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Nancy Mitford

The brilliant novelist who seduced readers with her evocations of the upper classes
Mitford at her Paris apartment in 1954

“Can you get over them going on with U?” wrote Nancy Mitford to her friend Evelyn Waugh in 1956. The reference was to an article she had published in Encounter the previous year, within which she outlined the theory of “U” and “Non-U” language. “U” meant upper-class, the societal rank to which the Hon Nancy – oldest child of the 2nd Lord Redesdale – belonged. “Non-U” meant everybody else. And the whole thing sparked a veritable storm.

“U and Non-U” was a mere fraction of a long essay, a few hundred words of droll nonsense about how “U” people ate luncheon and pudding while the “Non-U” made do with lunch and a sweet. Yet it became, for years afterwards, the piece of writing for which Nancy was most widely known. No matter that she produced eight works of fiction – including two of the best comic novels of the twentieth century, The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949) – as well as four fine historical biographies. Her 1973 obituary in the Telegraph was headed: “Nancy Mitford, ‘U and Non-U’ creator, dies at 68.”

“Writers write about the people they know, really, I think. I suppose it’s rather natural… Jane Austen wouldn’t have written about Siberian peasants”

In fact the U and Non-U labels were the creation of a philologist, Professor Alan Ross. In a learned article on “sociological linguistics” he cited The Pursuit of Love, specifically when Uncle Matthew – the fictionalised Lord Redesdale – laments the use of the words notepaper and mantelpieces (Non-U), instead of writing paper and chimneypieces (U). With her love of a tease, Nancy was unable to resist running with this idea. However, as her sister Deborah put it when I spoke to her for my biography of Nancy, it all became “a perfect pest”, which “came back to haunt her”.

“In England class distinctions have always roused higher feelings than national honour,” wrote Evelyn Waugh. “Was it kind, dear Nancy, to pull their legs?” Making a joke about the language of class was, in 1955, akin to mocking our own anxious locutions about gender. Readers of Encounter, which flew out of the shops as if it were Lady Chatterley’s Lover, took Nancy’s strictures on cycle v bike very much to heart. Many of them wrote to tell her so. “My typist is so angry she refuses to type a letter to you” was the opening line of a typical missive.

To Nancy, the upper-classes were the most normal thing on earth

Nancy Mitford was a supreme begetter of jokes; the woman who, when dying of an intolerably painful cancer, wrote: “there is always something to laugh at.” In this case, however, the joke was on her. It was not that she had written about class – what English writer has not done such a thing? It was the way in which she had done it: with head-on openness and an airy lack of concern for her readers’ sensitivities. There was also an implication – which went down very badly – that U and Non-U was akin to the doctrine of predestination. A Non-U person might learn to talk about luncheon, but saying the word would never make them U.

1933 photo of Nancy marrying Hon. Peter Murray Rennell Rodd, a marriage that was satisfactory to neither and ended in 1957

It was all, in fact, a bit too brutally honest, and people resented it. Thus it was that as late as 2001, when the BBC adapted Nancy’s two most acclaimed novels, its own publicity department asked itself “why, in this age of equality, would anyone want to read or watch the semi-biographical adventures of a self-confessed snob?”

Oh, I don’t know. Because they’re absolutely brilliant? And because they have the same relationship with U and Non-U as Anna Karenina has with a Cosmopolitan article about the perils of adultery.

Of course Nancy’s novels are set in the world of “U” – her overlooked third masterpiece, The Blessing (1951), depicts the gratin of Paris, where she moved after World War II. As she herself put it in a 1966 television interview, “writers write about the people they know, really, I think. I suppose it’s rather natural… Jane Austen wouldn’t have written about Siberian peasants.”

To Nancy, the upper-classes were the most normal thing on earth – although Waugh, also a tease, loved to remind her that Lord Redesdale only gained his (minor) title when an older brother was killed in 1915. “It was a great day for ‘Hons’ when you and your merry sisters acquired that prefix of nobility,” he conceded. It was also rather a good day for literature. Nobody writes about the upper classes in quite the way that Nancy does, conjuring an enchantment that is deliciously earthbound. She had no need or desire to present them through a lens – as in Brideshead Revisited, or indeed its oddball descendant Saltburn. She simply wrote, as she said, what she knew.

Especially so in the semi-autobiographical The Pursuit of Love, with its exquisite evocation of the posh-feral Mitford upbringing in the Cotswolds. Life in a Cold Climate – less poetic, more sophisticated – depicts a broader canvas, on to which is painted essentially the same world. A world of the landowner classes, the titled, secure in their eccentricities and failings: a world unto itself, inaccessible to the vast majority of her readers.

Yet people adored it. The Pursuit of Love was published not long after Britain – including Nancy herself – had elected a government dedicated to the symbolic destruction of its social hierarchies, and readers devoured every last detail about them. The book sold 200,000 copies in a year. Love in a Cold Climate, published at a time of the bleakest austerity, featuring a family – the Montdores – whose wealth merely begins with a mansion on Park Lane, was fallen upon with equal rapture.

Similarly, our contemporary mores demand an embracing tolerance of everything except white privilege, unearned privilege and Eton: all present and correct in the Nancy Mitford universe. And, again, the novels are widely loved. Indeed – with the spectre of U and Non-U now pretty much slain – their popularity is resurgent. With their perfectly-mixed cocktail of accessibility and otherness, their sublime non-judgmentalism, they seduce a reading public that Encounter managed merely to enrage.

Seduction, indeed, is what is happening here. For a start the novels are divinely funny.

“Roaring, raging” Uncle Matthew and “the hell-hag” Lady Montdore, those fairytale monsters with their humanising areas of vulnerability, are two of the most priceless creations in fiction. And they are rendered in a glorious authorial voice, clear as that of a supremely clever child, with a deceptively simple intimacy that makes the books not merely readable, but – to many, myself included – infinitely readable.

Nobody writes about the upper classes in quite the way that Nancy does, conjuring an enchantment that is deliciously earthbound

Nancy, who had already written four novels, found her true voice at the same time as she found love – not with her feckless husband, Peter Rodd, but with the French politician Gaston Palewski, a close ally of de Gaulle, whom she met in London in 1942, and who delighted in tales of her childhood. “Racontez, racontez”, he would say; she did as he asked; and the method released her gift.

Nancy Mitford in 1932

For it let loose the mysterious quality of charm, “creamy English charm”, as Waugh described it in Brideshead. Charm was possessed by all the Mitford siblings – Nancy, her brother, her six sisters. It enabled them to indulge, individually, in such bagatelles as marrying Sir Oswald Mosley, supporting Communism and being a close companion of Adolf Hitler; yet still, en masse, to compel at least as much as they repel. This is in no small part because Nancy, in The Pursuit of Love, reconfigured her family’s image by removing its dark “vein of ice” (the phrase is James Lees-Milne’s) and marketing that very quality of charm. She created, in fact, the Mitfords of myth: light, vital, blithely confident, suffused with a sincere levity, imparting an image of a lost England.

The Pursuit of Love contains tragedy, yet it is an expression of Nancy’s belief in the will to happiness, which is the hallmark of her mature writing. Her own life has been described as a desperate business – usually by her sisters, whom she fascinated to the point of occasional resentment – with its failed and childless marriage to Rodd, its inconclusive relationship with Palewski. There were sadnesses, for sure, but I find this “poor Naunce” stuff somewhat absurd, given that she was above all a creative, and an intensely fulfilled one. In Pursuit, for instance, Nancy wrote a version of her affair with Palewski that was, undoubtedly, idealised. Yet for her it would have had reality: despite her biting intelligence, she saw life most profoundly through the prism of her sunlit imagination.

Which means that while U and Non-U was uncompromising on the subject of class, Nancy’s novels – however gorgeously-observed – are not social documents, nor satires, so much as literary constructs. They are gleaming little works of art, through which their author acts as smiling gatekeeper to her own dying world; the one that readers, including those who disapprove of everything it represents, find quite impossible to resist.

Laura Thompson has written a biography of Nancy Mitford and “The Six”, about the Mitford sisters. Other books include “The Last Landlady” and “Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life”

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June / July 2024, People, reputations

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