Nancy Mitford – Hijacked By Familial Notoriety: Guest Blog by Helen Halton

Times journalist Ben MacIntyre once described the Mitford sisters as “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover, Nancy the Novelist, Deborah the Duchess, and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry-connoisseur” [1]. Of these, Unity “the Hitler-lover”, Jessica “the Communist”, and Diana “the Fascist” have garnered most of the world’s attention (Pamela, the “unobtrusive poultry-connoisseur” lived a calm, serene, and happy rural life – so ordinary in comparison to the lives of her sisters that her obituary writer struggled to find much to say about her – even noting at the start that she was “the least known of the Mitford sisters” [2]). Nancy “the Novelist” has been primarily of interest for what her works have revealed about the lives of her politically split sisters. However, Nancy is well worth some study in her own right.

Bright Young Person

Nancy, in her day, was a Bright Young Thing. These were a group of aristocratic socialites and intellectuals which tore a swathe through 1920s London. The Wall Street Journal has described them as “The British milieu of society scions flinging themselves into the nonstop pursuit of fun”. They did so in a flamboyantly bohemian fashion – so much so that their influence lives on today. Not only did they inspire aspect of bohemian, ‘hipster’, and ‘glitterati’ culture, they were also arguably the first to glamorize the use of illegal drugs. Addiction to opiates in particular only began to be considered a serious problem in the medical community in the 1920s, and tenuous efforts to control them more tightly only really began to be effective in the thirties. This newly illicit status of drugs once considered the preserve of those ill, weak of character, or ‘delicate’ rendered opiates and other drugs highly appealing to the Bright Young People, who had a distinct rebellious streak. It is arguably their prolific and much-flaunted use of drugs which rendered such substances popular amongst those who wanted to seem ‘cool’ (for, although the term did not exist at the time, the Bright Young People were undoubtedly as ‘cool’ as they came). Not knowing what they did, the Bright Young People helped to turn drugs into the appealingly rebellious and ‘cool’ choice which they are today – for which many people working in drug rehabilitation centres would undoubtedly curse Nancy and her compatriots almost as heartily as many curse Unity for her adoration of Hitler.

[NB: The Mitford Society would like to stress that Nancy Mitford did not take drugs. The above statement is the opinion of Helen Halton.]

Unlucky In Love

Nancy, however, knew none of this. While her sisters flung themselves into politics and poultry, she flung herself into partying. According to the biographer of her contemporary, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy declared that during those years “we hardly saw the light of day, except at dawn”. Her father aggressively disapproved of her male friends – largely, it seems, because they tended towards the aesthetic type, whom her father viewed as effeminate. In a move which seemed almost calculated to enrage her father, Nancy fell in love with the most outrageously effeminate member of the group – Hamish St Clair Erskine. Described as “a bright apparition who once upon a time swept past them like a kingfisher”, Hamish was undoubtedly tremendously charismatic, but there was not a great deal more to him than that – “his only enduring gift was his charm” [3] Unfortunately for Nancy, he was also homosexual. They enjoyed a scandalous affair but, given that it was felt 100% more on her part than on his, it was sporadic, and ended badly. Nancy’s love life would, sadly for her, follow a similar pattern throughout her life. To the horror of her friends, she ultimately married Peter Rodd – a somewhat irresponsible and amoral man whom Evelyn Waugh would later satirize as the unscrupulous bore Basil Seal in Black Mischief. The marriage was appalling. When pregnant with her one and only child, she prayed for a girl, for she could not bear to bring another Peter Rodd into the world. She miscarried the child, and the marriage failed utterly.

A Mixed Legacy

Nancy is best known today as a writer, and as an exemplar of manners and etiquette. The latter she came upon quite by accident, after making a chance remark about the ease with which one can distinguish the upper classes from all others by minor vocal tics. As for the former – while her novels acquired moderate success, they never quite achieved the popularity which they may well deserve. Nancy was undoubtedly a very clever woman, a formidable force, and a good writer on her own account, but her status as a Mitford sister both enhanced and hijacked her literary career. While people eagerly bought her anti-fascist offerings, they did so largely in order to lap up salacious details about the fictionalized lives of Unity and Diana, meaning that Nancy’s novels never got the critical reading they deserved. Perhaps, now that the Mitford notoriety is dying down a little, it is time to take Nancy’s books down from the shelves and cast a critical eye over them once more…

[1] Lydia Smith, “Deborah Mitford Dies: How Hitler and Stalin Tore England’s Grandest Family Apart”, International Business Times, September 2014

[2] Emma Tennant, “Obituary: Pamela Jackson”, The Independent, April 1994

[3] Hugo Vickers, “The fine art of doing nothing”, The Independent, March 1994

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3 thoughts on “Nancy Mitford – Hijacked By Familial Notoriety: Guest Blog by Helen Halton

  1. a rather negative article. Nancy was a pretty successful writer, not just her novels (pursuit of alive was hugely popular) but her biographies, The Sun King in particular was a bestseller. she was by far the most talented member of the family.

  2. Eh? This is all wildly inaccurate……

    Nancy the novelist has frequently been studied ‘in her own right’, eg the excellent biographies by Selina Hastings, Laura Thompson and Lisa Hilton which offer assessments of her great gift. She was not a ‘moderately successful’ novelist, she was a runaway bestseller during her lifetime and all her work is still in print and continues to be praised eg India Knight’s recent glowing introduction to the Penguin Omnibus edition.

    Additionally, her fiction always received favourable reviews from her contemporaries……

    When Nancy poked fun at the political leanings of Unity and Diana in her pre-war fiction, she had yet to make her reputation as a writer and the novels barely sold at all. She also suppressed them for many years so people did NOT buy them in droves. She made her name with ‘The Pursuit of Love’ which does not deal with fascism and neither does her second bestseller ‘Love in a Cold Climate’.

    It is also unfair to accuse Nancy of drug-taking when there is no evidence for this whatsoever. There were very different codes of conduct for young men and women in the 20’s; the Oxford aesthetes could do as they wished, but Nancy’s father was both strict and irrational. She went to the parties but barely drank, had a horror of losing self-control. Evelyn Waugh once said what a cheap date she was, since she was content to spend an evening drinking orangeade.

    I don’t suppose I shall be the only person to rush to Nancy’s defence!

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