Only The Sister: Angela du Maurier

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Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. IV

When one thinks of groups of sisters throughout history, it is often their social lives that come under scrutiny, and then their literary output. It is as though they were half expected to write a novel or a volume of memoirs to compensate for their celebrity status, whether they were talented or not. Fortunately it was the former with the du Mauriers, and both Angela and Daphne (though to a larger extent) would write books. As with Nancy Mitford’s novels, predominantly The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, the du Mauriers books were largely inspired by not only their childhood and events in their lives, but of the landscape in which they lived and had visited.

Like the Mitfords, Angela (1904), Daphne (1907), and Jeanne (1911) had an unusual childhood not in the depths of the countryside but largely spent at Cannon Hall, in Hampstead, where fascinating guests filled the home, and their father Gerald dominated the girls, for better or worse. Except for a few terms at Miss Tulloch’s school, their education was confined to a governess as Gerald did not wish for his daughters to be exposed to the wicked world. The Mitfords would also be kept at home, but for different reasons: their father did not want them to develop thick calves from playing hockey. However, unlike the Mitfords, the du Maurier girls were exposed to the arts on the domestic front and there was nothing unseemly about a trip to the theatre, or harbouring an ambition to go on the stage. Whereas Farve went up to London once a year to see a play, taking his daughters with him, and often critiquing it on the journey home – ‘That foolish boy, Romeo…. and that damned nurse, bloody bitch. She was probably an RC!’ Gerald du Maurier was an actor-theatre manager, and he also had a brand of cigarettes named after himself. Their aunt Sylvia Llewelyn Davies was the mother of the five boys who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and this fed the girls’ imagination. They identified themselves as a tribe, in the vein of Barrie’s Lost Boys, and Daphne and Jeanne thought of themselves as boys, whereas Angela was happy to be a girl, even if she did think herself unattractive. And, as with the Mitfords, theirs was a feral upbringing of secret societies, schoolroom antics and silly nicknames. Angela, the eldest, was Piffy; Daphne, the middle girl, was Bing; and Jeanne, the youngest was Bird. Their mother, Muriel, was a vague presence in their lives; a former actress, she was beautiful and aloof, and did not pander to her children except when critiquing them. The same was true for the Mitfords, as their mother, as well as their beloved nanny, often told the six beauties that nobody was looking at them (especially Diana, the most beautiful). Muriel was often exasperated by her daughters’ appearance, especially Angela’s heavy build and lack of fashion sense – she was once mistaken for the nanny when she accompanied her sisters to a birthday party.

Angela’s innocence lasted all of her life, and she believed in the mythical figure of Father Christmas long into adolescence. Unlike the Mitfords who were quite cynical as children and when they were taken to see Peter Pan they would yell ‘No!’ when the cast called out, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’ Angela herself did believe in fairies and, after a well-meaning servant placed ‘fairy circles’ in the garden to enchant the children, it was her younger sister Daphne who discredited the stunt and said there was no such thing. Angela however dissolved into tears and accused her of speaking ill of the fairies. She was the only one out of her sisters who believed in the afterlife and often spoke of being reunited with spirits on a supernatural realm. Daphne, as imaginative as she was, scoffed at her ideas. Despite her inability to keep up with the quick wit of her family, her childhood home represented security and a barrier against growing up. Something the Mitfords could not relate to, for each girl, with the exception of Pamela and Debo, was aching to break free. ‘The finish of security. Doubt lies ahead. Adieu les jours heureux,’ Angela wrote in her diary. In a way, she would always retain a childlike enthusiasm, and throughout her life, as in the nursery, she was seldom without an idol to worship.

The ‘business of growing older’, as she referred to it, represented more than double figures to Angela, and she was apprehensive about swapping her childhood clothes for a grown-up trousseau; ‘one was a fish out of water, too young to listen to sophisticated conversation, at the same time not wishing to play cricket on the lawn with younger sisters and their friends’. She was sent to finishing school in Paris but she was stifled by homesickness and it was to be a miserable experience. Like Pamela Mitford, Angela was the scapegoat for her sisters teasing and the other girls’ antics, and she had no ambition to be a bright star on the horizon. Her spirits were momentarily lifted when her parents and sisters arrived to take her on holiday to the south of France and then on to Algiers. Daphne thought it a great adventure and was spellbound by the architecture, Jeanne was too young to appreciate it, and Angela, having read The Garden of Allah, was determined to fall in love. The object of her affection was Roland Pertwee, a married man whose wife had left him, and he took up with Angela and Daphne, acting as a tour guide and chaperone. But Angela’s idea of a chaste romance fizzled out when Pertwee decided she was an unsophisticated schoolgirl and, after accompanying her to Paris, he dropped her at her finishing school and vanished.

When Angela returned home she became interested in politics, having met Peter Macdonald, an MP for the Isle of Wight, and she became a Young Conservative. Throwing herself into the political campaign, she travelled to darkest Southwark but was appalled at the poverty she was subjected to, and she began to question her Tory ideals. Many doors were slammed in her face. A man shouted that he ‘voted for Labour and always would’, Angela’s only response was to sigh and say, ‘Yes, so should I.’ Thereupon, she became a converted socialist and argued with Macdonald, with whom she thought she was in love despite the fact he was married. She proposed a deal to him: if the Tories won all would be well with them, and if Labour won they would go their separate ways. This was reminiscent of Unity and Decca Mitford, albeit through a sisterly bond, they agreed to disagree when it came to politics, but each one agreed to shoot the other if they had to for the sake of their ideological cause. To Angela’s dismay Labour won the 1929 General Election and Macdonald was no longer the focus of her thoughts, but it marked a watershed in her romantic life. Around this period she began to branch out from her family, as painful as it was, and to visit friends at their country houses. On such a visit to Lady Cynthia Asquith’s home, where a group of young people were staying, Angela, who was aged nineteen, was kissed by Lord Dunglass. It had taken place in her bedroom, and she was convinced she would become pregnant. Harbouring this secret, she wrote to her aunt who reassured her that she could not.

Although she held a romantic ideal of love and dreamt of having children, she was appalled by sex – this was prompted by an acquaintance telling her about reproduction and she felt sickened by the biological facts at play. ‘My father would never do such a thing,’ she said. Then, when she absorbed the information told to her, she felt ‘betrayed’ by her parents ‘because the truth was so HORRIBLE that they couldn’t bear to tell it to me’. When her mother found out she ‘harangued’ her for having learned the truth and said she could never trust her daughter again. Adding to this wretchedness, when she was twelve-years-old and walking in the woods, a German soldier whom she saw was wounded and went to help him had exposed himself to her. After this, she felt confused and distressed, and ashamed of what had happened but she knew she must keep it a secret. By her own admission it had stunted her social development.

Furthermore, Gerald had always confided his infidelities to Angela and Daphne, telling them of the young actresses whom he was stringing along, and he invited them to mock the women’s naivety, thus dividing their loyalties to their mother who knew nothing of these chats. This added to Angela’s mistrust of men, and the view that all men, once they had caught a young woman, would move on to someone else. Yet, despite their talk of his affairs, and the girls’ referring to the young women as ‘the stable’ (as in fillies vying to win a race), Gerald was pathologically jealous of his daughters’ coming into contact with young men, especially Angela who was not as loyal to him as Daphne. She recalled him watching from an upstairs window as she returned from a party, and cross examining her whenever she walked through the door. He wanted to know if anyone had kissed her, or had made a pass, or indeed if she found a young man attractive. And he warned that she would ‘lose her bloom’ if she had done so, for a man’s attention would somehow tarnish her looks and everyone would know she had been corrupted. Soon after her coming out in society, he began to call her a whore, and when she complained of pains in her stomach he accused her of being pregnant – it turned out to be appendicitis. The Mitfords father, too, could be frightening when his daughters sought love matches with men he disapproved of, and during their youth he was forever calling their male friends ‘sewers’ and threatening to horsewhip them but he did not cross the threshold of causing psychological harm.

As a debutante she attended dances in London and found a friend in a young Cecil Beaton who, despite his waspish nature, was charmed by her wholesomeness. It was the Jazz Age, and the young ladies of her generation were dressed in the height of 1920s fashion, but Angela was to suffer in the stays from her childhood corsets and flouncy dresses. She failed to become engaged, or to even find a suitor, but she developed a crush on Gwen Farrar, an actress on the West End stage who was notorious for her lesbian pursuits. Her parents, regardless of their theatrical backgrounds, did not approve of the friendship with Gwen, and they put a stop to it. Angela was heartbroken, and in many ways she shared a childish vision of romance with Nancy Mitford, her contemporary. Nancy herself pined for an unsuitable man who was not only gay but treated her badly, and yet she loved him and thought they would marry. This innocence has been attributed to the sheltered upbringing of girls of their generation. Daphne, although younger, believed life as well as love was ‘no fun unless there’s a spark of danger in it’. I think Diana and Decca Mitford certainly agreed with her sentiment.

In an attempt to distract Angela from the business of politics and her ‘unsuitable’ friendship with Gwen Farrar, Gerald suggested she play Wendy Darling in the annual Christmas and New Year performance of Peter Pan at the Adelphi theatre. Nancy would also experience a helping hand on the career ladder when she was given a job at her grandfather’s magazine, The Lady. Angela was undaunted by the task ahead, and although she was an untrained actress the play was so familiar to her that she was word perfect. Gladys Cooper was cast as Peter, and the social world of the theatre appeared to be the tonic she needed. There were rehearsals every day, and parties every night, and Angela was once again in love, this time with Ian Hunter who had been cast as Mr Darling. But the director’s vision of the play did not match Angela’s childhood memories of the story and she clashed with him. After weeks of preparation, she felt nervous and uncertain of herself in the part, and her lisp was intensified and she spoke quickly and forgot her lines. The nepotism on Gerald’s behalf in casting his daughter ahead of classical actresses proved disastrous when, on opening night, she struggled with her wire and flew into the orchestra pit. She was battered and bruised, and embarrassed by the spectacle but, regardless of her personal feelings, she carried on with the show. Although she would never make it as an actress, Angela had somewhat fallen prey to theatrical types and she was conned by a photographer in to posing nude. She was ashamed and upset by the results of her modelling.

As was her wont, Angela retreated back to the family home and into her childhood world. At the age of almost thirty she appeared content to stay at home and write in her diary, and she lived off her yearly allowance of £150. It was the era of the celebrity debutante and her fellow debs, who were now young wives and prominent London hostesses, were serving as muses for painters and photographers alike. Nancy Mitford, too, had succumbed to the alter and married an entirely unsuitable man, but at least she had finally married. Angela had no such luck, or interest. But she played the part of a jolly upper-class girl and Cecil Beaton asked Angela and Daphne to sit for him, and he photographed their blonde heads peering out from behind wineglasses. The surreal composition, though artificial to the untrained and perhaps modern eye, was thought of by Angela as the most flattering portrait ever taken of her.

It would be wrong to portray Angela as a loner, for she had a collection of close female friends whose company she sought. There was a ‘romantic adventure’ with her best friend, Angela Shaw, and her Pekinese, Wendy. They motored in Angela’s MG Midget on their way to the west coast of Scotland and the Isles of Mull and Skye, but this was cut short by a collision in Yorkshire. The car, hurled into a ditch, was so badly damaged it was possible the women and dog survived because of its open top and they were thrown clear. Angela suffered a head injury and was badly concussed, and the rescuers at first thought she was dead. Her first words, when she came to, was to ask about Wendy. Shaw, though conscious, and in agony from a smashed collarbone, resented Angela’s concern for the dog. They were taken to Ripon Cottage Hospital, where they convalesced in a children’s ward, and Wendy was placed in a cot by Angela’s bed. Shaw, high on morphine, cried out that she was at the ‘end of her tether’.

Perhaps a bitter blow to Angela’s confidence was the progression of Daphne. Like Nancy Mitford, her younger sister Diana had triumphed in many areas where she herself had not. Angela was not a natural writer, but she showed a creative flare, and she wrote her first novel A Little Less, which was rejected by publishers. Around this time, Daphne’s debut novel, The Loving Spirit, was published and her great literary career began. With the publication of Daphne’s fourth novel, Jamaica Inn, Angela’s second attempt at fiction, The Perplexed Heart, was accepted by publishers hoping to cash in on the du Maurier name. Eventually her first attempt was published a decade after it was written and it provoked parental outrage when they discovered its theme of a young woman’s love for another. How could sheltered Angela have known of such things? her parents wondered. The publishers’ rejection letters matched the sentiments of the du Mauriers: the lesbian theme was ‘too unpleasant’. And on the romance front Daphne had excelled where Angela did not. She married Sir Frederick Arthur Montague Browning, known as Tommy, and would have three children. Likewise Jeanne became a talented painter, and as with Angela, she did not marry but lived for the rest of her life with a woman. Pamela Mitford would do the same, leading to speculation as to the nature of the relationship with such companions. As with Pamela and her volatile marriage to Derek Jackson, an alpha male, Angela and Jeanne’s difficult dynamic with their father had disillusioned them towards the male sex. Angela’s case was far more complex, she was neither of her parents’ favourite – Daphne was her father’s golden child, and Jeanne, the easy-going baby of the family, was her mother’s pet – and so she was constantly searching for affection and a place to belong.

As she grew older, Angela’s debilitating homesickness left her and she travelled around continental Europe, staying in luxurious hotels. It has also been said that Gerald’s death in 1934, although a great loss for Daphne, had liberated Angela from his put-downs and teasing. She would live with her mother until Muriel’s death in 1957, and be a constant presence in Daphne’s life. The sisters, including Jeanne, might not have been as candid with one another, as say the Mitfords, but they were prolific letter writers. In her later years her common sense and strength of character made Angela the sister they could all rely on. She would outlive both Daphne and Jeanne, dying at the age of ninety-eight in 2002. The landscape of the places she visited, most especially western Ireland, had become embedded in her imagination and in her work. She continued to write, whether her novels were well received or not, and in her lifetime she published eleven works of fiction and two autobiographies. Friends warned her to censor her life, thinking she was (surprisingly) too advanced for the modern reader. She heeded their warning, and censor it she did though it was far from dull. Having plucked up the courage to live the life she dreamed of in the nursery, Angela would never entirely shed the insecurities of her youth, but she bravely took the reigns of her destiny. Her best-known book, an autobiography, was inspired by those who diminished her work in favour of Daphne’s. Its title, Only the Sister, verifies just that. But she was so much more…

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Available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

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Literary Ladies: Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Jane Howard, and Lucia Berlin

Extracted from this year’s Mitford Society: Vol IV

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(Images taken from Google, no copyright infringement intended)

Although from different backgrounds, both socially and professionally, the stylistic approach of Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Jane Howard (known as Jane), and Lucia Berlin were markedly similar. Everything they had gone through in their lives – their difficult upbringings, relationships with their family and friends, and love affairs – were woven into the text of their stories, for better or worse. As an admirer of all three women, I find the clues within their fiction canon an intriguing puzzle. Interestingly, only Jane wrote an autobiography (titled Slipstream), whereas Nancy threatened to write her memoirs but never got around to it, and Lucia made a start but never completed hers. Perhaps the early deaths of both Nancy and Lucia, in 1973 and 2004 respectively, brought their factual writing to a halt. Using one’s peers and experiences to craft fiction is nothing new, but the aforementioned women did it with such authenticity that the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred.

It was with her fifth novel, The Pursuit of Love, published in 1945 that Nancy unashamedly used her sisters and parents personalities, as well as their experiences, in her work. Each character is a mishmash of their collective lives; from their initiation into secret societies (the Hons’ Cupboard), love affairs, and to the dialogue they spoke, it had all happened in real life. And so, as a Mitford enthusiast, this gives Nancy’s work a feeling of de ja vu. This, we are aware of because of the extensive publications detailing the Mitfords letters; from nursery teases to political leanings, she collected each nugget and put it into her books. Her earlier work – written in haste to supplement her pithy allowance borrowed fragments from her misadventures with the Bright Young Things – lacks a venomous bite. The pathos of a young woman of eighteen coming out as a debutante, hoping to find a husband to not only elevate her rank in society but unburden her parents, is heartbreaking when dissected. Love did not come into the equation, and Nancy often chased the four lettered word with little success.

Love in a Cold Climate, the sequel to The Pursuit of Love, had darker undertones and seemed to express more of Nancy’s own personal woes than those of her sisters, but in essence they are present in the text. Her wartime affair with a Free French Officer, riddled with tuberculous, saw Nancy become pregnant while her husband was fighting overseas. The child, who was very much wanted by Nancy – she had had several miscarriages throughout her unsuccessful marriage – resulted in an ectopic pregnancy, the consequence of which meant a hysterectomy. This, she never really got over and when Debo, the youngest and sweetest sister, gave birth to a baby which died shortly after, Nancy compared the death of a child to the loss of a manuscript. The remark, though callous, foregrounds the importance of her work. In the end, when lovers had strung her along and then left her, and her husband squandered her earnings and then divorced her, her writing was all she had to give her a sense of purpose. Concluding Love in a Cold Climate Nancy has Linda die in childbirth, having conceived a child with her French lover. As we know from reading both books, Linda had married a rich descendant of a German family, bore a daughter whom she disliked, and left him for a Communist sympathiser. Shades of Diana, though it was a fascist for whom she left her husband Bryan Guinness. Communism was perhaps a nod to sister Decca. But the tragic ending, a combination of both reality and fiction, could explain how Nancy felt after losing her chance to have children, and the fate which she felt Diana deserved. ‘Nancy is a very curious character,’ her mother, Lady Redesdale, had once said. As a compulsive Mitford reader, I am grateful for her idiosyncrasies.

However during the pursuit of their writing career all three women had, at one point in their lives, worked in the literary field. During the war, Nancy worked at Heywood Hill, a smart bookshop on Curzon Street in Mayfair; Jane reviewed books for Queen magazine; and Lucia accepted the post of visiting teacher and then associate professor at the University of Colorado – her creative writing workshops were especially popular with students. Any serious writer who is good at what they do will lament the reading of books as the secret to their success, and their bookish professions must have enriched their work. Their work appeared in periodicals before it made it to book form, with Nancy writing for The Lady and Vogue, Jane working for the Daily Express, and Lucia’s early short stories appearing in The Atlantic and The Noble Savage.

In comparison to the American-born Lucia, Nancy and Jane were the products of their social classes. Nancy was born into an aristocratic family who suffered financial difficulties, and Jane was born into an upper-middle-class family whose fortune was derived from a successful timber business. Both used the backgrounds of their parents and forebears in their books. Nancy drew on her parents ‘Muv and Farve’ for her portrayal of Aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate – the mother vague and disinterested in her children but enthralled with domesticity, and the father a philistine character with narrow interests and an equally small mind. Jane, too, crafted an exact portrait of her parents in the form of Villy and Edward, in her hugely successful Cazalet series – her own mother, as in the series of books, was a former ballerina who struggled with ‘the horrid side to married life’ and showed little interest in Jane but adored her sons; and her father, as in the character of Edward, lavished praise onto his daughter and, in her mid teens, began to abuse her. Although detailed in Slipstream, Jane had already exorcised those childhood demons in the Cazalets, and she cast herself as Louise, the daughter of Edward and Villy. Both Nancy and Jane’s settings were large country houses in the English countryside, surrounded by various cousins, aunts and uncles, and siblings where a healthy dose of rivalry existed. Nannies and governesses make an appearance, as do maids, cooks, and chauffeurs. And although competent and successful writers, Nancy and Jane were acutely aware of their lack of education and all their lives they endeavoured to make up for this.

Lucia, however, was perhaps the most complex of the women and her writing reflects this. Hers was a myriad of themes and settings, with down and out addicts roaming the streets, to debutantes waltzing in the sultry heat of Chile. Perhaps it was her American birth, or perhaps it was unique to her family life, that allowed her to move through several rungs of the social ladder with ease and, despite being well educated and working in ordinary professions during her literary career, it is difficult to categorise her. Whereas Nancy and Jane’s complexities lay within their emotional range, Lucia’s were physical and they were displayed with startling honestly. Born in Alaska in 1936, her father worked as a mining engineer and her mother began to drink heavily shortly after her birth. Alcoholism haunted the maternal side of Lucia’s family, and she, too, would suffer because of it and then overcome her addiction. The Second World War saw the family move to Texas and her father went overseas with the army. Here, in her grandparents home, she was subjected to a sinister environment provoked by her grandfather’s, uncle’s, and mother’s drinking, her grandmother’s religious fanaticism, and then her grandfather’s sexual abuse. This she mentions in several of her short stories, predominantly Dr. H.A. Moynihan, which centres on her dentist grandfather. Unlike Nancy and Jane, she never wrote a full length novel, the closest was Andado which offers a snippet (though told as fiction) of her teenage self leaving her family home to receive the hospitality of an upper-class gentleman in the Chilean countryside only to be raped during her stay. I should also note that, in Love in a Cold Climate, Polly marries her childhood abuser. And in the Cazalet series, beginning with the first book The Light Years, Louise is ashamed when her father makes several passes at her but she does not begrudge him or think him wicked. Jane shared this view of her own father. There are too many of Lucia’s short stories to list and the dissection of each one deserves its own retrospective, but as with Nancy and Jane, the darker elements of her upbringing and adulthood are on display: her failed marriages (she was married three times), the birth of her four sons, abandonment, addiction, poverty, and her various careers. While Nancy’s and Jane’s novels have a limited setting – the English countryside, London, Paris, New York, and the respectable resorts of the Riviera – Lucia takes her reader on a visual journey across America, to the deserts of Texas and the Mexican border (in one story it is for a family reunion, another for an abortion), to Puerto Vallarta where she had eloped; to downtown New York, the urban sprawl of the West Coast, and the grandeur and upheaval of pre-revolution Chile.

The common thread, at least in terms of romance, was the (acknowledged) feeling that Nancy, Jane, and Lucia had made a mess of their lives. With the exception of Nancy, Jane and Lucia married in their teens and had children young. Nancy married at the age of 29 on the rebound from a failed love affair. Both Jane and Lucia would remarry several times, choosing unsuitable men and sacrificing their own happiness and career development in doing so. Nancy seemed to use this as an incentive to make her professional life a success. Each poured this into their characterisations: Nancy’s regret at being childless, and at being at the disposal of her lover; Jane’s in having abandoned her child to pursue her own interests; and Lucia’s at feeling guilty for drinking during her sons’ childhood. This tinged their novels with a sense of pathos, and also evoked sympathy. Somewhere, in the depths of their prose and plots, their female readers could relate.

During their lifetime, Nancy and Jane would reap the merits of their literary careers and enjoy fame and fortune. It offered them a comfortable and secure lifestyle, something that was lacking in other areas of their lives. Lucia’s literary fame, however, is far more extraordinary. Published by independent presses she had a small but devoted readership, although she remained somewhat undiscovered. In 2015 a posthumous collection of her short stories were compiled in A Manual for Cleaning Women and it was published to international acclaim. Now a recognisable name in the publishing industry, Lucia Berlin has risen to the ranks of Nancy Mitford and Elizabeth Jane Howard. All three, I believe, deserve their place as great female writers not only for their unique stylistic approach, but for their contribution to the world of literature.

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The Mitford Society Vol. IV is available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

 

Nancy Mitford: A Celebration by Eleanor Doughty

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An Extract from The Mitford Society Vol. II

Friday 28th of November 2014 would have been Nancy Mitford’s one-hundred-and-tenth birthday. She has been enchanting the world for more than a century. While she might have described her early childhood as being “shrouded in a thick mist”, thanks to her own pen it has been immortalised and is now kept in libraries.

Almost no one nice, tastes allowing, does not carry at least one Mitford novel on the most well worn shelf of their bookcase. My thesis on Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies was inspired by forms of autobiography in Nancy Mitford’s two most famous novels, The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949). As such, I spent a blissful summer reading every word she had published, in preparation. In doing so, it quickly became apparent that this was preparation for not just a long essay – what now seems a pointless piece of prose – but preparation for just getting on with things. For the novels are learning manuscripts, too. Within the novels come portions of life advice, dressed up to amuse. A Talent to Annoy, the Charlotte Mosley-edited collection of Nancy’s journalism, is a most appropriately chosen title, for at all times, she is provoking a reaction.

The modern age thoroughly ill prepares one for many events, yet lessons for life are found most riotously in Nancy’s novels. Her world, viewed with a piercing stare, might be ridiculous but it is elegant. The now-famous closing line of The Pursuit of Love says it all. The narrator, Fanny, is describing her cousin Linda to her mother, The Bolter. Fabrice, Fanny explains, was “the great love of her life, you know”. (Nancy attaches the crucial “you know” to remind us of that quality self-assurance that runs in the Mitford veins.) The Bolter: “Oh, dulling,” said my mother sadly. “One always thinks that. Every, every time.” In one fell swoop, Nancy eliminates love-affairs from the equation. Perspective shines through. It is an oft-quoted passage, and is, I hope, used by best friends and mothers in times of need. It never dates.

The writer Andrew O’Hagan identifies Nancy’s style as belonging to the “posh aesthetic”. The novels are consciously privileged – it is unmistakable. This quality, O’Hagan claims, “Appeals to readers who want life’s profundities to scatter on the wind like handfuls of confetti.”

To-be readers in bookshops – that is, those that have not been kindly gifted a Mitford novel by a discerning friend or relative – might baulk at the prospect of one of Nancy’s novels. A series of books that consciously prod the upper echelons of society? In this climate? No thank you. Looking past this, the joy of the novels is found in the blinding, piercing satire – in the mocking of her sisters, friends and extended family.

As with all things literary, context will prevail. The “posh aesthetic” has a lot to answer for. O’Hagan claims that for Nancy “everyone is impersonatable”, which they are. She makes it her business to mortify her sisters in Wigs on the Green, satirizing without limit Diana’s second husband Sir Oswald Mosley. In June 1935, writing to Diana, she puts up a defence: “it would be absurd to suppose that anyone who was intellectually or emotionally convinced of the truths of Fascism could be influenced against the movement by such a book.”

Nancy Mitford’s prose was built to surpass the world’s hideous nature with comic tolerance. Her teasing forms alliances that lessen the pain and suffering, from which she was not exempt. To shriek – as the Mitford girls did – was to usurp sadness. It is “so much more stylish to laugh at death,” Andrew O’Hagan claims, encapsulating the appeal. Nancy’s protagonist Linda Radlett in The Pursuit of Love dies on the penultimate page of the book. It is dealt with economically, and moved on from. “It killed her” is sufficient. A parallel is found in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, published in 1930. Simon Balcairn, gossip columnist and wet-blanket aristo, commits suicide. Waugh writes matter-of-factly of this event: “but soon he fell into a coma and presently died”. The next paragraph notes a family resemblance in death, before the chapter ends. In the next, a new gossip columnist is appointed. Life goes on.

In 1932, aged twenty-eight, Nancy sat down to pen her second novel, Christmas Pudding. Wise beyond her years, on life, love and its necessary accoutrements, she presents her thesis on the world’s woes. Imagine, if you will, this read in her voice:

“The trouble is that people seem to expect happiness in life. I can’t imagine why; but they do. They are unhappy before they marry, and they imagine to themselves that the reason of their unhappiness will be removed when they are married. When it isn’t they blame the other person, which is clearly absurd. I believe that is what generally starts the trouble.”

The solution to this goes unmentioned, but we mustn’t be ungrateful. Nancy Mitford’s talents were not limited to the telling of dangerously close-to-home truths. Too often one searches in vain for just the right way of putting it, and more often than not it is found inside a Nancy novel. She nails emotion through her own experience, limited though some may claim it was. She had when writing, no qualifications – no literary agenda. She just wrote.

“She was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love. Twice in her life she had mistaken something else for it; it was like seeing somebody in the street who you think is a friend, you whistle and wave and run after him, but it is only not the friend, but not even very like him. A few minutes later the real friend appears in view, and then you can’t imagine how you ever mistook that other person for him.’

It is only right to thank the eldest Mitford sister, Nancy, born 24th of November 1904, for all that she has given to bookshelves worldwide.

Oh, and happy birthday.

Nancy Mitford, 24th November 1904 – 30th June 1973

Eleanor Doughty is a freelance writer whose work can be found most often in the Daily Telegraph. She has been described as “an absolute scream” but admits this might be open to interpretation.

The Mitfords & The Chocolate Challenge

Thanks to D.E. Ireland for nominating The Mitford Society to participate in the Chocolate Challenge in which we choose three of our favourite books and liken them to dark, milk or white chocolate. D.E .Ireland is a team of award winning authors, Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta. Together they have created a unique series based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Their latest book Wouldn’t it be Deadly will be published by St. Martin’s Minotaur on September 23rd 2014. Since we’re talking about the Mitford Girls, I thought I would bend the rules slightly! Instead of mentioning my personal favourite books I have likened the flavours of chocolate to the girls’ owns books.

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‘Those chocolates were the most delicious I’ve ever tasted, my favourite sort too, logs!’

– Decca to Farve, circa 1932

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THE sophisticated lifestyle calls for dark chocolate, which the newly-wedded Mrs. Bryan Guinness discovered. While honeymooning at the Guinness family apartment on rue de Poitiers, Diana was enchanted to learn that the apartment came with two servants – a butler and a cook – who lived there all year round in spite of the apartment being seldom occupied. The cook’s specialty was a famous French pastry, consisting of meringue dipped in dark chocolate. The original title of the pudding, far from politically correct, shall be referred to as Tete de Chocolat. For the duration of her honeymoon Diana feasted on Tete de Chocolat every day. As such, the book I have chosen to accompany dark chocolate is A Life of Contrasts by Diana Mosley.

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Milk Chocolate is just the type of chocolate that would appeal to children, and to philistines such as Farve, Debo and Pam. I could imagine Muv baking a tray of German Biscuits – pleasing to the eye, but their name….REALLY. Farve might bellow: ‘The only good German is a dead German!’ But upon seeing the delicious chocolate covering, he would snatch one off the tray and go off in search of his Puccini arias. Unity, of course, would be delighted, and as such she would refrain from her usual diet of mashed potatoes in honour of her adopted country. The perfect book to accompany milk chocolate is Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love.

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White Chocolate is the perfect edible treat to conjure up images of the debutante season. My reason for selecting Jessica Mitford’s memoirs, Hons & Rebels, is because as a young deb she was full of sound and fury about the upper-classes and their sick-making customs. However, Decca admitted that she rather enjoyed her deb season. And, in spite of her protests and the formalities of being presented at Court, she managed to smuggle chocolates down her knickers, which to her great embarrassment, tumbled out as she was being photographed.

 

For the Chocolate Challenge I nominate Diana Birchall of Light, Bright, and Sparkling and Meems Ellenberg of Meemselle.

Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses. An interview with Helen Rappaport

I originally reviewed Four Sisters for The Lady:

Much has been written about the Romanovs – fact, fiction and everything in between. The four Grand Duchesses – Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia – have often featured behind the scenes in biographies of their parents, Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra.

Although this is familiar terrain in terms of historical biographies, the author achieves a rare feat in depicting the Grand Duchesses as complex and fascinating individuals in their own right. Meticulously researched and filled with new information, this book presents the untold and gripping stories of their lives for the first time in print.

 

How long have you been writing for? And can you tell The Mitford Society a bit about your journey to becoming published?

I’ve been writing history since the early 1990s. It began when I was at university – I enjoyed writing history essays as part of my Russian Special Studies course. Later, working as a freelance editor and researcher for various publishers including OUP and Blackwell, I was asked to contribute various short entry items to history books and encyclopaedias and from there, as my editing work morphed into a full time job as an outhouse desk editor for Blackwell, I began thinking more and more about moving into writing history full time. I had spent a lot of time editing – and effectively fact checking and even re-writing – a lot of academic history books and decided to take the plunge and write my own . But it was a huge gamble. I was offered the chance to write three US reference books for the university/college market on Stalin, Queen Victoria and women social reformers – and although the money was poor it served as a wonderful grounding and a springboard into my first trade title in 2006. I count myself incredibly fortunate that since 1999 I have published 11 books, with a 12th underway, at a time when the trade has been shrinking alarmingly and when history and biography in particular have been squeezed very hard. But it has been very hard work – an effective treadmill – not by choice but because my advances were not large enough to allow me the luxury of several years to write a book.

What inspired you to become a historical biographer and what draws you to your area of expertise?

I think it is the detective in me and my love of genealogy and family history that fuel my love of real lives, real stories. There is nothing I enjoy more than chasing down the facts, the clues, the small details of a human life that might have been overlooked or forgotten. It is such a joy to be able to shed new light on a piece of history or someone’s life from the past. I get so much pleasure from the satisfaction of tracking down new sources about my subjects that I have absolutely no desire to make it up – to turn to fiction or historical fiction. Many people urge me to do so but my feeling is that I would not want to write historical fiction unless I could write it better than I write history – and I would miss the thrill of the chase.

How do you go about planning your research and what is the general time frame before you start writing the manuscript? Can you tell us a bit about that process?

Well research can be a very unpredictable, amorphous thing and I never plan it rigidly timewise, though I do write lots of lists of objectives and have a rough schedule. In principle I keep on searching and researching right up to the moment I send my text off for editing. I usually ike to get a good body of research under my belt before I start writing, but it’s impossible to set a hard and fast rule, as quite often what happens is that the book starts writing itself in my head – at night in particular and I start jotting things down – sentences, paragraphs – quite randomly, that I want to come back to. But in the end I always find I reach a natural point at which I have a real need to start writing, to get something down on paper. In the past I have written the closing paragraph of a book long before starting it! I usually research for about 9 months and write for the same amount of time, but it depends on the schedule. I researched and wrote Beautiful For Ever very fast, in five months, between two bigger books. There’s a lot of cross over in terms of gathering material – I am always picking up new nuggets of information from seemingly unrelated sources. Even though I have now moved on to book no 12 I am still effectively researching the Romanovs, as I want to keep up to speed with any new evidence, material, photographs that come to light and new discussions about them. So in fact I juggle all my past books in my head, as it is important to keep in touch with the material – if anything because I might get asked to do a radio or TV talking head about it! I am constantly switching historical hats and having to refresh my memory of previous books because of this. For me it is really important to stay in touch with one’s subjects. Some writers, I know, get bored and detach and move on to the next subject without a backward glance, but in the case of the Romanov sisters in particular, I know I shall stay very close to them.

How did you become interested in the lives of the Grand Duchesses?

It’s ironic really, as I had long resisted all the schmaltz and romanticism of the Romanov story. Despite being a Russianist and loving Russian history I had deliberately avoided the topic of the last Imperial Family because I felt it was too heavily loaded with hagiography and myth. But once I had decided to write Ekaterinburg which is specifically about the last two weeks of the family’s life before their murder, I fell in love with the girls and developed a sense of mission about telling their story. I felt they had been overlooked for far too long, and too easily lumped together as a bland collective. I wanted to give them back their individual identities.

Why did you write a combined biography on the four girls as opposed to, say, a single biography on Anastasia?

I am absolutely totally and stubbornly resistant to Anastasia as a single subject. She has been much mythologized and too often, even now, when I give talks the first question people ask is did she get away. No. They all died!! I wish people would accept this and think more about the real Romanov sisters . Any book about Anastasia would have to take in the false claimants and I absolutely will not waste precious words writing about people who were frauds, rather than the real Anastasia. So no, no individual biography of any sister is viable really. It would be too difficult in terms of sources. They girls lived very protected lives, they did not pour their hearts and souls out on to the pages of their diaries and letters (those of course, that have survived – they destroyed many of them). What we have is always fairly circumspect. They died too young to make it possible to tell a full and rounded life. There have been one or two slim, Russian-language hagiographies about Olga the eldest but they suffer, as a lot of Russian sources on the girls do, from being over-reverential and uncritical. There is also the added problem that there is no scandal or gossip that one can use to ‘sex up’ the story. They were a devoted and loyal unit and I think it’s best they are remembered and written about very much as that – as Four Sisters.

Is there another set of historical sisters who capture your fascination?

HR: Well of course the Romanov girls’ mother Alexandra was one of four sisters (a fifth died young) and I say a little about that in the opening chapter of my book. So yes, the four Hesse sisters are fascinating and they have been written about, singly and collectively. But for me there is something so special – so touching and unique about the four Romanov sisters.

Are you currently working on a project? What can we expect in the future?

HR: I’m now working on a book for the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017. It’s called Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917 and it’s going to be an account of the city that year, from a different angle entirely – from the point of view of the British, American, French and other foreign nationals who were in the city and witnessed what happened.

Who is your favourite Mitford girl and why?

HR: well it has to be Nancy. I gobbled up most of her book in my teens and twenties and am now planning a concerted re-read. The Pursuit of Love is top of my bedside pile right now! But I also greatly admire her historical titles.

Our forthcoming annual

The Mitford Society’s annual has been a whirlwind of preparation but in the space of a month all of the submissions are in! I can tell you now that you’re in for a treat, the annual is a combination of academic essays, fun reviews, personal stories, photographs, a re-cap of Mitfords Eve at Sutton House and of course, the Mitford murder mystery which opens the book. I wanted to channel something quite unique, though paying homage to Nancy Mitford’s The Water Beetle and A talent to Annoy, and also The Pursuit of Laughter, though with less restraint than Diana’s critical essays. It has turned from a magazine sized vision into a full scale book! I have included the table of contents below, I hope you all approve!

Murder in the Hons Cupboard:- Meredith Whitford & Lyndsy Spence

Stranger than dreams and far more disordered:- An extract from The Fertile Fact

 The Most Charming Duchess:- Charles Twigger

 Pamela’s Irish Castle:- Stephen Kennedy

 Living in a Mitford House:- Debbie Catling

 Nancy’s True Love: Versailles:- Rebecca McWattie

 Nancy in Versailles:- Chiara Martinelli

 Esmond Romilly:-Meredith Mitford

 Diana Mosley :- David Platzer

 Understanding Unity:- Meems Ellenberg

 To the editor of the Daily Mail, a mock letter from Unity Mitford: – Emma Reilly

 Muv’s American Adventure:- Lyndsy Spence

 A Honnish Reunion:- Lyndsy Spence

 Stargazing with the Mitfords:- Astrology Charts by Victor Olliver

 From Countryside to Couture:- Natalie Tilbury

 The Mitford Sisters & The Turbulent Thirties:- by Lyndsy Spence, printed in Vintage Life magazine.

 The Photography Face:-Lyndsy Spence

 Laying the Foundations of The Mitford Industry:– David Ronneburg

 The Mitford Industry: An editor’s point of view:- An interview with Mark Beynon by Lyndsy Spence

 Re-issuing Nancy Mitford:- Emma Howard Capuchin Classics, Series Editor

 In Search of Nancy:- Barbara Cooke

 Evelyn Waugh & The Mitfords:- Jeffrey Manley of the Evelyn Waugh Society

 The American Way of Death & Pop Culture:- Terence Towles Canote

 The Pursuit of Love: The perils of a would-be film:- Lyndsy Spence

 Moths to the Flame: The Mitfords of Mull:- An extract of a play by Willie Orr

 Mitfords Eve:– A Mitford themed event hosted by The Amy Grimehouse in association with The National Trust & the BFI.

 The Mitfords & Modern Writers. Blog interviews with:

 – Meredith Whitford

– Deanna Raybourn

– Tessa Arlen

– Judith Kinghorn

 Extraorder Extras: Those Honnish by association:

 – Joan Wyndham

– Diana Skeffington

– Mariga Guinness

 Mitford sketches commissioned for The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life:- Tessa Simpson