It’s been hard to avoid the Mitfords recently. A collected edition of the letters of Jessica (‘Decca’) was published in 2006. The following year another collection, this time of the letters exchanged between all six sisters, appeared. And this autumn we’ve been treated to the correspondence between the youngest sister, Debo, now Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, and Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor.
What a family the Mitfords were, shooting off in wildly contrasting political directions. Their father, Lord Redesdale, was a Conservative who eventually ran off with the housekeeper, and Lady Redesdale was rather smitten with the fascists. Their brother Tom went off and fought the Japanese because he couldn’t bear to fight the Germans; Diana fell wildly in love with Oswald Mosley; Unity adored Hitler and became a Nazi; Jessica became a communist; and Debo married an aristocrat. Only Pamela seems to have been uninterested in politics, while Nancy, the eldest, captured them all for posterity in two marvellous novels, The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949).
The Pursuit of Love was Nancy Mitford’s first major success. Its narrator is Fanny Logan, a cousin of the Radletts of Alconleigh, who are modelled on Mitford’s own family and childhood home. Of Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie’s seven children, Linda is Fanny’s favourite cousin, and it is Linda’s search for love which forms the backbone of the book. Love in a Cold Climate is also narrated by Fanny, but by now she is older and married and is more concerned with her own life and that of the Radletts’ neighbours, the Montdores, their stunningly beautiful but oddly dull daughter Polly, and their wildly exciting nephew and heir, the vibrant pansy Cedric, who transforms Lady Montdore’s life.
I first read Nancy Mitford years ago but then blotted her work from my memory. In the circles in which I moved it was not done to admire the upper classe
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