The eldest child of Baron and Lady Redesdale (‘Farve’ and ‘Muv’) Nancy grew up in Asthall Manor, Oxfordshire. With her five sisters and brother she hunted with the hounds and took part in the life of the country gentry. Their parents were benignly neglectful and though the girls often longed to go to school they remained largely without formal education. The children developed their own language ‘Boudledidge’ and gave each other nicknames; Nancy’s was ‘Naunce’. Surrounded by much younger siblings, with her elder sisters having left home, Nancy was left to her own devices. In contrast to this quiet upbringing, Nancy and all the Mitford sisters went on to live extraordinary and notorious lives.
At 17 Nancy was thrown a debutante ball in London. Staying first in a bedsit, she then lived in her parents’ house in Belgravia, where she was free to do as she wished. Her late teens and early 20s were marked by her involvement in a set which the press referred to as the ‘Bright Young People’. This group of socialites were the sensation of the inter-war years with their love of fancy dress parties, excessive drinking, drug taking and love affairs. The group included writers such as Evelyn Waugh (who would remain Nancy’s life-long friend), photographer Cecil Beaton and poet John Betjeman. To make money Nancy began writing for magazines in 1929. The first Nancy Mitford book Highland Fling was published in 1931 and although it was successful, it caused upheaval in her family as some characters were clearly based on family members, mainly her father. However, she continued to write - her novels relying even more on her own life and always written in the unique, humorous voice of the aristocratic debutante, a style Waugh described as a charming combination of girlish chatter and literature.
Though a successful author and the talk of the tabloid press, Nancy was unlucky in love. After a failed love affair with the homosexual Hamish St Clair-Erskine, in 1931 she met and married Peter Rodd, whom the Mitfords nicknamed ‘Prodd’. Though Nancy was devoted to Rodd the marriage was a failure. Rodd could not keep a job, wasted what money they had and was unfaithful to Nancy throughout the marriage. At the same time the Mitford family was becoming increasingly notorious as Europe was engulfed in political extremism. Nancy’s sisters Diana (‘Honks’) and Unity (‘Boud’) had become fascists, with Diana leaving her husband (another scandal) for Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. Unity had become friends with Adolf Hitler and moved to Germany - there was even speculation that they would marry. When the war began Unity would attempt suicide. On the other side of the spectrum, Jessica Mitford (‘Decca’) had eloped with Winston Churchill’s nephew, become a Communist and gone to Spain to fight Franco. Nancy’s part in a British government plot to kidnap her and return her to England would be detailed in Jessica’s memoir Hons and Rebels. Nancy’s own political sympathies were with the left and she is known to have reported to MI5 her sister Diana’s involvement with Nazi sympathisers before the war.
Despite the success of two further Nancy Mitford books (Christmas Pudding (1932) and Wigs on the Green (1935), which satirised her sister Diana’s embracing of fascism) Nancy's finances were in tatters and her family largely absent (Diana was in prison, Jessica was in America and Unity incapacitated by her suicide attempt). When the war began she took the opportunity to change her life. Her husband joined the army and she went to work in The Mayfair Bookshop in Heywood Hill, which became a favourite meeting place for London’s literati. Staying in London throughout the war, Nancy continued to write and published Pigeon Pie in 1940. Early in the war she met Colonel Gaston Palewski (nicknamed ‘the Colonel’), a General in the Free French army of Charles De Gaulle and a man who would become the great love of her life. They began an affair that would last for decades, Palewski becoming the inspiration for ‘Fabrice, duc de Sauveterre’ in her novels The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949). Though she loved the Colonel deeply, the affection was largely one-sided as he continued many other affairs. Nancy, explaining her love life to a friend once said ‘If one can't be happy one must be amused, don't you agree?’.
When the war ended Nancy moved to Paris to be nearer Palewski. She left Rodd behind (they divorced in 1958) and became part of a glamorous set of aristocrats, writers and celebrities in Paris. She often returned to England and continued to contribute articles and essays to English magazines. She caused a stir with her humorous essay Noblesse Oblige (1956), popularising the phrase ‘U and non-U’ to describe the characteristics of those who were upper-class and those who were not. She was also dedicated to her correspondence with friends and family, now almost as popular and quote-worthy as her fiction.
While in Paris Nancy wrote fewer novels and began to publish biographies of historical French figures, with whom she was fascinated. In her brisk and witty style she wrote The Sun King (1966), Voltaire in Love (1957) and Frederick the Great (1970), writing with such knowledge that it almost seemed these long-gone figures were her friends. These immensely popular books ensured her a steady income (and a well-stocked wardrobe – she had a love for Dior and Lanvin) for the rest of her life.
In 1967 she moved to Versailles so that she could keep a garden and pursue her interest in Louis XIV. This separated Nancy from her social circle and, as her health declined, she became increasingly isolated. In 1969 her affair with Palewski finally ended with his marriage to another woman and she was soon after diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease. She stoically continued to write letters and work on her memoirs, however in 1973 she died, with Palewski by her side. She was buried beside four of her sisters in Swinbrook, Oxfordshire – not far from the family’s old home. During her last illness, her sister Diana was heard to say about Nancy ‘The awful thing is, she didn’t come first with anybody’.