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
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot