Life in a Cold Climate: Nancy Mitford The Biography by Laura Thompson

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Life in a Cold Climate: Nancy Mitford The Biography by Laura Thompson

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A lively biography of Nancy, eldest of the often controversial Mitford sisters, and as an acclaimed novelist and biographer the most successful and probably most balanced of them all.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 417 Date: January 2015
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 9781784082291

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There can have been few more extraordinary families in British society and cultural life during the early twentieth century than the Mitfords, the six daughters and one son of Baron Redesdale. The only son, killed in action during the Second World War, led an unexceptional life away from the headlines, but four of his sisters more than made up for him. Diana, wife of the notorious Sir Oswald Mosley, never renounced her admiration for Hitler or the Fascist movement, while Unity, who shared her beliefs, shot herself on the day war broke out but lingered pathetically for another brain-damaged eight years, and the fiercely left-wing Jessica became an active member of the American Communist Party. Compared to them Nancy, the eldest and the subject of this biography, seems to have been the most balanced and least eccentric of them all.

Born in 1904, she enjoyed a privileged if not always happy childhood. The author writes vividly about this often dysfunctional family, portraying Nancy as one of the ‘bright young things’ and a society belle of the 1920s who developed into a mildly left-of-centre figure, never afraid to argue with her more right-wing sisters and mother, and a hardworking writer for whom success came after many years of publishing novels which sold disappointingly.

Her personal life was often unhappy. After an abruptly terminated engagement to Hamish St Clair Erskine, described by an earlier biographer as ‘a narcissistic butterfly’, a loveless marriage to the hardly more suitable Peter Rodd soon failed, as did all her pregnancies. Within a few years they were leading separate lives, although divorce followed a long time afterwards. A lengthy affair with a notorious womanising French officer, who became the most long-lasting love of her life, eventually drifted into nothing though it only ended formally when he married another woman.

Perhaps it is only right that the author devotes the most attention to Nancy’s work as journalist, novelist and biographer. Success came late for her, and Ms Thompson’s verdict is that the early books were pleasant enough if a little on the frothy side, full of characters who were thinly-disguised family members and acquaintances. Only with ‘The Pursuit of Love’, published shortly after the end of the war, did she really become a household name.

The outbreak of war in 1939 had bitterly divided the family. Nancy played a worthy role during the conflict, spending some time working at a refugee camp in France, then back in England as an Air Raid Precautions driver and at a first aid post in Paddington. Unlike too many members of her family she was fiercely anti-Fascist, and did not hesitate to describe her sister Diana, Lady Mosley, as a ruthless egotist, an apologist for Hitler who sincerely desired the downfall of England and democracy in general, and in short an extremely dangerous person. It must have been a painful thing to do, but Nancy was partly responsible for Diana being separated from her eleven-week-old baby and imprisoned without trial under defence regulations in Holloway. ‘Not very sisterly behaviour, but in such times I think it one’s duty?’ she wrote to a friend.

By 1945, if not long before, the family were irretrievably torn apart. Nancy no longer had any desire to live in London and settled in France, a country for which she had long nursed something of a passion. Here she wrote several more novels, including Love in a Cold Climate, from which the present book artfully takes its title, and the less-loved Don’t tell Alfred. After creating fiction had lost its savour for her, she found a new lease of literary life with equally successful biographies of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XIV and finally of Frederick the Great. For the last few years of her life she suffered increasing ill-health and was rarely free from pain, but seems to have maintained her zest for life as far as possible.

Thompson has done well in presenting a lively, engrossing biography of the woman who was not just one member of a remarkable family (if sometimes remarkable for the wrong reasons), but also a dedicated writer to whom success came relatively late. In assessing the achievements of a gifted, industrious wordsmith who led an often unhappy personal life, she makes a telling comparison with ‘her sad twin’ Jean Rhys. The wrong turns of her life had brought her to the right place in the end, and ‘she had mysteriously become a writer’. She is clearly a great admirer of her subject, but sufficiently objective to and aware of the fact that her heroine was a flawed woman who made mistakes as much as anyone else. Yet this is an enthusiastic biography which is an undoubted pleasure to read. I feel a little ashamed to admit that I have yet to read any of Nancy’s novels, though I have long been fascinated by the lives of the Mitford clan, but I now feel inspired to make good that omission before long.

For further reading, may we recommend the author's late much-praised biography of Louis XIV, The Sun King by Nancy Mitford; or for another sidelight on women's journalism, A Diary of The Lady: My First Year as Editor by Rachel Johnson.

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