AUTHOR INTERVIEW: LAURA THOMPSON
Laura Thompson studied acting and dance before turning to nonfiction writing as a career. She has written books about greyhound and horse racing, historical true crimes, a memoir about her publican grandmother, and biographies of Agatha Christie and the Mitford sisters. Her biography of Nancy Mitford, Life in a Cold Climate, was reissued by Pegasus Books in 2019. Incredibly talented, Laura also made a tv movie about her return to ballet as an adult, has filmed several documentaries about Agatha Christie, and writes for Town & Country, Harpers Bazaar, and other publications.
Laura talked with Rose City Reader about the Mitford sisters, her biography of Nancy Mitford, what makes a good biography, and more:
There are plenty of Mitford
fans, but please give us a thumbnail introduction of Nancy and her family for
As a child I learned a
little refrain by which to remember Henry VIII’s wives – divorced, beheaded,
died, etc. – and one can, rather flippantly, do something similar with the six
Mitford sisters: writer (Nancy); countrywoman (Pamela); Fascist (Diana); Nazi
(Unity); Communist (Jessica); duchess (Deborah). Reductive, but accurate.
were born between 1904 and 1920 in the heart of England into the minor
aristocracy, the daughters of Lord and Lady Redesdale, who also had one son –
Tom, who was killed in the Second World War. Their early lives are documented,
pretty much accurately, in Nancy’s classic novel The Pursuit of Love, which describes their posh-feral upbringing on
their father’s land and their rebellions against convention, although the novel
softens the reality about the form that these took. In fact, as depression and
division took possession of the world in the lead-up to the war, three of the
sisters became intensely politically engaged – two to the Right, one to the
Left – and the consequences for their lives, and for the rest of their family,
were incalculable. Diana was imprisoned
as the wife of Britain’s Fascist leader, Unity shot herself in despair at the
outbreak of war between England and her adored Hitler (it took eight years for
the bullet lodged in her brain to kill her), and Jessica, who lived in proud
poverty in London and lost a baby there to measles, cut herself off from her
family by moving to the US, where for some time she was in the sights of the
What is so remarkable
about the Mitfords, however, is that despite all this they have retained –
really thanks to Nancy’s writing – a fascination that is not wholly about their
notoriety, but also about their style, funniness, aura of blithe confidence
and, above all, their very English and self-aware brand of charm. Their story
is astonishing – six bright individualists, coming to adulthood at a time when
the world went up in flames – and often desperately sad. Yet in some way they
rose above it all and lived by Nancy’s creed that "there is always something to
What is your background
and how did it lead you to write a biography of Nancy Mitford?
I grew up in the English
countryside and went to a performing arts school – hoped to be a dancer, then
to act, wasn’t good enough – then got into Oxford where I read English. I sort
of fell into writing, whereupon I realized that this was actually the thing
that I should be doing.
The original edition of
Nancy, published in 2003, was my first biography – I had adored her, like so
many of us, from a teenager and desperately wanted to express my praise for her
writing, which at the time was not always highly regarded. Lots of people
dismissed her as a snob, who dealt only in superficialities, and I thought that
was ridiculous – her authorial voice and style are remarkable, influential – I
really wanted to say all this. So in a way the book is less a biography and
more a love letter. One of her nephews wrote to me and said, you have taken
her seriously, which would have amused her but also pleased her very much. I
thought that was lovely. And her reputation has now risen to the place where in
my view it belongs to be – I hope my biog played a small part in that.
How did you research
Mitford’s life? Did you have access to primary source materials? Did you
interview people who knew her?
I was extraordinarily
lucky – Nancy’s sister Diana Mosley agreed to speak to me, and I visited her in
Paris the year before she died. A remarkable experience, as you may imagine. She
was extraordinarily kind to me, terribly funny, and clearly still enraged by
the fact that back in 1940 Nancy had suggested to the authorities that Diana
should be jailed on account of her dangerous pro-Fascist views. "Nancy was the
most disloyal person I ever knew," she said to me. Later she reviewed my book
very favorably, and invited me to lunch with her again in Paris. She died
before I could go – a great regret. Diana encouraged Deborah to meet me, so I went
to Chatsworth to talk to her – wonderful. These were the two surviving sisters,
and to experience the Mitford charm first-hand was probably more useful to me
than anything else.
There was also a cache of
letters at Oxford that hadn’t been written about, between Nancy and Theodore
Besterman, who was planning a book about Voltaire at the time that she wrote
her biography of him. These were fascinating – so revealing about Nancy’s
writing philosophy. She was constantly urging Besterman (who also edited
Voltaire’s letters) to say more with fewer words – she said: "you mustn’t confound
the letters, which tell all, & the book which tells the essential." He
didn’t take the advice but I did!!!!
There are other
biographies of Nancy Mitford, alone or with her sisters. What distinguishes
yours from the others?
The Mitfords are one of
the best subjects – there is almost too
much material – so inevitably lots of people are drawn to them. What I
tried to do was catch Nancy’s essence. I wanted to analyze from the outside
what we find so appealing about her (because many people, women in particular,
find her irresistible) - her style, her humor, her deployment of the façade,
her blithe self-assurance. But I also wanted to understand, as far as possible,
what she herself felt about her life. The accepted view was that she was a
desperately sad woman, smiling madly in the face of griefs, somebody who made
jokes all the time because she was disappointed in love and didn’t have any
children. This may have been partly true, but in no way was it the whole truth. To be honest I found it rather unsisterly and, more importantly, not really
relevant to Nancy. It seemed to me to measure her against conventional standards,
against other people’s standards in fact, whereas what matters is how she
herself viewed her life. She believed in the importance of happiness, and in
her own happiness – that’s the kind of thing that a biographer has to
penetrate, I feel.
But the main difference
between my biog and those of Harold Acton and Selina Hastings (both marvelous)
is that I concentrate very much on Nancy’s writing – the nature of her artistry
– and how her imagination worked both in her books and upon her life.
What did you learn from
writing your biography that most surprised you, either about Nancy or the
Not that much about
Nancy, if I’m honest. I had instincts about her that I think were generally
proved to be correct. With regard to the other Mitfords, however, I was truly
fascinated to learn how much they diverged from their image (as created by
Nancy, really, in The Pursuit of Love).
For instance her father was rather a weak man, who suffered terribly over his
daughters’ behavior and never got over having supported – however briefly –
the Nazi regime. His wife was the strongest member of the family, and although
I didn’t much like her I found her hugely admirable – for instance how she
coped with Unity in between visiting Diana in prison, then with her son’s death
- she had astonishing resilience. Today she would probably be a CEO, she was so
incredibly capable. I was also surprised to find how much I disliked Pam,
supposedly the "nice" and mild sister, whom I suspect of being a bit of a resentful
bitch – as when she said to Diana that Nancy, who finally succumbed in 1973
after prolonged agonies with cancer, had wasted years of their lives while they
waited for her to die.
So the family dynamic was
not quite what I had thought, in fact it was even more complex and
multi-layered. The letters (edited by Charlotte Mosley) are so revealing about
all this. They left me very glad not to have any sisters, I must say.
What is your favorite Nancy
Probably The Pursuit of Love, which I find
intensely moving, but that’s such an obvious answer that I’ll put in a word for
The Blessing. The portrait of a
marriage between a highly romantic Englishwoman and a charming, adulterous
Frenchman, it is intensely adult, brutally sophisticated and spectacularly non-woke
(as Nancy often can be, but seems to get away with it). Nancy herself is known
for her long affair with a French politician who was similarly incapable of
fidelity – the novel often reads as if she is giving herself a bracing lecture
on how to handle him – it is certainly not how I would want to conduct my own
life, but I find it replete with very feminine wisdom and disconcertingly
honest. And hugely funny. My favorite character is the grand old French
aristocrat, oozing sex appeal in her 70s and dressed in the latest haute couture, who comes to London and
extols the delights of wandering "in the Woolworth."
I think Love in a Cold Climate is the funniest
of all the books, however, and Lady Montdore her finest comic creation. "Whoever invented love ought to be shot" (as said by Lady M) is my favorite of
all Nancy’s lines.
For readers new to Nancy
Mitford, which book do you suggest they read first?
Definitely The Pursuit of Love. It’s the perfect
introduction to her glorious authorial voice – light but not trivial, poised
exquisitely between art and artlessness – and it contains one of the most
beautifully realized love affairs in fiction. Its description of her upbringing
is the origin of what one might call the Mitford mythology – without this
novel, which gave the family a new life by purging it of darkness and
celebrating its bright vital spirit, I think we would see them quite
differently. We would certainly not be as bedazzled by (in Evelyn Waugh’s
famous phrase) their "creamy English charm."
For you, what makes a
biography worth reading?
When it observes the same
principles as good fiction. Proper story-telling; selecting the salient facts
and details that bring the whole to life; paying attention to the emotional dynamics
– and of course when the biographer clearly yearned to write about that
particular person. Sometimes one has the sense that a writer has been looking
for somebody who hasn’t been "done," whether or not they themselves want to "do" them. I have every sympathy incidentally, it’s very hard to find good
What are some of your
favorite biographies or biography writers?
The best biography I’ve
ever read is Meredith Daneman’s 2004 life of Margot Fonteyn. The author was a
dancer so could understand Fonteyn’s achievements from within, as it were – and
she conveyed a powerful, stunningly perceptive sense of both the star and the
woman. I can’t recommend that book highly enough.
But I actually mostly
read fiction, so I tend to prefer biographies written by novelists – such as E. F. Benson’s biog of Charlotte Bronte, which I suppose is old-fashioned but has so
much atmosphere and intelligence. And I love Nancy’s historical biographies
(unsurprisingly). Her book on Madame de Pompadour is rightly revered, it has
all her characteristic astuteness about motives – she cuts to the heart of
political machinations like a tremendously clever child – "the only time I’ve
ever understood the Seven Years War," as her nephew said to me. And it has one
of the best last lines of any book I’ve ever read – it hits one like a dark
What's next for you? What
are you working on now?
I have a book published
in the US next February – Heiresses – about women who inherited vast sums of
money and whose lives, perversely, were often destroyed by it: starting with
Mary Grosvenor, born in 1665, whose marshy fields were developed into London’s
most expensive residential areas, while she herself was a victim of date rape
and ended her life described as a "lunatick"; all the way through to Winnaretta
Singer, Natalie Barney, and Romaine Brooks, then to Barbara Hutton, Patty Hearst
and many in between.
Right now, however, I’m working
on a labor of love tentatively entitled Reading Women, about the 20th
century female novelists who have shaped our view of life and literature –
chief among them Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Taylor, whose worth, I feel, cannot be
THANK YOU, LAURA!
LIFE IN A COLD CLIMATE IS AVAILABLE IN BOOKSTORES AND ONLINE. READ MY REVIEW HERE.