BOOK REVIEW / Pursuit of bloody-minded charm: 'Love From Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford' - Ed Charlotte Mosley: Hodder & Stoughton, 20 pounds

NANCY MITFORD seemed like a creature of another time, long before her death in 1973. She 'belonged to the late Twenties, that period now deader than the dodo,' she wrote of the Bolter in The Pursuit of Love. And a similar charge could be levelled at Nancy herself. That sense she had of nothing interesting being in front of her gave her charm a closed, brittle air. You have to be prepared to close your eyes, to dive backwards, to find any joy in the fairytale romance and elitist humour of her work.

Look at it too closely, and it breaks down into the cold destructiveness of snobbery. Accept it, and it is a wonderful fantasy, rich in escapist possibilities. Accept, for a start, the absolute glamour of the set of Mitford sisters, who seemed able to write their own destinies in their childhood and never deviate from them: Diana, the beauty; Unity, the fascist who became an intimate of Hitler's; Nancy, the writer; Jessica, the communist who ran away to the Spanish Civil War; Deborah, the Duchess; and Pamela, who 'wanted to be a horse'.

If you know anything about them, from their memoirs, or from Nancy's best-loved and most autobiographical works, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, reading these letters is like revisiting a comfortable, well-worn house. We go to a miserable refugee camp for Spaniards in 1939, and meet the British playboys turned relief workers, just as Linda did in The Pursuit of Love; we hear of Jessica amusing children of the neighbourhood with tales of how babies are born, just as in Hons and Rebels; we meet the glamorous ex- ambassadress to Paris, just as in Don't Tell Alfred, only here she is called Lady Diana Cooper.

Its familiarity doesn't make it, necessarily, a comfortable world. In her novels Nancy mastered her life, making everyone who was different or difficult into figures of mirth, moving only among the aristocracy, and infusing the world with a spirit of lazy, delightful romance. In The Pursuit of Love, particularly, Linda wanders from adolescent infatuation with a rich banker, to a brief interlude with the idealistic Christian, to true love in Paris with Fabrice, Duc de Sauveterre.

Nancy was quite happy for much of this to be taken as autobiography, often referrring to her own French lover as Fabrice, and writing: 'Everybody seems to think every word literally of the book is true. Nancy Cunard is here and Victor said to me 'she gives a much more gloomy account of Paris than you do, but then of course nobody took a flat for her or gave her all those fur coats.' '

Unfortunately, nobody did that for Nancy either. She went from an unrequited love for a homosexual, Hamish St Clair-Erskine, which engagement was viciously broken off; to a disastrous marriage with Peter Rodd, who was incapable of providing any security or love; to a life-long adoration of Gaston Palewski. Although they were sexual and intellectual companions, he never married Nancy, and in fact told her about his impending marriage to another, richer and younger, woman at about the same time as she discovered she had cancer, when she was 64.

Despite all the elegant brio of her style, Nancy's letters reflect her deep dissatisfaction with the unyielding stuff of reality. Real arguments crop up with her fanatically political sisters and her hazy, unloving mother; financial crises as her husband spent his way through her earnings; despair over her failed love affairs; even a couple of suicide attempts are mentioned, all shockingly harsh to those of us accustomed to her bubbling fiction.

But despite the endless struggle between fantasy and hard knocks, this volume of letters has the smooth shape and emotional crescendo of a fictional work. Nancy's early letters, like her early books, are excessively childish, steeped in the slang and party culture of the Twenties. Her mature letters, like the books of her mature years, are a delight, full of the sparks of an abrasive and entertaining wit, refreshingly free from politeness. 'Peter Brook said R Morley's great fault is he is so disloyal & I replied well I'm very disloyal myself so it's not a thing I ever mind at all,' she once wrote, and, refusing to see a friend who had annoyed her: 'You haven't given offence, you have given an excuse.'

Nancy suffered nearly five years of constant agony before her death in 1973, but her last letters reach a piquancy, in which the practised wit fights with a true depth of emotion, that is bettered nowhere else in her work. Who but Nancy Mitford could write on her deathbed: 'It's very curious, dying, and would have many a drole amusing & charming side were it not for the pain . . .' As Pascal said, the last act is always bloody, no matter how charming the rest of the play. But Nancy Mitford kept up the charm through all the bloodiness. Her final letter, a gut-wrenching scream of pain addressed to Palewski, ends with a last wave of elegant generosity: 'Hassan (her servant) has been too wonderful.'

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?