Addition to Mitford literature mistimed

Gillian Vine reviews The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London.

Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London
Lisa Hilton

The title of Lisa Hilton's The Horror of Love suggests the book will trace a tumultuous love affair between English writer Nancy Mitford and French diplomat Gaston Palewski.

The subtitle, Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London, may be taken to reinforce that idea but most of the book is about the couple's separate lives: they don't even meet until halfway through The Horror of Love.

Nancy Mitford (1904-73) was the oldest of the six Mitford sisters who - with the exception of the youngest, Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire - seemed always to attract controversy.

Diana Mitford left her first husband for the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley, and Adolf Hitler was a guest at their 1936 wedding.

Pamela and Unity also had strong fascist sympathies, while Jessica was an avowed communist.

Their brother, Tom, who - like many of his class - had expressed pro-Nazi views in his youth, was killed in action in Burma in 1945.

Nancy vacillated between the two extremes and Hilton claims it was her sense of humour that prevented her becoming strongly committed to either cause. It seems not to have occurred to the writer that the experience of helping her husband, Peter Rodd, with Spanish refugees in France after the civil war may have soured Mitford towards anything that could result in war.

The early part of the book, concentrating as it does on Mitford and Palewski's upbringing and careers, is dominated by the 1920s and 1930s before moving on to World War 2 and, finally, the meeting between the two.

In 1942, Palewski apparently brought news of Peter Rodd, then in Addis Ababa, to his wife in London.

This meeting is inadequately covered - irritating considering the importance to the story, for it led to the affair that was to last until her death in Versailles in 1973.

As a senior aide to Charles de Gaulle, Palewski had a distinguished career and despite looking rather like Rene Artois in the TV farce 'Allo 'Allo, attracted numerous women.

The list of his confirmed and suspected mistresses over the years is extraordinarily long and includes many of the most influential women of his time. That may well have been part of the attraction for Palewski. Born in France, the grandson of a Polish Jew, he had embraced French art and literature, as well as the trappings of upper-class life and clearly loved his role as a power broker and diplomat.

His women had to fit that milieu.

Mitford remained married to Peter Rodd until 1958, when they divorced, but Palewski never married her, instead in 1969, when he was 68, choosing Violette de Pourtales.

Involved with Palewski since about 1951, she was recently divorced and a wealthy member of a French aristocratic family. In his eyes, perhaps she was better suited to his life and status, and it is understandable that some have suggested that Mitford became ill as a result of the announcement of his impending marriage.

Hilton debunks that, saying Mitford was by then already ill with the cancer that was to kill her.

The attraction of The Horror of Love is not the love affair but England and France before and after World War 2.

The downside is streams of names, many of which (especially the French ones) are likely to be unfamiliar to most readers. Some seem to be an exercise in name-dropping and one wishes Hilton had double-checked correct terminology - for example, she refers to the future Lady Louis Mountbatten as "Lady Edwina Mountbatten", when before her marriage she was simply Miss Edwina Ashley.

The biggest drawback is the timing of the book. Nancy Mitford's novels sold well during her lifetime and The Sun King, published in 1966, was a dazzling portrayal of Louis XIV and his court that became a worldwide bestseller.

Had The Horror of Love been published 25 years ago, it could have been a bestseller too, but so much has been written about (and by) the main characters that this book, interesting though it is, seems unlikely to cause a ripple, let alone a stir.

Gillian Vine is a Dunedin writer.


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