The Blagger's Guide To...Nancy Mitford

Whilst riding, do not ask for a serviette

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The Independent Culture

Some books are best filed under the category of "snobbery".

It's surprising that more bookshops don't have it as a section. One of the greatest contributors to this field is undoubtedly Nancy Mitford, eldest of the six infamous sisters, and arguably the most talented. The author of eight novels and four biographies, she also edited the hilarious companion to the aristocracy, Noblesse Oblige, which pronounces on what behaviour is U (upper-class), and what is – the horror! – non-U.

Although she is already the subject of several biographies, and although most of her novels are works of thinly-veiled autobiography, and although most of her letters have been published several times, there's a new biography out this week. Lisa Hilton's book, The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London (right), focuses on her doomed affair with a French philanderer, whom Mitford fans will recognise as the inspiration for Fabrice de Sauveterre in The Pursuit of Love.

Born in 1904, the daughter of the 2nd Baron Redesdale, Nancy was one of the Bright Young Things, as immortalised by Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies, who was a lifelong friend and correspondent (their collected letters were a posthumous hit). By her own admission, she was barely educated except in French and riding. (It's non-U to say horse-riding). Her childhood was spent at Asthall Manor, a sprawling pile in Oxfordshire, though the family fortunes were constantly dwindling. Lady Redesdale cuts costs by doing away with napkins (serviettes is non-U), after calculating the laundry bill for nine people having clean napkins three times a day. Paper napkins were deemed too common, and re-using a linen one too filthy, so they did without.

Nancy had five sisters and one brother, and they would spend hours daydreaming of marriage or escape, usually in an airing cupboard called the Hons' Cupboard, so called because, as the children of a peer, they had the title "The Honourable". It was also the warmest place in the house. So desperate were they to leave home that a frequent conversation would go: "What time is it?" "Guess." "Two o'clock." "Better. Ten past."

Though politically well-connected, Nancy (above, right) was less passionate than her siblings: Diana (centre) married the fascist leader Oswald Mosley and went to prison with him; Unity (left) was a friend of Hitler and shot herself in the head when Britain declared war on Germany; Jessica was a communist who eloped to fight in the Spanish Civil War; Thomas is though to have supported the fascists, but died as a soldier in Burma. The only sibling who survives is Debo, who fulfilled her childhood ambition of marrying a duke (she bagged the 11th Duke of Devonshire, heir to Chatsworth).

Nancy had written four novels by the time The Pursuit of Love was published with great success in 1945. It was followed by Love In A Cold Climate in 1949, and the less read The Blessing in 1951, and Don't Tell Alfred in 1960. In the 1930s, Nancy was engaged to Peter Rodd, a homosexual whom she nicknamed Prod, but the marriage ended in failure after she had an ectopic pregnancy and a hysterectomy. She met Gaston Palewski in 1942 and, after the war, moved to Paris to be near him. Though he was ugly and married, she loved and idealised him, and spent the rest of her life in France, dying of cancer in Versailles in 1973, aged 68.