Nancy Freeman-Mitford CBE (28 November 1904 – 30 June 1973), known as Nancy Mitford, was an English novelist, biographer and journalist.
One of the renowned Mitford sisters and one of the “Bright Young People” on the London social scene in the inter-war years, she is best remembered for her novels about upper-class life in England and France and for her sharp and often provocative wit. She also established a reputation for herself as a writer of popular historical biographies.
Mitford enjoyed a privileged childhood as the eldest daughter of the Hon. David Freeman-Mitford, later 2nd Baron Redesdale. Educated privately, she had no training as a writer before publishing her first novel in 1931.
This early effort and the three that followed it created little stir; it was her two semi-autobiographical postwar novels, The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949), that established her reputation.
Mitford had been unhappily married since 1933 to Peter Rodd and formed a liaison during the Second World War with a Free French officer, Gaston Palewski, who became the love of her life, although the pair were never a formal couple. After the war Mitford settled in France and lived there for the rest of her life, maintaining social contact with her many English friends through letters and regular visits.
During the 1950s Mitford was identified with the concept of “U” (upper) and “non-U” language, whereby social origins and standing were identified by words used in everyday speech.
She had intended this as a joke, but many took it seriously, and Mitford was considered an authority on manners and breeding—possibly her most recognised legacy. Her later years were bitter-sweet, the success of her biographical studies of Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire and King Louis XIV contrasting with the ultimate failure of her relationship with Palewski.
From the late 1960s her health deteriorated, and she endured several years of painful illness before her death in 1973.
The Mitford family dates from the Norman era, when Sir John de Mitford held the Castle of Mitford in Northumberland. A later Sir John held several important public offices during the late 14th and early 15th centuries, and the family maintained a tradition of public service for many generations.
In the 18th century William Mitford was a leading classical historian, responsible for the definitive history of ancient Greece. His great-grandson Algernon Bertram Mitford, born in 1837 and known as “Bertie”, was a diplomat and traveller who held minor office in Disraeli’s second ministry, from 1874 to 1880.
In 1874 he married Clementina, the second daughter of David Ogilvy, 10th Earl of Airlie, a union that linked the Mitfords to some of Britain’s most prominent aristocratic families. Blanche Ogilvy, Clementina’s elder sister, became the wife of Sir Henry Montague Hozier, a soldier turned businessman.
Their four children included daughters Clementine (“Clemmie”), who in 1908 married the future British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Nellie who married Bertram Romilly. Both Hozier and Blanche were promiscuous, and it is generally accepted by historians and family members that he was not Clemmie’s father, although he was registered as such.
Blanche told her friend Lady Londonderry, shortly before Clemmie’s birth, that the father of the expected child was her own brother-in-law, Bertie Mitford; most historians believe that other candidates for the paternity are more likely.
Bertie Mitford’s marriage produced five sons and four daughters. His career in government service ended in 1886, when after the death of a cousin he inherited a considerable fortune. A condition of the inheritance was that he adopt the surname “Freeman-Mitford”.
He rebuilt Batsford House, the family’s country seat, served briefly as a Unionist MP in the 1890s, and otherwise devoted himself to books, writings and travel.
In 1902 he was raised to the peerage as 1st Baron Redesdale, a re-creation of a title that had previously been held in the family but had lapsed in 1886.
Nancy Mitford’s father, David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, was Bertie Mitford’s second son, born on 13 March 1878. After several years as a tea planter in Ceylon he fought in the Boer War of 1899–1902 and was severely wounded. In 1903 he became engaged to Sydney Bowles, the elder daughter of Thomas Gibson Bowles, known as “Tap”, a journalist, editor and magazine proprietor whose publications included Vanity Fair and The Lady.
The couple were married on 16 February 1904, after which they rented a house in Graham Street in West London. Bowles provided his son-in-law with a job, as business manager of The Lady magazine. David had little interest in reading and knew nothing of business; thus, according to Nancy Mitford’s biographer Selena Hastings, “a less congenial post … could hardly have been imagined”.
He remained in this position for ten years. The couple’s first child, a daughter, was born on 28 November 1904; they had intended to call her Ruby, but after she was born they changed their minds and named her Nancy.