Nancy Mitford, author of Love in a Cold Climate

Nancy Mitford, British novelist and journalist

Nancy Mitford (November 28, 1904 – June 30, 1973) was a British novelist, journalist, and biographer. She was best known for her novels depicting upper-class life in England, often with satirical and provocative humor.

In addition to her two most successful novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, she also wrote several other works of fiction as well as historical biographies, magazine articles, and essays.

Nancy was the eldest of the six Mitford sisters, most of whom courted controversy in one way or another, and was considered one of the “Bright Young Things” on the London scene of the 1920s and 1930s.


Early life

Nancy Mitford was born in London in 1904. Her father, David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, the second Baron Redesdale, worked at The Lady magazine. In 1914, he and his wife, Sydney Bowles, moved their growing family to Asthall Manor near Swinbrook in Oxfordshire.

Nancy would eventually have five sisters — Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah — and one brother, Tom. He was largely overshadowed by his sister’s exploits and would later be killed in action in Burma in 1945.

Nancy and her siblings had an eccentric childhood, which revolved around the somewhat arbitrary rules their mother imposed on them: they were banned from eating certain foods; they had to be rinsed in cold water after their baths; windows were to be left open all year round, no medicines of any kind were allowed.

They were educated at home by governesses, leading Nancy to later joke that she “grew up ignorant as an owl,” and from the time her sister Pamela was born (when Nancy was three), sibling rivalries and jealousies dominated.

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The Mitford family in 1928 - Wikimedia Commons

The Mitford family in 1928. Nancy is in the back, left.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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Nancy’s own brand of teasing humor formed the insular vocabulary that has since become known as “Mitfordian,” which included elaborate nicknames for the family and their friends. The index of nicknames in Charlotte Mosley’s The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters is incomplete, but is still two pages long.

Their mother and father were known as Marv and Farv, Diana was Bodley (because of her supposedly large skull, taken from the name of the publisher Bodley Head), Jessica was Decca, Unity was Bobo and Heart of Stone, Deborah was Debo, Nine, or Stubby, and Pamela was known simply as Woman.

Nancy, known as Koko, was known among her sisters for being honest, loyal, witty, and cunning, sometimes to the point of being cruel. Jessica once described her as “sharp-tongued and sarcastic,” and remembered that Nancy had once told her she looked like “the eldest and ugliest of the Brontë sisters.” Some of the worst insults were reserved for Deborah, and Nancy would often tell her that “everyone cried when you were born.”

As well as Farv, Nancy had her own nickname for her father: “Old Subhuman,” partly for his habit of eating calf brains for breakfast and partly for one of his favorite games called “child hunt.”

He would give Nancy and Pamela a head start to run across the fields near their manor house before he released the pack of bloodhounds. Whichever dog found a child first was rewarded with raw meat. She later used her father as the model for Uncle Matthew in The Pursuit of Love — a bad-tempered, eccentric, xenophobic bully.)


The “Bright Young Things” and first writings

Nancy’s eighteenth birthday in November of 1922 was marked by a grand “coming-out” ball, signifying her entrance into “Society.” In June 1923 she was presented as a debutante at Court. The following years were marked with round after round of social events, parties, and balls. Nancy mixed with the Bright Young Things of 1920s London and claimed that “we never saw the light of day, except at dawn.”

It was at this time that she met the writer Evelyn Waugh, who would remain a close friend. With his encouragement, she began writing to supplement the meager income allowed her by her father. Her first articles were largely unsigned contributions to society magazines until she was offered a regular column in The Lady in 1930.

Her first novel, Highland Fling, was published in 1931. A preview of what would become her typical style (a merciless satire of the upper classes, combined with an apparent fondness of prewar Britain and a humorous lightness of touch), it told the story of a house party at a grand, haunted castle. It made little impact, but this didn’t deter Nancy, who immediately started work on another, Christmas Pudding.

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Nancy Mitford's marriage to Peter Rodd (1933) - Wikimedia Commons

The wedding of Nancy Mitford and Peter Rodd, 1933
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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A broken engagement and a marriage

Around the time that Nancy first began writing in earnest that she  fell in love with James “Hamish” St Clair-Erskine, a homosexual who was introduced to her by her brother in 1928. They became unofficially engaged, despite criticism from family and friends, including Waugh who told her firmly to “dress better and catch a better man.”

Later Nancy admitted that she didn’t have “a single happy moment” with the narcissistic Erskine, and the affair ended abruptly in 1933 when he informed her that he intended to marry the daughter of a London banker.

Within a month of the breakup with Erskine, Nancy announced her engagement to Peter Rodd, known among her friends for being both clever and a horrendous bore (Nancy’s sisters dubbed him “The Old Toll-Gater,” referring to his habit of talking for hours on subjects such as medieval roads).

They were married in December 1933, but Rodd was a heavy drinker and compulsively unfaithful, draining Nancy of most of the small amounts of money she earned from magazines and her first four novels, none of which received much critical or public attention.

In 1941, after suffering repeated miscarriages, Nancy had a hysterectomy. She and Rodd separated after the war and were divorced in 1958.

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Nancy, Diana, Unity, and Jessica Mitford,1932 - Wikimedia Commons

Nancy (lower left), Diana, Unity, and Jessica Mitford, 1932
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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Fascism, communism, and Wigs on the Green

The characters in Nancy’s novels were largely drawn from life. When her sister Jessica’s 1960 biography Hons and Rebels was published, Nancy wrote to Waugh complaining that the book drew more from her novels than from any actual memories of Jessica’s: “In some respects she has seen the family, quite without knowing it herself, through the eyes of my books.”

The Mitford family certainly gave her — and the newspapers — plenty of material. Pamela was known as “the boring one,” but it was relative to Jessica, who became a fervent Communist and journalist in America; Deborah, who became the Duchess of Devonshire; Diana, who left her first husband for the leader of the fascist party in Britain (Sir Oswald Mosley;) and Unity, who was a devoted fascist herself, and attempted suicide by shooting herself in the head when war was declared in 1939 (she failed, and spent the next few years brain damaged until her death in 1948).

Nancy, however, claimed to be largely indifferent to politics. She described her views as “vaguely socialist,” but according to biographer Lisa Hilton, “loathed people who were anti-Semitic and … anti-gay. She saw both as being deeply, deeply uncivilized.”

She volunteered in France to aid refugees from the Spanish Civil War and later helped Jewish refugees in London. Nancy called Diana’s husband Mosley “The Ogre” and refused to see her sister after she married him.

In case of any doubt, she made her feelings clear in her 1935 novel Wigs on the Green, a piercing satire of British fascism, as well as of Mosley, Diana, and Unity. Despite Diana’s pleas to remove some of the more critical parts of the book, Nancy refused.

Later, at the outbreak of war, she denounced her sister to the Home Office as “a ruthless and shrewd egotist, a devoted fascist and … an extremely dangerous person.” Diana was already considered a security threat, and after Nancy’s testimony was incarcerated in Holloway Prison for three years.

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The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

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The Pursuit of Love

During the World War II years, Nancy worked at Heywood Hill, a bookshop in Curzon Street, Mayfair. At the time, she was so hard up that she would often walk for an hour from her home in Maida Vale rather than take the bus.

She also volunteered as an ambulance driver, a canteen assistant, and a first aid worker, during which time one of her tasks was to write the names on the foreheads of the dead in indelible pencil.

However, she still found time to write, and finally found success in December 1945 with her fifth novel, The Pursuit of Love. It sold two hundred thousand copies within the first year, and for the first time in her life, she became financially independent.

A 1949 sequel, Love in a Cold Climate, was equally successful. Together, the novels established Nancy Mitford as a bestselling author. Both have both been reprinted and adapted for television multiple times, among others the miniseries Love in a Cold Climate (2001) and The Pursuit of Love (2021).


A new start in Paris

In September 1942, Nancy met Colonel Gaston Palewski, General de Gaulle’s Chief of Staff and a Free French officer. Their affair continued through the war despite Palewski’s posting to Algeria in 1943. He became the love of her life, though her feelings were never fully reciprocated).

She moved with Palewski to Paris in 1946 and remained in France for the rest of her life. It was from this period onward that most of her letters to her sisters and friends in England were written — thousands of letters that form an important part of her literary legacy, perhaps equal to her books.

Paris not only marked a new start for Nancy’s personal life but gave her fresh impetus in her writing. It was here that she completed Love in a Cold Climate and her next novel, The Blessing (1951). The latter was praised by Waugh as “admirable, deliciously funny, consistent and complete, by far the best of your writings.”

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Nancy Mitford (drawn by William Aston, 1938)

Nancy Mitford drawing by William Aston, 1938
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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A prolific period

In the 1950s, Nancy turned her attention to historical biographies, in particular of French historical characters. Her first serious work in this vein was a biography of Madame de Pompadour, published to much critical acclaim in 1954. Her biography of Louis XIV, The Sun King, was an international bestseller.

In 1960, Nancy published another sequel to The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, titled Don’t Tell Alfred. It was her last novel, though she continued to write and publish biographies.

She also wrote a regular column for the Sunday Times and was in demand as a journalist and reviewer. One article in particular, written for Encounter magazine as a deliberately teasing, provocative guide to the etiquette of language, proved so popular that it was later expanded into a book, Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy.

In it, she detailed the correct “U” (upper-class) way of speaking, as well as offering the “non-U” (non-upper-class) alternative. The book cemented her reputation as a snob, but when asked in a 1970 BBC interview whether she was “grieved” by what the public thought of her, she replied “Not in the least bit. I don’t care.”

Although Nancy was often disparaging about her own writing, especially her “indifferent novels,” Zoë Heller, who wrote the introduction to a 2010 edition of The Pursuit of Love, described Nancy as “a genius.”

Heller wrote that “beneath the brittle surface of Mitford’s wit there is something infinitely more melancholy at work — something that is apt to snag you and pull you into its dark undertow when you are least expecting it.”

Biographer Laura Thompson wrote that Nancy Mitford’s books “read like an enchantingly clever woman telling stories down the telephone.”


Last years

In 1972 Nancy was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). She was delighted by the first and amused by the second, which she remembered Waugh had once turned down as an “insult.”

By this time, however, she was suffering from a rare form of Hodgkin’s Disease that attacked her spine, the pain from which she once described as “something close to torture,” and which debilitated her for almost four years before she died at home in Versailles on 30 June 1973.

Nancy Mitford’s ashes are buried at the Church of St Mary’s in Swinbrook, Oxfordshire, alongside her parents and her sisters Pamela, Diana, and Unity, although she specifically requested that no cross appeared on her gravestone. She believed it to be a symbol of violence, and instead, a mole was carved like one that she had printed at the top of her writing paper.

Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at  Elodie Rose Barnes

More about Nancy Mitford


Biographies (written by Nancy Mitford)

  • Madame de Pompadour (1954)
  • Voltaire in Love (1957)
  • The Sun King: Louis XIV at Versailles (1966)
  • Frederick the Great (1970)

Biographies about Nancy Mitford and the Mitford family

  • Nancy Mitford by Selina Hastings (2002)
  • Life in a Cold Climate: Nancy Mitford, The Biography by Laura Thompson (2015)
  • The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell (2003)
  • Nancy Mitford by Harold Acton (2019)
  • The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters by Charlotte Mosley (2008)

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