A flatlay of some of Nancy Mitford's most notable works.

Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

If it’s nonsensical socialites and house parties (remember those?) that you’re into, look no further than Nancy Mitford. The eldest of the Mitford sisters – among them: a duchess, a Communist, a Nazi, a fascist, and a horsewoman – Nancy turned to writing to earn some money.

Born in 1904, she socialised around the edge of the Bright Young People, whose scavenger hunts were immortalised in her friend Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 novel Vile Bodies. His comic but unsparing influence rubbed off on her, and age 27 she published her first novel, Highland Fling – a country house party tale on steroids, featuring people with almost-Dickensian names such as Mr Buggins and General Murgatroyd. As soon as it was finished she embarked on her next novel, Christmas Pudding, quickly confirming her literary style – of naughty, heavily autobiographical comic fiction.

Nancy was a shocking tease; in her third novel, Wigs on the Green (1935), we meet the obvious model for her sister Diana’s husband Sir Oswald Mosley as Captain Jack, leader of the Union Jackshirts. Diana was furious. Nancy even found a device with which to prod her father. Having inherited Batsford Park in Gloucestershire, he had moved the family around – first to Asthall Manor in Oxfordshire, before building the much-hated Swinbrook House down the road. Nancy teased her father about "their descent in the world, from Batsford PARK to Asthall MANOR to Swinbrook HOUSE". This observation was so very Nancy. Like Waugh, she possessed a caustic wit, and wasn’t afraid to use it.

By the end of the Second World War, Nancy had five novels under her belt, and in December 1945 the one that made her name was published, The Pursuit of Love. "If ever there was a case of the right book at the right time, this was it," her biographer Selina Hastings wrote. And so it is for now: the world of the mad Radlett family, where the children are chased around the countryside by their father’s bloodhounds who hunt them like foxes, is about to appear on the small screen in a series starring Lily James and Dominic West. 

If you are starting at the beginning of your Mitford mission, be excited. Nancy was good enough to provide you with plenty to read. Here's our guide to the best.

The Pursuit of Love (1945)

Mitford tells the tale of Linda Radlett and her eccentric family, at home and away. This book is so deliciously autobiographical that almost every detail can be found in Mitford's life. The heroine, Linda Radlett, is one of the flamboyant Lord Alconleigh’s seven children. Lord Alconleigh, a philistine, is a dead ringer for Nancy’s father, who was said never to have read a book, except adventure bestseller White Fang. His home of Alconleigh is a composite of Batsford, Asthall, and Swinbrook, and Linda’s great love mirrors Mitford’s own. Even the linen cupboard at Swinbrook is transformed into the Hons’ cupboard, headquarters of the Radlett children’s secret society.

For the uninitiated, Nancy’s frank presentation can startle; in that sense, it has a bit of Evelyn Waugh about it. The narrator, Fanny, remarks about "the great love" of Linda’s life. "Oh, dulling," her mother replied. "One always thinks that. Every, every time."

Love in a Cold Climate (1949)

Love in a Cold Climate was initially called 'Diversion', and was completed in September 1948. Narrated again by Fanny, who by now has married, the Radletts are back, but this time it's the story of their neighbours Lord and Lady Montdore. Lady Montdore has great plans for her daughter, Polly, hoping to marry her off to a duke – at least – but not all goes to plan. Love in a Cold Climate – the title of which was taken from George Orwell’s 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying – was published in July 1949 to great acclaim, being chosen as Book of the Month by the Book Society, the Daily Mail, and the Evening Standard simultaneously.

 

Highland Fling (1931)

Nancy’s first novel is a pure joy – an escape, literally, to a Scottish castle amongst posh folk who don’t know whether they’re coming or going. The Bright Young Things – of which Nancy wasn’t quite one – meet the Dull Elders on a trip to Dalloch Castle. Meet Albert Memorial Gates, a camp young painter with an eccentric passion for Victoriana – inspired by Nancy’s sometime fiancé Hamish, and her friend Robert Bryon – and young Jane Dacre, modelled on the author. Highland Fling gave Nancy her first taste of success; the library in Burford arranged a display in its window, a sign reading "Nancy Mitford, Local Authoress."

Christmas Pudding (1932)

In Christmas Pudding, it’s John Betjeman’s turn for a cameo, where he appears as Paul Fotheringay, an impoverished writer with a love for Victorian literature. On the quest to research a biography one Christmas, Paul gets a job as a holiday tutor – fans of Waugh’s Decline and Fall might think this sounds familiar – whereupon chaos ensues across two contrasting generations. It’s not just Betjeman who stars: Bobby Bobbin, Paul’s tutee, is the spitting image of Hamish. Luckily, when the book was published, Hamish loved it, and took to signing his letters to her as "Bobby".

The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley (2007)

The best way to understand the Mitfords is via their letters to one another. Mosley’s book covers 1925 to 2003, and somehow this tome contains only five per cent of their constant correspondence. The letters are a scream, discussing everything in their universe: Jessica’s running away, the "utter unreliability" of journalists, Diana’s desertion of her first husband Bryan Guinness, and much more. There’s nothing like Mitford on Mitford to warm the soul. To get to know Nancy better, honourable mentions must go to her various biographies, in particular her friend Harold Acton’s (1975) and Selina Hastings’ from 1986.

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