I keep telling myself I don’t care about the Mitfords, but that is evidently a lie. Because not only did I buy The Horror of Love but I actually finished it, despite not really liking the book very much. How did this happen? I suppose I was curious about Gaston Palewski, the great love of Nancy Mitford’s life and the model for Fabrice de Sauveterre, the womanizing duke at the center of The Pursuit of Love.
I do now have the facts about Palewski straight, though I don’t expect to remember them for very long. Much of The Horror of Love is devoted to his career in post-World War II French politics and I’m sorry to say I flipped through that business pretty quickly. It’s the kind of history I can only absorb through spy novels, apparently. Perhaps it would be accurate to indicate that Palewski was a kind of pilot-fish or consigliere to De Gaulle; the fellow who communicated the Great Man’s ideas to the wider public. I do remember that Palewski ended up as French Ambassador to Italy in the 1960s, blissfully inhabiting the Palazzo Farnese. One of the interests Palewski and Mitford shared was traditional, aristocratic European civilization. (Late in the book, after Gaston has married the Duchesse de Talleyrand-Perigord, he semi-apologizes to a friend for his social climbing by saying, “What do you want? I’ve always loved high ceilings.”)
Lisa Hilton has a good sense of the clever quotation or the picturesque detail, quoting some of the more entertaining or outrageous Mitford slang or behavior (to curse someone, the sisters would write a name on a piece of paper and put it in a drawer. I plan to try this soon). She is also a staunch Nancy partisan, which befits a biographer. She admires Nancy’s courage and wit, defending what might appear to contemporary readers as malice or coldness. Nancy’s method for handling setbacks was always to maintain her composure and make a joke, but this sometimes makes her look cruel. Hilton sees it otherwise.
Fair enough. There’s an elegance to the stiff upper lip. But I found Nancy’s intense nostalgia and distaste for the modern era snobbish and distasteful, while her anti-Americanism made me furious. I’ve enjoyed her biographies of 18th century figures like Madame de Pompadour and Frederick the Great, but after reading The Horror of Love I have a lingering sense of Nancy pulling aside her New Look skirts so as not to be smirched by the populism of the 20th century. And Hilton’s portrayal of Gaston Palewski fades next to Nancy’s fictional version, Fabrice. In the end, the affair could be described in the French aphorism that Hilton quotes: en amour, il y a toujours l’un qui embrasse, et l’autre qui tend la joue. Nancy kissed, Gaston held out his cheek.