The New Compass: A Critical Review



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Books for People Who Don’t Read


Janet Bailey



Laura Thompson. Life in a Cold Climate: Nancy Mitford: A Portrait of a Contradictory Woman. London: Review, 2003. xvi; 432 pages. £20.


I think Nancy Mitford might well have found Laura Thompson her almost ideal biographer. The book sparkles with a passion for Nancy Mitford’s work and for her character, and although curmudgeons may flinch in the face of such consistent delight, there cannot be any better motive for embarking on the search for understanding. As the literary world is awash with biographies and most high profile writers, including this one,[1] have already been tackled by high profile biographers, it is brave of Laura Thompson to set out on this choppy sea, especially in pursuit of such an elusive, stylish and controversial woman as Nancy Mitford, shimmering as she does, on an horizon of aristocratic names and the tumultuous events of the twentieth century.


Nancy Mitford was born in 1904 and died in 1973, so her life spans the major part of the century. She was the eldest child in a family of six sisters and one brother, from an upper class English background, unflashy in ways that have all but disappeared today. David Mitford, her father, inherited the title, Baron Redesdale, only through a series of chances: his elder brother Clement, “the golden boy” (22) and expected heir, was killed in 1915 in the First World War, leaving no son, and just after his death, their father was gone too. Here the changes start to happen more rapidly, to the course of the century as well as to the Redesdale fortunes, and Laura Thompson gathers up many strands of these lives and times with considerable flair.


Her thesis is the contradictory nature of the woman, in her life and her work, and the responses this has provoked since Nancy Mitford’s name was in the public eye, first in the thirties, but most of all after 1949 when The Pursuit of Love was published, closely followed by Love in a Cold Climate. It could be argued that the venture is its own excuse for cobbling together yet again all the extraordinary pieces of the Mitford jigsaw, “the impenetrable fascination of this family”(31), with its strange alliances across the uneasy perspectives of war and great changes in society—yet another foray into high gossip, the more titillating for examining in such detail how Nancy Mitford managed her undeniably bizarre family life in a wonderfully well connected social world. This would, however, be far too easy a criticism of what is a most loving and readable attempt to capture the eccentric nature and subtlety of this woman’s achievement. Laura Thompson presents this scintillating creature with such verve, such graceful determination to rescue her from being boxed into a corner labelled frivolously lightweight and irredeemably tarnished by her family’s awful associations with Nazism and its henchmen, that we are readily enlisted to her cause, even if perhaps we find the whole investigation slightly too long and occasionally repetitive. Given the character we find so acutely defined in this portrait, who could not bear any “droning on”(xiii), Nancy Mitford would probably have jibbed at some of this, and better editing would have helped. There are also some moments when the emphases on her particular kind of attitude towards what was happening in Europe and within her family smacks of special pleading.


The real value of the enterprise is that she makes us appreciate the background out of which “the resolute strength” of Nancy Mitford’s development grew; how her façade was maintained by her hold on the importance of the virtues that underpinned it. And this reinforces Laura Thompson’s main argument about the best novels: if we think Nancy Mitford is too preoccupied with “airy nothing,” then we have missed the peculiar quality of her life and art; “she believes in charming her audience as least as much as enlightening them”(xii)—surely a Jonsonian aspiration. When we recognise what she is doing, we will see that “airy nothing” has been given its “local habitation and a name” in her penetrating—often unsparing—explorations of the human heart, expressed with such beguiling wit and style. Our world is greatly out of touch with any grasp on ideas such as restraint, elegance, refinement and good manners—and perhaps as an extension of these, with the rigorous idea of smiling in the face of difficulty however severe, indeed in the face of tragedy itself. Laura Thompson makes clear how easily today we find such behaviour cold and unfeeling. On one level, it would be hard to think of anyone whose behaviour and attitudes seem more antipathetic to modern notions than Nancy Mitford—a woman who thought dressing beautifully all the time was an important discipline but one to be enjoyed intensely, who could present a bright face “among the jewel-coloured birds”(221) at dinner with her host in his beautiful house just after hearing from him that her beloved brother Tom had died of his wounds in Burma. It is by scrutinising the way she conducted her life, and particularly the manner in which she handled love and crisis, that Laura Thompson takes us quite close to the centre of the quest to transmute life into art, and shows what this extraordinary woman has to teach us about what we think we know already. There is much to provoke us, but this is what we should demand of sprightly biography.


Crisis comes to mind very easily when we consider Nancy Mitford’s place in the family caravanserai, so what is it about its special nature, the conflict, the wild behaviour, the caustic comment, the fun, and the allied contradictions, “a heady mixture of the conventional and the unconventional” (72) found beautifully restructured in The Pursuit of Love (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1949) which makes some of us find them as unreal and frothy as a world of dream fantasy? This is Laura Thompson’s central territory: she attempts to interpret for us what it meant to live in a truly eccentric family, in a political landscape ranging from the weird connections between all the Mitfords and the sinister rise of Hitler, to Oswald Mosley and fascism and his marriage to Diana Mitford, Esmond Romilly and communism and his marriage to Jessica Mitford, Nancy Mitford’s own flawed marriage to Peter Rodd, her experiences in the war, her miscarriages, all these gave a kind of edgy and sometimes savage unpredictability to much of her life. There is obviously little space in a brief review to give examples of how entertainingly Laura Thompson elucidates what these experiences meant for this young woman’s development, as daughter, sibling, friend, witty conversationalist and correspondent, tower of strength (when she chose to be) in hard times, devastating social commentator, and writer, but we are constantly and movingly reminded of the material she had to work with, and in the relatively recent past. She died only thirty years ago, Diana died only this year and Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire, is still alive. It is Laura Thompson’s good fortune to have been able to converse with these two of Nancy’s sisters who illuminate in a characteristically Mitfordian argumentative fashion, the roller coaster of her life, and increase our understanding of how a particular kind of insouciance can mask true grit, can be a type of courtesy, as well as what courage it took to endure the pain of her last years. When she was dying, Laura Thompson tells us, “Books were her salvation; she clung to the words as if they were lighting the way to sanity”(397). It is therefore fitting if her own writing can distil for us the best essence of the woman, “such is her gift of seeing and imagining” (366).


The magic of that voice lies in the narrator’s perfect assurance of tone and perspective, and in The Pursuit of Love, her handling of both comedy and tragedy within an apparently artless but highly idiosyncratic romantic tale. Perhaps part of the patronising attitude to Nancy Mitford’s work arises from a misreading of the swift and confident pace of her writing, as well as from a modern kind of contempt for her subject matter, sometimes foolishly assumed to make her not worth reading. Let us again recall Ben Jonson: “it is only the disease of the unskilful to think rude things greater than polish’d.” Nancy knew how to deal with many “rude things”: we remember the entrenching tool “still covered in blood and hairs” hanging over the chimney-piece, the wild ambiguities of the children’s thoughts and conversation, in the hunting field and elsewhere, not to mention the myriad aspects of managing the behaviour of a seriously odd bunch of people, in all kinds of situation. We have to remember that one sister, Diana, remained in prison through most of the Second World War for her dedication to Hitler, and another, Unity, put a bullet in her head for him the day war was declared; these horrors have no part in the nove,l but Nancy Mitford’s sense of the value of facing difficulty with unflinching polish, in her writing as much as in her life, besides giving her strength and courage, also allowed her to find her metier. Laura Thompson makes us focus on the real questions that grow out of the apparently simple tale with its theme of romantic love: is love “the most important thing in life? … Is it an eternal value, or a series of exquisite illusions?”(244). Nancy Mitford’s effortless juxtaposition of apparently small things with issues of great moment makes for compelling reading. We have come to associate emphasis with extravagant expression, as though it were itself a necessary good, and this is where Nancy’s creations defy us: there is no babble, even the Hons’ cupboard conversations are funny and brief, and the management of dialogue, which is so difficult to do well, is one of the great delights of her best novels. At every turn “droning on” is given short shrift.


If as Jane Austen reminds us, we are “born to struggle and endure,” Laura Thompson has given us an absorbing glimpse of what this meant for Nancy Mitford. The most interesting and most contradictory part of the biography—which becomes the grist to Nancy Mitford’s best writing—is the love of her life, Gaston Palewski. Palewski was appointed General de Gaulle’s “right-hand man” (191) and chief political advisor in London in 1940, and as well as being educated and charming, and “on the side of righteousness” (190), he was funny and loved the Mitford stories, so of course we hear him in Fabrice in The Pursuit of Love: “Allons, racontez, madame.” “Racontez what?” “Well, but of course, the story. Who was it left you to cry on that suitcase?” (28). We owe him a debt of gratitude whatever our view of the way they conducted their relationship, and the description of Linda’s reaction to Fabrice at the Gare du Nord is as perfect an evocation of the coup de foudre as we are likely to find anywhere, and pertinently, has nothing whatever to do with conventional good looks. In yet another turn of contradiction’s wheel, without Palewski’s dashing unreliability and absences, Nancy Mitford might never have written her important later books about Voltaire, Madame de Pompadour, Louis IV and Frederick the Great, which although not all works with quite the “quick breath of creativity” (341) as her earlier winners, show the same power to understand human behaviour, how its quirks influence huge events in history. They demonstrate her to be capable of a scholarly dedication the more effective for its polished modesty and wit, and in the case of Madame de Pompadour she has given us a book “which glows and gleams in the mind like a room in the Wallace Collection” (323). Gaston Palewski’s “great fondness for her was real and solid, as his love had never been”(395); here is the abiding contradiction with which Nancy Mitford chose to live and which makes this biography a special kind of love story. It is riveting stuff, written with captivating energy, and if we accept the joke that in The Pursuit of Love Nancy Mitford wrote a book entertaining enough even for those who do not read, allowing that she would have made some biting comments about excessive biographical detail, perhaps she would be pleased to think Laura Thompson had done something similar for her.







[1]  See Harold Acton, Nancy Mitford: A Memoir (London: Hamilton, 1975); Selina Hastings, Nancy Mitford (London: Hamilton, 1985); Mary S. Lovell, The Mitford Girls (London: Little, Brown, 2001).






Bailey, Janet. “Books for People Who Don’t Read.” Rev. of Life in a Cold Climate: Nancy Mitford: A Portrait of a Contradictory Woman, by Laura Thompson. The New Compass: A Critical Review 2 (December 2003)  <>