Reading lists

Where to start with Nancy Mitford

As a new adaptation of The Pursuit of Love arrives on the small screen, here's a guide to the wittiest Mitford sister.

Eleanor Doughty
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 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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