An Irishman's Diary

Uncle Matthew, in Nancy Mitford's novel The Pursuit of Love, is an unforgettable character, writes Brian Maye.

Uncle Matthew, in Nancy Mitford's novel The Pursuit of Love, is an unforgettable character, writes Brian Maye.

He has read only one novel, Jack London's White Fang. The reason he hasn't read any others is because he found that one so good that he believes no other could equal it. He calls his daughters' boyfriends "sewers", still has his first World War trenching tool with blood and hairs on it from a German he killed, and hunts his children with bloodhounds.

Nancy Mitford, who was born 100 years ago yesterday, modelled Uncle Matthew on her own eccentric father, the second Baron Redesdale. She was born in London, the eldest of six girls, and was educated privately at home. Most of the sisters seemed to share their father's eccentric nature. Diana married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists (their wedding actually took place in the house of Hitler's minister for propaganda, Joseph Goebbels).

Another sister, Unity, was completely infatuated with Hitler and shot herself in the head the day war broke out between Britain and Germany in 1939.


Jessica Mitford took a very different political path. She fell in love with her cousin Esmond Romilly, an American Communist, and went to the United States. She is the author of Hons and Rebels and The American Way of Death. Pamela and Deborah seemed the two most "normal" of the sisters.

Nancy's early novels, amusing but slight, contained hints of her future literary success: they have witty dialogue and plenty of exaggeration and are crowded with eccentric characters. Highland Fling (1931) tells the story of a group of lively young things and middle-aged grouse-shooters brought together at a house party in a Scottish castle. Their extravagant, artificial, pretentious and esoteric behaviour allows their creator to poke fun at the English aristocracy.

Similarly, Mitford's second novel, Christmas Pudding (1932), contains an amusing confrontation between the generation of unyielding, ageing conservatives and the young who want to be in touch with every fad and fashion of the day. Eugenia Malmans, the main character in Wigs on the Green (1934), closely based on Nancy's sister Unity, is a wealthy young Fascist sympathiser. Pigeon Pie (1939) is a comic novel with a far-fetched plot involving kidnapping and ends with German spies parachuting into Britain and being captured.

The inspiration for many of the characters in these novels is to be found in people Mitford knew.

It was The Pursuit of Love, published in 1945, that brought Nancy literary fame. The story is a fictionalised account of her own eccentric upbringing, with the main character, Linda, based on herself. It has been remarked that it provides one of the great moments of 20th-century romantic fiction: Linda, dressed in a fur coat and sitting on her suitcase, first sees her lover-to-be, a dark, stocky Frenchman in a homburg, in the Gare du Nord. She fantasises about being kidnapped and taken into the white sex trade but willingly becomes Fabrice's obedient and worshipping mistress.

What differentiates the novel from most other love stories of 20th-century romantic fiction is, of course, its comic tone. The novel was popular because it provided light relief from post-war miseries. It was published in an inexpensive format and soon became a best-seller. More than 200,000 copies sold in its first year, and Nancy made nearly £5,000 in the first six months of its publication. It has never been out of print since.

In the novel, Nancy's unconventional family are fictionalised into the Radletts of Alconleigh, and their shenanigans are narrated by Fanny Logan, their adoring, self-effacing cousin. The Radlett girls wait impatiently for life to become interesting but, because of their station, nothing but marriage is expected of them. So, they throw themselves at love like crusaders, with varied and always comical results.

Mitford's funny prose follows the sisters through misguided marriages and love affairs, as the shadow of the second World War begins to close in on their vanishing world.

Nancy's ill-starred love affair with a French Resistance hero, Gaston Palewski, provided the basis for her second most successful novel, Love in a Cold Climate (1949), in which the leading character, Linda, dies in childbirth at the very time that the father of her baby is about to be shot by the Nazis. Although Palewski was fond of Nancy, he never felt the great passion for her that she did for him. She never fully recovered from the blow of his marrying another woman.

Nancy Mitford's other celebrated book concerned

her ideas on "u" (upper-class)

and "non-u" (non-upper-class) language in her essay The English Aristocracy, published by Stephen Spender in Encounter magazine in 1954. She provided a kind of brief dictionary of words used by the upper class (e.g., looking-glass, bike and napkin are all "u" while mirror, cycle and serviette are all "non-u") and the piece caused a national debate about the class consciousness and snobbery of the English.

The essay was reprinted along with an article by the philologist John Ross in a book called Noblesse Oblige: an Inquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy (1956).

Nancy Mitford had an abiding love of France which she considered far superior to England and much of her work reflected this judgment. The bitter-sweet romantic comedy The Blessing (1950) was turned into a successful film starring Maurice Chevalier. France also provided the inspiration for three of her well-researched and successful biographies: Madame de Pompadour (1954), Voltaire in Love (1957) and The Sun King (1966).

Her novels fell out of fashion from the 1960s onwards, an indication, perhaps, of readers' discomfort with the class consciousness and upper-class diction which Mitford brought so readily to mind. But successful television adaptations of her two main novels led to a revival in recent years. They have been well described as "snapshots of a vanished world".

She died of Hodgkin's disease in 1973.