Mitford, Nancy (1904–1973)

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Mitford, Nancy (1904–1973)

English writer. Born Nancy Freeman Mitford in London, England, on November 28, 1904; died of fibromyositis on June 30, 1973; eldest daughter of David Freeman-Mitford, Lord Redesdale, and Sydney Bowles; sister of Jessica Mitford (1917–1996), DianaMitford (b. 1910), Deborah Mitford (1920—), and Unity Mitford (1914–1948); married the Hon. Peter Rodd, in November 1933 (separated 1945, marriage dissolved 1958); had long relationship with Fabrice, duc de Sauveterre (a hero of the French resistance).

Nancy Mitford was the eldest of the Mitford brood, which continued to increase even though she found it "extremely unnecessary" at the time. She was born in England in 1904, the daughter of Baron and Baroness Redesdale and later the sister of Diana Mitford, Jessica Mitford, Unity Mitford, and Deborah Mitford . Along with the rest of the Mitford girls, Nancy was assigned to nurses and governesses, isolated from her peers, and educated at home. (Brother Tom was the only one sent out for training.) Though she had a less severe reaction to her parents than did her younger sister Jessica, Nancy did recall being fascinated by the sinking of the Titanic; from then on, she had a habit of scanning the Daily News for accounts of shipwrecks, looking for her parents' names among the "regretted victims."

In retrospect, Nancy considered herself a tyrannical older sister. In her book Daughters and Rebels, Jessica heartily agreed. "She was sharp-tongued," wrote Jessica. "If one took particular trouble to do one's hair, Nancy might remark over a carefully positioned ringlet, 'You look like the oldest and ugliest of the Brontë sisters .'" But in actuality, Nancy was devoted to her younger sisters and far more forgiving of their world-stage shenanigans. Jessica also had to admit that Nancy's little acts of rebellion opened the way for them. Jessica "dimly remembered the hushed pall that hung over the house, meals eaten day after day in silence, when Nancy at the age of twenty had her hair shingled. Nancy using lipstick, Nancy playing the newly fashionable ukulele, Nancy wearing trousers, Nancy smoking a cigarette—she had broken ground for all of us, but only at terrific cost." Finally, when the family migrated to the country during the war years of 1910–14, Nancy was given partial freedom to attend the Frances Holland day school; at age 16, she attended a finishing school at Hatherop Castle.

Following World War II and a failed marriage, Nancy Mitford settled in Paris, France, and then in Versailles, where she remained for the rest of her life. An ardent Francophile, she formed an enduring relationship with Fabrice, duc de Sauveterre, a hero of the French resistance. She was the author of several satirical novels known for their biting wit, including Love in Cold Climate (1949), The Blessing

(1951), Noblesse Oblige (1956), Don't Tell Alfred (1960) and Pursuit of Love (1945), which verged on the autobiographical and sold over one million copies. Wigs on the Green was a sardonic book about her sister Unity and the British Union of Fascists. She also wrote four historical biographies: Madame de Pompadour (1953), Voltaire in Love (1957), The Sun King (1966), and Frederick the Great (1970). After enduring a painful illness for several years, Nancy Mitford died in 1973. "She would have been such a marvellous sharp old lady," said her sister Diana, "dealing out snubs and jokes to new generations. Her life seems almost too sad to contemplate, despite great successes with the books." A biography of Nancy Mitford was filmed for British television by Julian Jebb.

sources and suggested reading:

Acton, Harold. Nancy Mitford. NY: Harper & Row, 1975.

Guinness, Jonathan and Catherine. The House of Mitford. London: Hutchinson, 1984.

Mosley, Charlotte, ed. Love from Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford. NY: Houghton, 1993.