|Cover of the Folio Soc. ed. of Love in a Cold Climate|
Like most things in my middle age, this particular passion began when I was a teenager. I happened to be idly flicking through the channels one afternoon when I was thirteen and I chanced upon the 1980s Thames Television production of Love in a Cold Climate (starring Judi Dench) and was instantly absorbed into a high-camp aristocratic world that I had previously known nothing about. It was an episode featuring Cedric, the Queer Canadian cousin who enters the frumpy world of Lady Montdore and transforms her into a glamour queen, principally through the application of rouge. It was the stage in my life when I was looking for anything even remotely gay, and I burned the show’s name and the original author into my memory (I was watching at my cousin’s house) until I got home, where I jotted it down and kept it as a holy relic, hoping someday that I might be able to read this new, most favourite, novel.
As it happened, my small-town library had The Pursuit of Love, and later when I went to Townsville I found, in Mary Who? Bookshop, a slim paperback copy of Love in a Cold Climate, and my world would never be the same. This was 1985 or 1986, and though there must have been plenty of Mitford fans in the world at this stage, I hadn’t met or heard of any. I pieced together something of a family history, both from Nancy’s autobiographical novels and the mentions I found in other books. I believe there may even have been a brief article The Face magazine which helped me fill in some gaps.
It wasn’t till the early 90s, though, that Mitford-mania really hit its stride. Suddenly every single member of the Mitford family was being re-issued or written about. Earlier books that had been rarities (such as David Pryce-Jones’ biography of Unity) suddenly became expensive rare books. Vanity Fair commented on the hysteria surrounding the Mitfords. Letters, diaries, family histories, obscure biographical details – anything related to the Sisters Mitford became interesting.
Though the beautiful and stylish Nancy had died in the 70s, most of the others were still alive – Decca a contented old Communist in California, Diana patrician and terrifying in the South of France and Debo living quietly with her chickens, one of the richest women in England as Duchess of Devonshire. When the first two died (Debo is still going strong) I felt it as a personal loss.
Somewhere along the way I lost that original paperback edition of Love in a Cold Climate. It may be that it fell apart – I must have read it 20 or more times in the first two years I owned it. Its cover was pink and unsuitably girlish, so I had to hide it from my father, who always disapproved of my reading matter. But I always acknowledge Nancy’s enormous influence on my life. I use her as my measure of literary success, and I have always wanted to write with her lightness, her freshness and her sense of fun.
In recent years there has been something of a resurgence in Mitford-mania. This year saw the release of a self-help bok called The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life, and a new biography of Unity, that most intriguing of the sisters. We have also had reissues of some of Nancy's earlier and (perhaps deservedly) more obscure novels and Diana's excellent books. Penguin seem to be perpetually re-releasing the Nancy Mitford novels in new chick-lit covers.
There's a great Twitter channel called @Mitfordmania which is well worth following
A more in-depth look at Diana Mosley here