From Alconleigh to Versailles
Nancy Mitford’s Emergence as a Biographer. All citations and a bibliography have been omitted due to space constraints and can be requested from the author.
Nancy Mitford found herself with a dilemma in 1952. She had just published The Blessing, after a string of best-selling novels. She had settled in Paris, where she had followed the man she believed was the love of her life. Established in a beautiful apartment on Rue Monsieur, it seemed she had every reason to be happy.
For the first time since her twenties, Nancy had no plans for another novel. Her social engagements and a column for the Times would keep her busy, but that wasn’t enough, financially or intellectually. When she began writing, the goal was to supplement her meager income, but she discovered the joy of the process as she wrote. With her first major success, The Pursuit of Love, Nancy had established real capital. Having grown up with the financial crises Selina Hastings calls “an integral part of Nancy’s childhood”, Nancy was deeply conscious of money. No amount of capital could ever let her feel secure. Now independent, she still had a visceral horror of poverty.
From her first novel, Nancy was preoccupied by questions of love. As her romantic life grew more painful, she used her novels to ask correspondingly difficult questions love’s meaning. Writing about an Englishwoman accepting Gallic infidelity in The Blessing, she asked and answered the last question she needed to answer through fiction. This began the end of her career as a romantic novelist.
After considering a “shameless & complete autobiography”, she settled on a biography of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress. In this book, Nancy adopts a character from her new country as her subject. Her Francophilia remained undimmed, but her romanticism had lost its naive intensity. Nancy wrote The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, and The Blessing to explore personal dilemmas, explaining the resonance and insight that distinguish them from her cruder early novels, which lack the melancholy, yearning romanticism that tinges even their successors’ giddiest jokes with sad significance.
Her relationship with Gaston Palewski, in which she was always supplicant and pursuer, had changed. He remained involved with other women, devoting less of his attention to Mitford each year. While he had tolerated her affections, the romantic and sexual aspect of their relationship had diminished. Lisa Hilton writes in The Horror of Love that during Mitford’s first post-war years in Paris, while “they remained discreet, they could now enjoy some sort of a life together, and within their circle they could be perceived as a couple”. Mitford had joined Palewski without an invitation. Their romantic involvement was emotionally asymmetrical, but she persisted. Unlike her “continuing love for a faithless man”, however, her writing demanded radical change.
She turned to the last period of history she regarded as truly civilized: eighteenth century France. “The four main pastimes,” Mitford writes of Versailles, “were love, gambling, hunting, and the official entertainments,” the occupations that have traditionally occupied the aristocracy. This setting epitomized the values that were Nancy’s birthright as an aristocrat and her choice as an aesthete.
One wonders what affinity Nancy could have for the middle-class mistress of a French king. The answer may lie in the nature of Madame de Pompadour’s relationship with Louis XV. Nancy attributes Pompadour’s influence over Louis XV and his court to the strength of a relationship that transcends physicality, which Nancy suggests may have reinforced Pompadour’s influence.
If Madame de Pompadour were not physically in love with the King, being constitutionally incapable of passion, it would not be too much to say that she worshipped him; he was her God. She had other interests and affections, but she made them all revolve round him; rarely can a beautiful woman have loved so single-mindedly.
Madame de Pompadour provided Nancy with an example of a fulfilling relationship past the stage of passion, a profoundly comforting idea. Their relationship had shifted from an affair fueled by wartime tensions to a lopsided friendship, far less rewarding than the love she had expected. She had mistaken the excitement of wartime fling for a grand passion and found herself living with the consequences in the less heady atmosphere of peace. Still, Nancy refused to stray from her course.
Even in 1946, at the beginning of her relationship with Palewski, Nancy must have seen signs of his indifference. Writing to Evelyn Waugh, “siezed with insomnia”, she outlined a humiliating incident:
I went to a ball at Princess de Bourbon-Parme’s, duly binged up as one is before balls, with champagne, black coffee & so on. Well we hadn’t been there 2 minutes before the Colonel said we couldn’t stay on acc/ of the great cohorts of collaborators by whom we were surrounded, & firmly dumped me home.
The combination of caffeine, alcohol, and romantic anxiety is potent enough to fuel weeks of insomnia, but Nancy attributed it to having “made enemies for life” among hostesses.
Waugh’s responded, “Collaborationists my foot. Does it not occur to you, poor innocent, that continental colonel went back to the aristocratic ball & that while you lay sleepless with your fountain pen, he was in the arms of some well born Gestapo moll?” Waugh’s literary advice was patronizing and pedantic, but candid personal advice he offered Nancy on occasion sometimes proved helpful. From his explanation of Hamish St. Clair Erskine’s homosexuality in the 1920s to illuminations of Palewski’s shortcomings, Waugh’s advice offered Nancy realism and perspective, which she sometimes ignored.
The assertion made by some critics that her description of Madame de Pompadour as a physically cold woman is veiled autobiography may be unwarranted. However, the idea that Pompadour provided a model of what Nancy’s relationship with Palewski might become is not. The image of a woman who became her former lover’s confidante and advisor must have been attractive. She refused to let Palewski’s emotional coolness diminish her devotion. Madame de Pompadour provided a channel for her intense energy and a lens through which to interpret her personal trials.
She wrote to a colleague to ask for a few sources. She was “starting from scratch” but would “try and do as little Bibliotheque Nationale as possible because my poor brain doesn’t function much in such places”. Still, to Evelyn Waugh, she writes that she is “working hard”, and compares her Madame de Pompadour to Waugh’s Edmund Campion: Jesuit and Martyr, published in 1935.
Waugh responds by correcting her grammar in a recent article, warning, “You really must be careful now that you are doing a work of scholarship.” Despite corrections better left to Mitford’s editors, even Waugh admits the intensity and dedication evident in Madame du Pompadour.
Nancy’s style remains consistent across genres and decades, staying bright in Madame de Pompadour. Mitford sees the beauty and the “ridiculous side” of French court life, maintaining a balance between humor and poignancy. Some critics of the time alleged that Mitford’s biographies were about her family, calling the book a return to Alconleigh through a study of Versailles, set in Cotswolds stone but dressed in gilt-and-pastel Rococo style. She found this amusing, mentioning it in various letters.
Mitford saw no reason to alter a style that had ensured her success throughout Madame de Pompadour and subsequent biographies. “The fact is, with me, my love of shrieking is greater than my amour propre. My skin is thick. And, great protection, I never can take myself very seriously as a femme de lettres,” she writes to Waugh around this period.
Nancy’s writing revealed assurance, a strong work ethic despite self-proclaimed laziness, and a cultivated intellect. She professes weakness as a writer, but her tone owes more to versatility of subject and consistency of style. Her voice remains accessible, girlish, and unwilling to concede to scholarly or literary convention at the expense of freshness or objectivity. (Her attachment to France shines through, as does her respect for Madame de Pompadour’s use of traditional femininity in politics.)
Waugh praised later biographies: “You write so deceptively frivolously that one races on chuckling from page to page without noticing the solid structure.”  Writing “deceptively frivolously” may not have been the key to scholarliness as defined by the Victorians they read in their youth, but ensures a pleasant time for the reader and an appeal to a broad market. She sounds like an excellent conversationalist, not a lecturer.
Mitford spent her life honing this voice, designed to help her breeze (or appear to breeze) through any amount of pain. A little sparkle can make cold houses, bereavement, and disappointed love bearable and presentable, with an emphasis on the latter. Nancy prioritized maintaining what she called “the shop front”. This drove much of her humor, and may have fueled her exploration of a relationship in which she saw distinct parallels to her own. In criticizing Nancy’s work, it seems easy to draw parallels: this character is Palewski, that is Nancy herself, and there is Stephen Tennant peeking from the next page in an outré outfit. Her emotional engagement remains oblique, but searching for problems Nancy is trying to solve in her own life when reading her work is fairer than identifying anecdotes or matching up characters from her life to characters in her work. It certainly provides more stimulation for the reader.
Nancy does not mention the bond between biographer and subject in her correspondence. Examining her relationship to Pompadour isn’t the same as demonstrating that Lord Berners provided the model for Lord Merlin in The Pursuit of Love. In resembling psychoanalytic criticism, it would have earned Nancy’s scorn, but it may provide a lens through which to examine her attachment to Palewski. Her attempts to preserve this relationship offer some insight into her perspective on Madame de Pompadour. Madame de Pompadour was a means of writing autobiographically without writing autobiography and cannot be read as direct representation of her life. She wrote to several friends about a memoir, but her fear of self-revelation thwarted her at every stage. Nancy wrote to understand the world and her own otherwise inaccessible psychological landscape as well as to entertain, but the shop-front remained intact.
After a prolonged debate, Nancy would soon turn down a lucrative contract to work as a screenwriter in Hollywood so she could stay in Paris:
So I decided against Hollywood, after 2 days of slight hysteria. I realized that it’s not a question of whether you need me or not – the point is I can’t live without you. I should be too miserable & it can’t be right to make oneself miserable for dollars.
Nancy was not indispensable to Palewski, but she had found a man she could make the center of her world. She could not imitate the model of closeness stemming from feminine devotion that she had observed in Madame de Pompadour, but she seems to have found such devotion worthwhile in itself. She found the genre in which she would continue to shine: sparkling, impeccably researched biographies undimmed by traditional scholarly self-seriousness. Mitford continued writing biography after Madame de Pompadour, beginning with 1957’s Voltaire in Love, an examination of Emilie du Chatelet’s relationship with Voltaire. With considerable success, she revisited eighteenth-century France, focusing on the intersection of love and intellectual life.
Madame de Pompadour earned less critical recognition than its successors Voltaire in Love, The Sun King, and Frederick the Great would, but it marks the beginning of Nancy’s new career as surely as Don’t Tell Alfred heralded the end of her time as a novelist. Less surprising than Nancy’s attempt to refashion herself as a biographer is how little of her style, her method, or her mind required reinvention.
Her literary output only decreased when a mysterious cancer incapacitated her. Until pain forced her to stop writing, Nancy Mitford maintained her ability to understand the whole from a few carefully observed parts. Her attunement to the absurd fueled her writing; her ability to make light of it made her writing exceptional. Her acceptance of “life’s essential unfairness”, allowed her to reinvent herself and begin a new literary career, one unfairly neglected in public opinion.