Nancy Mitford was born on 28 November 1904 in London, the eldest of the six legendary Mitford sisters. Their father, Lord Redesdale, a countryman at heart, worked in London at the office of The Lady until 1914. After the war he moved his family to Oxfordshire.
Nancy and her sisters were educated at home and relied mainly on one another for company. Her high spirits and funniness lit up the family atmosphere but she was also a remorseless tease. The jokes, rivalries and passions of the Mitford childhood went straight into her highly autobiographical novels.
Nancy grew up partly in the 1920s of The Bright Young Things and partly in the politically polarized 1930s. Her sisters Diana and Unity were drawn to the extreme Right and Jessica to the Left. Nancy wavered between the two but could never take politics – or indeed anything– very seriously.
Nancy started writing for magazines in 1929 and became a regular contributor to The Lady. In 1931, she published her first novel, Highland Fling.
During the war she worked at Heywood Hill, the Mayfair bookshop, which became a meeting place for London literary society and her friends.
Nancy fell in love with three un- satisfactory men. The first, Hamish Erskine, was homosexual but her infatuation with him lasted five years. In 1933 she married Peter Rodd, a clever, delinquent bore. They separated after the war and were divorced in 1958. In London during the war she met Gaston Palewski, a Free French officer and General de Gaulle’s chief of staff, at whose feet she laid all her passion and loyalty for over thirty years. Gaston never returned her love but they remained friends until her death.
‘If one can't be happy one must be amused don't you agree? ' Nancy wrote to a friend. It could stand as the motto for her life. She hid her deepest feelings behind a sparkling flow of jokes and witty turns of phrase, and was the star of any gathering.
Childless and unfulfilled in love she may have been, but Nancy found huge success as a writer. Her fifth novel, The Pursuit of Love (1945), was a phenomenal best seller and made her financially independent for the first time.
In 1946 she moved to Paris to be near Gaston Palewski and remained in France for the rest of her life. She adored the country and saw everything French through rose-tinted spectacles. Separation and distance from her various friends and relations produced a flood of marvellous letters that are as important a part of her literary output as her books.
In the late 1950s Nancy started writing about the history of France, describing historical characters as if they were her friends and contemporaries. These biographies were as successful as her
novels. The Sun King, a brilliant evocation of the court of Louis XIV, was a worldwide bestseller.
In the early 1950s Nancy wrote a regular column for the Sunday Times and continued to be in demand as a journalist and reviewer until the end of her life. Her friend Evelyn Waugh said that it was her true metier. A light-hearted article she contributed to Encounter on the English aristocracy in 1954 sparked a hullabaloo over upper-class and non upper-class (U and non-U) speech and was a tease that even she thought went too far.
In 1969 she moved to a house in Versailles and soon afterwards began to suffer from the onset of a rare form of Hodgkin's disease. Except for a few periods of remission, she was in great pain for over four years, which she bore with heroic courage.
Nancy died on 30 June 1973 at home in Versailles. Her ashes are buried at the Church of St. Mary's in Swinbrook, Oxfordshire,
where her parents and her sisters Pamela, Diana and Unity also lie.