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The REAL Pursuit of Love: How Nancy Mitford borrowed from her family’s VERY tumultuous love lives

Interest in the BBC‘s new Sunday night drama The Pursuit of Love peaked when Lily James and her married co-star Dominic West were spotted in a passionate clinch in Rome, but it probably would not have raised an eyebrow with author Nancy Mitford whose most successful novel has been adapted for TV. 

Nancy had a ream of inspiration at her fingertips, all thanks to her eccentric, aristocratic siblings who made headlines throughout the 20th century for their affairs, love of Nazism and an attempted suicide.

So it’s, perhaps, unsurprising that the author’s books about upper-class life were filled with romantic entanglements, sex and scanda.

The three-part series, which began last night, stars Lily James as the headstrong Linda Radlett. Last summer, the British actress was seen cuddling up to her co-star Dominic West (who plays patriarchal Uncle Matthew) while in Rome.

But even the duo’s headline-grabbing clinch in the Italian capital can’t hold a candle to the scandalous antics of the Mitford siblings – Nancy, Pamela, Tom, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah – who in the novel, are portrayed as the six Radletts – Louisa, Linda, Matt, Jassy, Robin and Victoria.

The Mitfords were born between 1905 and 1920 to Lord Redesdale and his wife Sydney – but despite their privileged upbringing as members of the aristocracy, the six daughters went on to shock society with their impulsive, hedonistic lifestyles. 

Lily James and married actor Dominic West, best known for playing Noah Solloway in drama, ‘The Affair’, pictured during a weekend in Rome on 11 October 2020

Even the duo's headline-grabbing clinch in the Italian capital can't hold a candle to the scandalous antics of the Mitford siblings - Nancy, Pamela, Tom, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah - who in the novel, are portrayed as the six Radletts - Louisa, Linda, Matt, Jassy, Robin and Victoria (Pictured, five of the Mitford sisters - Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pamela - in 1935)

Even the duo’s headline-grabbing clinch in the Italian capital can’t hold a candle to the scandalous antics of the Mitford siblings – Nancy, Pamela, Tom, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah – who in the novel, are portrayed as the six Radletts – Louisa, Linda, Matt, Jassy, Robin and Victoria (Pictured, five of the Mitford sisters – Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pamela – in 1935)

Three of the Mitford sisters in 1932. Pictured left to right: Unity, Diana and writer Nancy Mitford

Three of the Mitford sisters in 1932. Pictured left to right: Unity, Diana and writer Nancy Mitford

Pictured left to right: At Swinbrook House near Burford, Oxfordshire. Heythrop hunt in background. Unity Mitford, Tom, Deborah, Diana, Jessica, Nancy, Pamela

Pictured left to right: At Swinbrook House near Burford, Oxfordshire. Heythrop hunt in background. Unity Mitford, Tom, Deborah, Diana, Jessica, Nancy, Pamela

The most controversial of the sisters was Diana, known as Honks, who left her first husband – Bryan Guinness, heir to the brewing fortune – and married the founder of the British Union of Fascists Oswald Mosley. 

She inspired Nancy when it came to cousin Fanny’s mother, The Bolter in her novel The Pursuit of Love, who abandoned the narrator to run off in search of love and glamour. 

Elsewhere, Nancy’s own tragic quest for love is mirrored by her protagonist Linda, while sister Jessica the Communist who eloped to Spain with her cousin inspires the character’s second husband’s similar antics. 

Here, FEMAIL reveals how Nancy borrowed from her own and her sisters’ very tumultuous love lives for her writing…  

Linda Radlett’s first husband ‘crashing bore’ Tony Kroesig

Real life inspiration: Nancy’s dull first marriage to Peter Rodd 

English writer Nancy Mitford and Peter Rodd after their wedding at St John's Church, Smith Square, London, 4th December 1933

Linda's first husband 'crashing bore' Tony Kroesig, played by Freddie Fox

English writer Nancy Mitford and Peter Rodd after their wedding at St John’s Church, Smith Square, London, 4th December 1933 (pictured, left) and right, Linda’s first husband ‘crashing bore’ Tony Kroesig, played by Freddie Fox

Nancy’s biggest inspiration came arguably from her own tragic quest for love – with the author basing her central heroine, rather than her narrator, on herself.

As a naive 23-year-old, Nancy fell in love with Hamish St Clair-Erskine, second son of the Earl of Rosslyn. 

Hamish was a society butterfly and chamismatic – but also gay. 

Nancy’s own brother Tom had had a brief schoolboy dalliance with him at Eton, and warned Nancy that the relationship was doomed to fail.

Less than a month after her breakup from Hamish St Clair Eskine, Nancy accepted a rash proposal from Peter Rodd, the son of diplomat Lord Rennell (pictured together on their wedding day)

Less than a month after her breakup from Hamish St Clair Eskine, Nancy accepted a rash proposal from Peter Rodd, the son of diplomat Lord Rennell (pictured together on their wedding day) 

After five years of unrequited love and a heartless ‘engagement’, Hamish brutally broke it off, pretending he’d decided to marry someone else.

Less than a month later, Nancy accepted a rash proposal from Peter Rodd, the son of diplomat Lord Rennell. 

According to a friend, Rodd had been proposing to girls all over town as a joke and Nancy had been foolish enough to take him seriously. 

Peter was similar to Linda’s first partner, Tony Kroesig, in that he was a ‘Crasher’ (a ‘terrible bore’ in Mitford speak), thanks to his ability to over-talk about the blandest of topics.   

But even though he apparently wrote to Nancy suggesting that his question had merely been for a laugh, the author took it as her last chance and refused to see it as such.

Nancy lived an increasingly separate life from Prod and went on to fall for another man - Gaston Palewski (pictured)

Nancy lived an increasingly separate life from Prod and went on to fall for another man – Gaston Palewski (pictured) 

Described as ‘the most boring man in the world’, it wasn’t only Rodd’s dullness that was a problem.

He was also a drunk who gambled much of Mitford’s fortune away at the start of her marriage.

Nancy and Prod lived increasingly separate lives. She had an affair with an officer in the Free French Forces and suffered an ectopic pregnancy which left her unable to have children. It was one of her great regrets.

Shortly afterwards she met the man she thought of as the love of her life – Gaston Palewski, then head of de Gaulle’s cabinet in exile, who she immortalised in The Pursuit Of Love as Fabrice de Sauveterre.

Linda’s French duke Fabrice de Sauveterre

Real life inspiration: Nancy’s tragic unrequited love with long-term lover Gaston Palewski

Gaston Palewski pictured in Paris, France, on 20 April 1948 (pictured)

Fabrice and Linda (played by Assaad Douab and Lily James

Gaston Palewski in Paris, France, on 20 April 1948 (pictured, left) and Fabrice and Linda (played by Assaad Douab and Lily James), right

Following her disastrous first marriage, it’s little wonder that Nancy was swept off her feet after meeting Colonel Gaston Palewski at a party in London when she was 37. 

Although he was described as chubby, balding and a ‘face like an unpeeled King Edward potato’, he was a passionate lover and notorious womaniser. 

During the Second World War, the couple had an affair with the relationship continuing for decades – despite Palewski, then head of de Gaulle’s cabinet in exile in London, never being faithful.

Gaston was married and though Nancy didn’t see this as ideal, she kept herself busy with a myriad of cultured and intelligent friends as well as her work. 

Although he was described as chubby, balding and a 'face like an unpeeled King Edward potato', he was a passionate lover and notorious womaniser

Although he was described as chubby, balding and a ‘face like an unpeeled King Edward potato’, he was a passionate lover and notorious womaniser

Nancy’s frequent letters to and from her sisters, as well as literary great Evelyn Waugh, kept her satirical wit honed. 

Nancy based The Pursuit Of Love’s Fabrice de Sauveterre on Palewski, who is often noted as the love of her life.

And while in the book, Fabrice worships Linda, in real life, this was never the case – with Palewski embarking on various affairs throughout their relationship. 

The author moved to Paris following the end of the war, living in the same city as her lover but keeping an independent life as a writer. 

The duo never lived together and it’s believed he never even stayed the night.

During the Second World War, the couple had an affair with the relationship continuing for decades - despite Palewski, then head of de Gaulle's cabinet in exile in London, never being faithful

During the Second World War, the couple had an affair with the relationship continuing for decades – despite Palewski, then head of de Gaulle’s cabinet in exile in London, never being faithful

Palewski never popped the question and instead, in 1969, more than two decades after first befriending Nancy, he told her he would be getting married to another woman.

He wed a Polish duchess Helen-Violette de Talleyrand-Périgord, who owned Le Marais, a stunning chateau near Paris, that he couldn’t wait to call home.

The two had been having a long affair prior to the duchess’s divorce from her first husband and had had a son out of wedlock. 

Nancy passed away aged 69 in 1973, with Palewski by her side on the day she died. 

Historian Lisa Hilton, who wrote The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London, previously told Vogue the couple had a kind of understanding companionship.

She explained: ‘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.’

Narrator Fanny’s mother The Bolter

Inspired by: Diana’s marriage to fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley after abandoning her first husband 

Oswald Pirow (left) shakes hands with Sir Oswald Mosley at London Airport as Lady Diana Mosley smiles behind (pictured left)

Emily Mortimer plays 'The Bolter' in the BBC drama (pictured)

Oswald Pirow (left) shakes hands with Sir Oswald Mosley at London Airport as Lady Diana Mosley smiles behind (pictured left) and right, Emily Mortimer as ‘The Bolter’ in the BBC drama

At the age of 18, she scandalised the family after secreting getting engaged to her first husband Bryan Guinness, heir to the brewing fortune (pictured, on their wedding day in 1929)

At the age of 18, she scandalised the family after secreting getting engaged to her first husband Bryan Guinness, heir to the brewing fortune (pictured, on their wedding day in 1929) 

Fanny Logan narrates the romantic life of Linda in the interwar period novel. Her mother is nicknamed ‘The Bolter’ by the family, after she left her daughter in order to find a more glamorous lifestyle.

This carries a hint of the author’s sister Diana Mitford, who was once considered a darling of society as a beautiful, and rich young woman. 

At the age of 18, she scandalised the family after secreting getting engaged to her first husband Bryan Guinness, heir to the brewing fortune.

Her parents were initially opposed to the engagement because they were worried about two such young people having possession of such a large fortune.

Diana married her first husband Bryan Guinness, heir to the brewing fortune, with whom she had two children, Jonathan and Desmond

Diana married her first husband Bryan Guinness, heir to the brewing fortune, with whom she had two children, Jonathan and Desmond 

Diana married Bryan and the two immediately became an It couple in London, before she embarked on an affair with Sir Oswald Mosley (pictured, Bryan Guinness left)

Diana married Bryan and the two immediately became an It couple in London, before she embarked on an affair with Sir Oswald Mosley (pictured, Bryan Guinness left) 

Eventually, they were persuaded and Diana married Bryan, immediately becoming an It couple in London.

The pair often hosted aristocratic events involving the Bright Young Things, and were friends with Evelyn Waugh among other society names of the day.   

Diana gave birth to sons Jonathan and Desmond in 1930 and 1931, before she met Sir Oswald Mosley the following year at a garden party.

Although he was married to Lady Cynthia Curzon, a daughter of Lord Curzon, at the time, the two embarked on an affair.

Mosley wouldn’t divorce his wife for Diana, but in 1933, Cynthia died of peritonitis. 

Diana famously left her first husband Bryan, heir to the brewing fortune, and who she had two children with, to run away with Sir Oswald Mosley (pictured together)

Diana famously left her first husband Bryan, heir to the brewing fortune, and who she had two children with, to run away with Sir Oswald Mosley (pictured together) 

Diana’s behaviour scandalised her family and they refused to support her choice to leave Bryan for Mosley, with the sister becoming briefly estranged.  

The head of the British Union of Fascists would later become her second husband, with the two tying the knot in a civil ceremony in Joseph Goebbels’ drawing room in Berlin in 1936. Hitler was the only other guest.

MI5 documents released in 2002 described Lady Mosley as ‘wildly ambitious’, stating: ‘Diana Mosley, wife of Sir Oswald Mosley, is reported on the ‘best authority’, that of her family and intimate circle, to be a public danger at the present time.

‘Is said to be far cleverer and more dangerous than her husband and will stick at nothing to achieve her ambitions.’

During World War Two Diana was locked up as an enemy to the Allies in Holloway Prison (pictured)

During World War Two Diana was locked up as an enemy to the Allies in Holloway Prison (pictured) 

As a result of her politcal leanings, during World War Two she was locked up as an enemy to the Allies in Holloway Prison.

Following her and her husband’s release from jail, they cruised the Mediterranean, before settling together in the Paris suburbs, with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor for neighbours. 

Throughout her life, she remained vague when discussing her loyalties to Britain and  her strong belief in fascism as well as her relationship with Hitler.  

When she appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1989, she caused controversy by saying she hadn’t believed Hitler had been exterminating Jews until ‘years’ after the war and refuted six million, the number of people who died, as ‘not conceivable.’

According to her obituary in The Telegraph, she was an ‘unrepentant Nazi’ and a diamond swastika was found among her jewels.  

Pictured: Lady Oswald Mosley Diana Guinness with Her Sister Deborah Mitford in October 1986

Pictured: Lady Oswald Mosley Diana Guinness with Her Sister Deborah Mitford in October 1986 

Meanwhile she also said she ‘approved’ of Hitler, saying: ‘Hitler was attractive, though not handsome, with great inner dynamism and charm. 

‘Charm can mean so mean so many things; I don’t suppose I’ve met anyone quite so charming. It might be just that he was powerful, I suppose, but it seemed more than that.’ 

Mary S. Lovell, who has written a biography on the Mitford sisters, said Diana ‘became arguably the most hated woman in England for a while.’

However, although many despised the sister for her political alliances, others admired her for her wit and beauty – believing she had eventually achieved the glamorous life that ‘The Bolter’ had been trying to grasp.

Linda’s second husband Christian Talbot

Inspired by: Jessica the Communist who eloped to Spain with her cousin 

Winston Churchill's socialist nephew Esmond Romily posing for a picture with his wife, Jessica 'Decca' Mitford

James Frecheville playing Christian Talbot in BBC's The Pursuit of Love

Winston Churchill’s socialist nephew Esmond Romily posing for a picture with his wife, Jessica ‘Decca’ Mitford (left) and pictured right, James Frecheville playing Christian Talbot in BBC’s The Pursuit of Love

After nine years of marriage, main character Linda leaves her first husband Tony for Christian Talbot, an ardent Communist, in the Pursuit of Love.

He was indifferent to his wife’s unhappiness, dragging her off to southern France to help refugees from the Spanish Civil War.

This could arguably have been inspired by the author’s sister, Jessica, a Communist who eloped to Spain with her cousin.

The second youngest of the six sisters, born in 1917, Jessica ‘Decca’ Mitford turned her back on the privileges of her upbringing to join the Communist cause. 

The second youngest of the six sisters, born in 1917, Jessica 'Decca' Mitford turned her back on the privileges of her upbringing and joined communism

The second youngest of the six sisters, born in 1917, Jessica ‘Decca’ Mitford turned her back on the privileges of her upbringing and joined communism

Unlike her sisters Diana and Unity (the latter being so close to Hitler, his girlfriend Eva Braun viewed her as a love rival), Jessica was a firm Communist.

She ran off to Spain with her second cousin, Winston Churchill’s socialist nephew Esmond Romily after meeting in 1937 aged 19. She was known as the ‘red sheep’ of the family. 

They eloped to Spain during the civil war causing the British government to send a warship to the country to try and bring them home.

Jessica later lived in the East End of London where her baby daughter died in a measles epidemic. 

By the time the Second World War began, there was a huge gulf between Decca’s views and way of life and the rest of her family. She remained estranged from Diana for her whole life. 

In 1939, Mitford moved to the United States where the couple travelled around working odd jobs.

During the war, Romily joined the Canadian airforce and Mitford moved to Washington D.C.

Romily was shot down during WWII while fighting for the allies. 

She threw herself into work after his death and went on to meet and marry American civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft in 1943.

There was a huge gulf between Jessica's way of life as a communist and the rest of her family, and she remained estranged from her sister Diana throughout her life

There was a huge gulf between Jessica's way of life as a communist and the rest of her family, and she remained estranged from her sister Diana throughout her life

There was a huge gulf between Jessica’s way of life as a communist and the rest of her family, and she remained estranged from her sister Diana throughout her life (pictured, while living in America in 1977) 

The couple eventually settled in Oakland, California and she became an American citizen in 1944.

She became particularly active in the Civil Rights movement, to which her commitment was total. 

She earned her own independence with considerable success as an investigative journalist and author. She died in 1996 aged 78. 

JK Rowling previously credited Jessica as one of her greatest inspirations, revealing: ‘My most influential writer, without a doubt, is Jessica Mitford. When my grand-aunt gave me Hons and Rebels when I was 14, she instantly became my heroine. 

‘She ran away from home to fight in the Spanish Civil War, taking with her a camera that she had charged to her father’s account. I wished I’d had the nerve to do something like that. 

‘I love the way she never outgrew some of her adolescent traits, remaining true to her politics — she was a self-taught socialist — throughout her life. I think I’ve read everything she wrote. I even called my daughter Jessica Rowling Arantes after her.’ 

And it’s not just the Mitford’s love lives that inspired Nancy…

Bad-tempered and politically incorrect Uncle Matthew 

Inspired by: Their own beloved ‘Farve’, Baron Redesdaley 

Pictured, Lord Redesdale, who rather liked his portrayal in The Pursuit Of Love

Dominic West's character Uncle Matthew (pictured) is based on Lord Redesdale

Pictured left, Lord Redesdale, who rather liked his portrayal in The Pursuit Of Love, and right, Dominic West’s character Uncle Matthew (pictured, right), which is based on Lord Redesdale

With an intense dislike of foreigners, a draconian approach to childcare and an absolutely appalling attitude to women, Dominic West’s character Uncle Matthew, Linda’s father (based on Nancy’s real father the Honorable David Freeman-Mitford, later 2nd Baron Redesdale), is as politically incorrect as he is bad-tempered.  

In the novel Uncle Matthew beats his children, hunts them with his four magnificent bloodhounds, puts down their pets and neglects to give them any kind of formal education.   

However in reality Lord Redesdale’s main aim concerning his daughters was to get them married.

None of the girls was sent to school as their father, ‘Farve’, David Freeman-Mitford, later second Baron Redesdale, didn’t think girls needed an education.

He even felt it might ruin any possible chances of them being wed. 

Very few of Nancy’s fey, artistic male friends passed muster and were loudly referred to as ‘Sewers’ or, if particularly galling, ‘Damned Sewers’.

One potential beau was thrown out of the house when Farve caught sight of a comb peeping out of his breast-pocket, while another was threatened with being horsewhipped for putting his feet on the sofa.

Like Uncle Matthew, the Mitfords’ father was a world of manly pursuits, where ‘gurls’ were expected to marry a decent fellow who could handle a gun.

He was also known for his dislike of all things ‘foreign’, as portrayed by his character Uncle Matthew, after he lost a lung in the First World War.

He was a distinctive xenophobe, having come back from the First World War with a dislike of the French and a deep hatred of the Germans.

When not busy with the House of Lords, he would organise ‘child hunts’ over his Oxfordshire estate, in which his own children took part.  

It is thought he would offer them a head start before setting loose the bloodhounds. 

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