The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London

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9781605985114: The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London
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The scandalous story of Nancy Mitford's torrid love affair with Free French commander Gaston Palewski  . . .

Set against the extraordinary backdrop of post-war France, the compelling love story of Nancy Mitford and Free French commander Gaston Palewski was a less than ideal affair. She was one of the twentieth century's most glamorous and popular authors; he was one of the most significant European politicians of the postwar era. He inspired her to write one of the funniest and most poignant and best-loved novels of its era: The Pursuit of Love. She supported him through a tumultuous political career.           

Lisa Hilton captures the complexities of their relationship amid some of the most exciting, powerful, and controversial figures of their time in this provocative and emotionally-charged volume.

8 pages of B&W photographs

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From VOGUE.COM, by Megan O'Grady

 Nancy Mitford was a 37-year-old author and an inveterate master of the tease when she met her match in Free French commander Gaston Palewski at a party in London. It was 1942, the war raged on, and their initial encounter seemed like a coup de foudre—or, as the heroine of the wildly popular novel he inspired, The Pursuit of Love, explains, “She was filled with a wild, strange, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love.” Mitford’s mutually influential 30-year relationship with the Colonel, as she dubbed Charles de Gaulle’s charismatic right-hand man, is the subject of historian Lisa Hilton’s piquant latest, The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London (Pegasus). Following Palewski to Paris, where he embarked on a distinguished political career (and an ambitious private life), Mitford, armed with a spiky intellect and an elegant Dior wardrobe, made her home amid the city’s gratin. As allergic to sentimentality as Palewski was to monogamy, Mitford maintained a determined “shop-front” dedicated to the “civilized” vision of romance expressed in her novels, for which she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, hand-delivered to her by Palewski before her death in 1973. Via e-mail, Vogue chatted with Hilton about why Mitford’s work deserves fresh attention—and what women of her time might have to teach us about love.

The Mitford sisters have inspired bookshelves’ worth of biographies and collected letters, but Nancy has always stood out as the family’s great wit and literary talent. What attracted you to her?


I came to Nancy very much as a reader rather than a biographer. I think Nancy’s later novels have much in common with those of Jane Austen—deceptively elegant and witty, with a strain of toughness, even darkness, beneath the surface that makes them superlative works of art. As I read biographical material, I began to feel that Nancy’s reputation was unfair, that she was not only a serious and substantial writer but that she was also a woman who managed a difficult relationship in an intriguing and impressive manner. When the series Sex and the City came out, I loathed it. I felt that my generation of women had been infantilized by a very old-fashioned version of love, where an essentially conventional idea of happy ever after masqueraded as liberation. So I began to explore the relationships and mores of Nancy’s generation and discovered a way of thinking about love and how women might live that was instinctively more appealing to me. 

You spoke to many people who knew Nancy personally, including Charlotte Mosley and the Duchess of Devonshire, Nancy’s lone surviving sister. Were there any surprises in your research?

The first thing I did was contact Charlotte Mosley, who was very supportive. Then I met the Dowager Duchess at a party at Claridge’s, and she said, “Oh, you’re the girl who is writing about the Colonel—you must ring me up!” We had a delightful talk, and she particularly emphasized what wonderful company Nancy and Gaston were when they were together. Once I felt that the idea had been endorsed, I probably interviewed about forty people, and was also given permission to read in the archive of the Fondation Charles de Gaulle in Paris. The relationships between the French and the Americans were both dense and fascinating, and I felt that Gaston’s politics did much to shape Nancy’s notoriously anti-American views.

Perhaps the most surprising thing to me was that Nancy was not in the least bit snobbish. Her notorious article on etiquette, “The English Aristocracy,” [which included a “U and Non-U” glossary] was really written as a joke. She wasn’t really interested in grand people, although she knew a great many. At the end of her life, when she was living at Versailles, she was friends with the local mechanic and the daughter of the chemist. And many of the people I spoke to were astonished to learn that Gaston was Jewish—Nancy has been accused of anti-Semitism, and her brother-in-law was [British Union of Fascists leader] Oswald Mosley. Some readers might be surprised to learn that during the war she turned over her family’s London home to Jewish refugees.

Nancy’s biographers have generally cast her love for Gaston in a pitying light; he had many other paramours, and he ultimately married another, far wealthier, woman. But you argue that it can be reductive to judge affairs of the past by contemporary mores. What challenges are involved in writing about an historical relationship? I had to be careful not to idealize Nancy’s relationship with Palewski, yet at the same time to respect and understand it on its own terms. A powerful influence was the Second World War: After what Nancy’s generation had been through, there was a sense that magnifying one’s emotional troubles was self-indulgent, and that excessive earnestness was rather bad form. That doesn’t mean that Nancy didn’t suffer—her letters reveal that she did, terribly—but that she made a conscious choice not to allow the inadequacies of her relationship to dominate her life. Looking over her letters to Gaston over thirty years, it’s clear that they built a mutually supportive relationship, based on genuine love. Above all, they had fun. The letters almost to the end are full of chat and gossip and jokes—one has the sense that here were two people who really liked one another. And the tenderness displayed by Gaston in Nancy’s last years, as well as his regrets after her death from cancer, made a very poignant coda.

About the Author:

Lisa Hilton is the critically acclaimed author of Queens Consort and Athenais: The Life of Louis XIV's Mistress, the Real Queen of France. She lives in London.

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ISBN 10:  1605983926 ISBN 13:  9781605983929
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