This busy period in her writing life continued in 1951 with her third postwar novel, The Blessing, another semi-autobiographical romance this time set in Paris, in which an aristocratic young Englishwoman is married to a libidinous French marquis. Evelyn Waugh (to whom the book was dedicated) found the book "admirable, deliciously funny, consistent and complete, by far the best of your writings".
Mitford then began her first serious non-fiction work, a biography of Madame de Pompadour, and in 1957, she published Voltaire in Love, an account of the love affair between Voltaire and the Marquise du Châtelet, which she considered it her first truly grown-up work, and her best.
In October 1960 Nancy Mitford published Don't Tell Alfred, in which she revived Fanny Wincham, 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. The book was popular with the public, but received indifferent reviews, and she decided she would write no more fiction
In 1964 Nancy began work on The Sun King, a biography of King Louis XIV and it was published in August 1966, among the many tributes to the book was that of President de Gaulle, who recommended it to every member of his cabinet.
As her landlord on 7 rue Monsieur increased her rent, Nancy decided to leave Paris and buy herself a house in Versailles and moved to No. 4 rue d'Artois, Versailles, in January 1967.
The modest house had a half-acre (0.2 hectare) garden, which soon became one of her chief delights. In 1968 she began work on her final book, a biography of Frederick the Great. After a series of illnesses she learned from a newspaper announcement that Palewski had married the Duchesse de Sagan, a rich divorcée. Shortly after, she entered hospital for the removal of a tumour. After the operation she continued to suffer pain, although she was able to continue working on her book Frederick the Great which was published later in 1970 to a muted reception.
Mitford's remaining years were dominated by her illness, although for a time she enjoyed visits from her sisters and friends, and working in her garden. 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 (CBE). She was delighted by the former honour, and amused by the latter
At the end of 1972 she entered the Nuffield Clinic in London, where she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the blood. She lived for another six months, unable to look after herself and in almost constant pain, struggling to keep her spirits up. She wrote to her friend James Lees-Milne: "It's very curious, dying, and would have many a drôle amusing & charming side were it not for the pain". She died on 30 June 1973 at her home in the rue d'Artois and was cremated in Versailles.