Hilton (Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens, 2009, etc.) provides a sensationalistic, fast-paced account of the decades-long affair between the British novelist/biographer/socialite Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski, a colonel of the Free French Forces.
The author ably captures life for members of her protagonists' respective social strata as they cycled through rural England, London, Paris, Bilbao, Rome and Versailles in the years of and between the world wars. Hilton packs the narrative with such a dizzying array of people and places that readers will be constantly stimulated, if slightly bewildered. The author brings the notoriously viperous Mitford to life more effectively than she does the womanizing Palewski, whose romantic exploits, while recounted with admirable thoroughness, conjure only a vague impression of their executor. Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of Mitford's greater fame. Hilton's prose is energetic and entertaining, though her speculation about Mitford's feelings at various points in her life can come across as strained. It is the duty of writers of historical nonfiction to theorize about their subjects' states of mind—a dry recitation of the facts of a person's life hardly makes for good reading. However, as Hilton acknowledges, “[Mitford's] true feelings can only be a matter of conjecture.” It seems no less presumptuous to insist that Mitford was a model of sophistication and restraint who accepted her lover's philandering with understanding and equanimity than it is to insist she was a pathetically passive victim of male faithlessness. Those who adhere rigidly to either view are probably mistaken, at least in some respects.
Worthwhile reading for lovers of historical romance and the ever-engrossing Mitfords.