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Remembering Nancy Mitford - Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness | Jun 28, 2024

Nancy, left, and sisters, 1932


Nancy Mitford died at Versailles on 30 June 1973, aged 68.

It was a little like The Pursuit of Love after Linda Radlett’s death, “for us at Alconleigh… a light went out, a great deal of joy that never could be replaced.”

Nancy’s anniversary coincides with the announcement that her life and that of her sisters is to be dramatised in a six-part television series entitled Outrageous, written by Sarah Williams, based on Mary Lovell’s biography, The Mitford Girls (2001), and produced by Firebird Productions, a BBC Studio label. Nancy is being played by Bessie Carter, daughter of Dame Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter and (who recently starred - and will again - upstairs and down - as Downton’s Lady Bagshaw and Carson). Debo, Duchess of Devonshire, was a great admirer of Mary Lovell and once described her as “a terrier for research” so one can have high hopes for the script. The sisters’ lives made good copy with more than their share of high drama and tragedy – especially Nancy.

She began to suffer pain in her left leg at the end of 1968 and despite countless consultations, Hodgkin's disease was not diagnosed until 1972. It was an agonising four years, made worse by an announcement in the Figaro one morning in March 1969, that the love of her life, Gaston Palewski, her Sauveterre and Charles-Edouard du Valhubert, and by then President of the Constitutional Council of France, had married Violette de Talleyrand- Périgord duchesse de Sagan.

As one of her best biographers, Selina Hastings, has put it, “….the bitterness of it exacerbated by the fact that Gaston’s wife was a divorced woman. For years, Nancy had accepted the face-saving excuse that he could never marry her because he dare not risk his political career [and the wrath of Yvonne de Gaulle] by marrying a divorcée. Now retired from politics, he could marry where he chose, and his choice was not Nancy.”

Somehow she managed to finish her last biography, Frederick the Great in 1970. And her letters sparkled & stung to the end.

In the Spring of 1972, she was given the Légion d’Honneur, which the Colonel pinned on her. She cried with happiness afterwards. And, as if they were competing, she was told she would be honoured with the CBE. At first she pretended to never having heard of it but then warmed to the idea, “It enables me to sit above a knight’s widow so you must find me one to take everywhere with me (I do, anyway, without wishing to boast, as a peer’s daughter…’)

Some days she would sit in bed and cry with pain. She longed for their adored nanny, Blor. As the sisters’ biographer, Laura Thompson, has written, the sisters gathered as they had when Muv was dying. Diana drove each day to Versailles. Jessica came from California seeing Diana for the first time in 40 years. “She looks like a beautiful bit of aging sculpture….God it’s odd.” The two were polite but that’s all. (Decca would treasure a short kindly note she had from Diana after Nancy’s death) Of them all, Nancy craved the calm presence of Pam, who, despite decades of teasing from her elder sister, cared tenderly for Naunce.

On 30 June, the colonel was driving on the outskirts of Versailles and had a strong presentiment that he should go to her. He went straight upstairs, his spaniel running ahead as she always did. Nancy was apparently unconscious but smiled as he took her hand. “Oh! Fabrice – on vous attend si longtemps’ ‘Comme c’est gentil”.

She died a few hours later; an ending as poignantly romantic as any she could have written and one that underlined the links between her life and her art.

Nancy was buried in the churchyard at Swinbrook beside Bono - ‘Unity Valkyrie’ ‘say not the struggle naught availeth.’ Diana, two of her sons, and Pamela would later join them there.

Nancy once described the drive past the church as the bleakest road in the world. So close - and yet so far - from Alconleigh, where the Radletts lived and laughed, captured forever in her fiction.