My introduction to Nancy Mitford came in the form of an omnibus edition containing ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, ‘The Pursuit of Love’, ‘The Blessing’ and ‘Don’t Tell Alfred’ (though possibly not in that order). Her blend of funny and elitist seemed desperately sophisticated to my younger self and though I haven’t read them for a long time I imagine I’d still enjoy those books given that I had fun with ‘Wigs on the Green’, ‘Pigeon Pie’, and ‘Highland Fling’.
Nonfiction is a different kettle of fish so despite knowing about the four biographies that Mitford wrote I’ve never felt that tempted by them. However someone at Vintage very kindly offered me some of their re-prints and I couldn’t say no and having said yes had to start reading. So far I’ve tackled ‘The Sun King’ and as members of my online book group already know I struggled with it a bit. It didn’t help that I came to it straight after my Georgette Heyer binge (it occurs to me that in a Heyer book Mitford would be a villainess). As a biographer Kloester is quite discreet and very thorough. Mitford is neither, nor is she much of an historian, or balanced, or impartial.
She’s also a confirmed Francophile which I am not to the point that people who are really annoy me – I mean France is okay and everything but my experience of it does not lead me to believe it’s an earthly paradise, and furthermore several of their winemakers are lax in the matter of bar codes which marred my working life for a decade. However once I’d got past all that the book began to grow on me. What Mitford seems to have done is trawl through the history cherry picking all the juiciest scandals (poisoning, witchcraft, Devil worship, secret marriages, infidelity, and so on) and through it altogether with her personal take on the characters involved. She liked the Sun King (although inexplicably she spends almost a page discussing his appearance with reference to how exotic/Jewish it was which feels shockingly inappropriate in a post war book.
She approved of Mme de Montespan despite her dabbling in the black arts, but I don’t think she found Mme Maintenon (a later mistress, possibly wife) as attractive – there are certainly no attempts to defend her less appealing characteristics as there are with Mme De Montespan’s. Now that I’ve got used to Mitford’s tone I’m quite happy to read on and find what she has to say about Frederick the Great, Voltaire, and Madame de Pompadour and can recommend ‘The Sun King’ in all its gossiping, bitchy, partisan glory (with some reservations – this isn’t for the faint hearted, easily offended, or the liberal – I would no longer invite Mitford to my fantasy dinner party).