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.
There are plenty of Mitford fans, but please give us a thumbnail introduction of Nancy and her family for new readers.
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.
They 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 FBI.
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 laugh at."
What is your background and how did it lead you to write a biography of Nancy Mitford?
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 Mitford family?
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 Mitford book?
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 subjects!!!!
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 thud.
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 overstated.
THANK YOU, LAURA!