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Nancy Freeman-Mitford CBE (28 November 1904 – 30 June 1973), known as Nancy Mitford,[n 1] was an English novelist, biographer and journalist. One of the renowned Mitford sisters and one of the "Bright Young People" on the London social scene in the inter-war years, she is best remembered for her novels about upper-class life in England and France and for her sharp and often provocative wit. She also established a reputation for herself as a writer of popular historical biographies.
Mitford enjoyed a privileged childhood as the eldest daughter of the Hon. David Freeman-Mitford, later 2nd Baron Redesdale. In his 1975 biography of Mitford, Sir Harold Acton speaks of how Nancy and her brother Tom were allowed to bring friends home. Those friends included ‘both athletes and aesthetes’. One among the latter, Oliver Messel, ‘entertained the company with spicy monologues about tragic-comical White Russian refugee princesses, “refained” governesses afflicted with wind, and wriggling debutantes whose conversational gambit was limited to “Have you been to No, no Nanette?”’ The effect of such figures in the ancestral home was, according to Acton, akin to ‘the invasion of Presbyterian Scotland, as it were, by Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things’. Writing so many years later, Acton found it hard to imagine how Brian Howard (‘my former Eton crony’) and Nancy’s father, Lord Redesdale, ‘coped with each other, if they were allowed to meet’.
Educated privately, Nancy Mitford had no training as a writer before publishing her first novel in 1931. This early effort and the three that followed it created little stir; it was her two semi-autobiographical postwar novels, The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949), that established her reputation. The most modern character in Love in a Cold Climate (1949), Nancy Mitford’s novel set in the inter-war period and dedicated to Lord Berners, is a homosexual man, Cedric Hampton, whom Mitford seems to have based on both Stephen Tennant and Brian Howard. (David Warbeck was based on Eddy Sackville-West.)
Mitford's marriage to Peter Rodd in 1933 proved unsatisfactory to both (they divorced in 1957 after a lengthy separation), and during the Second World War she formed a liaison with a Free French officer, Gaston Palewski. He became the love of her life, although the pair were never a formal couple. After the war Mitford settled in France and lived there until her death, maintaining social contact with her many English friends through letters and regular visits.
During the 1950s Mitford was identified with the concept of "U" (upper) and "non-U" language, whereby social origins and standing were identified by words used in everyday speech. She had intended this as a joke, but many took it seriously, and Mitford was considered an authority on manners and breeding—possibly her most recognised legacy. Her later years were bitter-sweet, the success of her biographical studies of Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire and King Louis XIV contrasting with the ultimate failure of her relationship with Palewski. From the late 1960s her health deteriorated, and she endured several years of painful illness before her death in 1973.
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