A life story nearly as witty and provocative as the English author’s delicious novels and own biographies.
British journalist Thompson (The Dogs, 1995) takes a refreshingly personal and opinionated approach to Nancy Mitford (1904–73), making a nice contrast with Selina Hastings’s serviceable but flat 1985 portrait. Thompson’s breezy but stylish prose perfectly suits her subject, a woman who loved clever people, fashionable clothes, and a good laugh. She expertly assesses the tangled emotional dynamics of the aristocratic but impoverished Mitfords, growing up in rural isolation as six charismatic girls and their brother were left to run wild by their eccentric parents. Nancy was the oldest, a “black-haired green-eyed changeling” given to rather nasty teasing of her beautiful blonde sisters, “restless and relentless in her search for laughter . . . the spark that set that family crackling with vitality.” She made a disastrous marriage and wrote four agreeable but slight novels before finding her literary voice—direct, simple, wildly funny yet cognizant of human frailty—in The Pursuit of Love, a 1945 comic masterpiece starring her flamboyant kin. The book was Nancy’s defiantly gay rejoinder to the grim war years; in her substantive but selective text, the author assumes readers know the basic facts about the three Nazi-sympathizing Mitford siblings (Unity, Tom, and Diana, wife of Oswald Mosley) and concentrates on their sister’s reaction to them. In 1946, Nancy moved to Paris, her home for the best years of her life, during which she enchanted readers with three further novels (notably Love in a Cold Climate) and four popular biographies (including Madame de Pompadour). Her enduring love for Gaullist politician Gaston Palewski was not matched by fidelity on his side, but Thompson’s astute analysis of their relationship does not scant the joy it gave her along with much sorrow. And Nancy would always strive to be cheerful, even when slowly dying in excruciating pain.
Among the best of the many books about the notorious Mitfords: sympathetic but shrewd, warmly appreciative of Nancy’s ability to snatch happiness from even the most tragic circumstances.