What is the Cotswolds connection to new BBC drama The Pursuit of Love?
- Credit: © Theodora Films Limited & Moonage Pictures
One of this year’s television highlights is an adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s superb 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love, which will be broadcast on BBC One on Sunday, May 9.
Featuring an impressive cast, including Lily James, Dominic West, Emily Beecham and Andrew Scott, the three-part series looks to be an absolute treat judging by the publicity pictures. As a great admirer of Nancy’s work, and a collector of all her books, I will be watching it very closely indeed – especially as the original story and the author have a Cotswold connection.
Set in the years between the First and Second World Wars, the central characters are Linda Radlett and her cousin Fanny Logan who, having grown up together, are now searching for perfect husbands. Each has different expectations of the ‘ideal man’: Linda is a hopeless romantic, Fanny is rather more level-headed. Without spoiling the plot, the novel is not simply a romance, but a marvellously amusing portrait of upper-class English life by an author who knew it well.
Written in her exceptionally witty, effervescent style, much of Nancy’s inspiration came from her remarkable family and their years in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire.
Born on November 28, 1904, Nancy was the eldest of the seven children of Lord and Lady Redesdale. Three of her sisters – Diana, Unity and Jessica – later gained notoriety for their extreme and diverse political views. Diana divorced her first husband to marry the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley; Unity was dedicated to the Nazi cause and formed a friendship with Hitler; and Jessica espoused communism, and eloped as a teenager. The youngest Mitford girl, Deborah, became the Duchess of Devonshire, while another sister Pamela lived a relatively quiet life away from the headlines. Nancy’s only brother Tom was killed in Burma during the war.
Despite a limited formal education, Nancy was clever and loved books and writing from an early age. The arrival of her younger siblings was not something she welcomed, but they provided an audience for her stories, and targets for her merciless teasing. As well as her literary flair and sense of fun, Nancy’s rapier-sharp wit, together with her ability to amuse and annoy, were always evident.
After spending most of her childhood in London, when Nancy was 12 the family moved to the Cotswolds; first to the ancestral estate at Batsford Park, Gloucestershire, then Asthall Manor and subsequently Swinbrook House in Oxfordshire. Theirs was an aristocratic country-house existence and, with seven children of varying characters and temperaments, things were never dull. However, as Nancy encountered a wider social circle and experienced the excitement of the London season, her boredom at home increased. She longed for freedom and to make her own way in life. In 1926, she spent three months in Paris with her mother and sisters – a visit that made a lasting impression. She was enchanted by the city and the French lifestyle.
On returning to Britain, Nancy focused on her ambition of writing for a living and becoming financially independent. She began with uncredited snippets in society magazines and, by the late 1920s, progressed to signed articles in publications including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. These were followed by a regular column for The Lady, which her maternal grandfather Thomas Gibson Bowles founded in 1885. It wasn’t long before she turned her attention to light-hearted books, beginning with Highland Fling (1931) and Christmas Pudding (1932).
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In 1933 Nancy married Peter Rodd and they set up home in London. Although she painted a picture of wedded bliss, in reality they were an ill-suited couple and Rodd was openly unfaithful. Sadly, Nancy also suffered two miscarriages. Eventually the couple separated and later divorced in the 1950s.
Facing sadness in her personal life, Nancy concentrated on two further novels: Wigs on the Green (1935) and Pigeon Pie (1940). She also edited two volumes of historical correspondence: The Ladies of Alderley (1938) and The Stanleys of Alderley (1939). As a novelist, Nancy’s first four books didn’t attract great attention, but her fifth – The Pursuit of Love (1945) – heralded a new maturity in her work and she became a best-selling, critically acclaimed author.
It was a wartime meeting with a charming Frenchman which made a significant impact on Nancy and helped shape her ideas for the novel. In 1942, at the Allies Club in London, she met the Free French officer Gaston Palewski, a politician and adviser to General de Gaulle. Their relationship developed and she fell deeply in love with him.
In The Pursuit of Love, Nancy interweaves events from her childhood and adult life, and it is the most autobiographical of her books. Her family and friends inspired many of the characters and the Radlett family home of Alconleigh – a mixture of Batsford, Asthall and Swinbrook – is situated in the ‘Cotswold uplands’.
Nancy completed the novel, which she dedicated to Palewski, in June 1945; it took her just three months to write. Originally entitled My Cousin Linda, it was Nancy’s friend, the author Evelyn Waugh, who suggested The Pursuit of Love after she asked him to read the manuscript. The book was published by Hamish Hamilton on December 10, 1945 and was a triumph, earning her over £7,000 in the first six months. In its first year 200,000 copies were sold.
Apart from Nancy’s engaging style, one of the many reasons for the novel’s success was the timing of its publication. The war in Europe had ended and readers wanted an uplifting story that promised humour, romance and emotion. Nancy delivered all these magnificently and placed an irresistibly eccentric aristocratic family at the heart of the plot. With each chapter, she charms and captivates the reader and, even all these years later, the novel is a delight from beginning to end.
Nancy’s first best-seller was followed by three more novels: Love in a Cold Climate (1949), The Blessing (1951) and Don’t Tell Alfred (1960). She also wrote historical biographies of Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire, Louis XIV and Frederick the Great. Throughout her life she contributed numerous articles and reviews for publications. In 1955, her humorous essay about a serious academic study of spoken English as an indicator of class, sparked a heated debate on U (upper class) and non-U language. Aside from her work, much of her prolific correspondence, with her sisters and well-known friends, has been published and is as lively and entertaining as her novels.
After the war, Nancy realised her other long-held dream of moving to Paris. Her hopes of a permanent future with Palewski were dashed when he married someone else, but their friendship lasted. Although Nancy’s own pursuit of love might be viewed as unfulfilled, creatively she was utterly content; enjoying immense happiness and success as a writer. She was adored by her readers, family and friends for her talent of enriching life with joy and laughter.
In 1972, Nancy was awarded the Légion d’honneur and the CBE. She died in 1973 and was laid to rest in Swinbrook churchyard, amid the glorious Cotswold countryside that still echoes with Mitford memories.
The Pursuit of Love will be broadcast on BBC One on Sunday, May 9.