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Life in a Cold Climate: Nancy Mitford - A Portrait of a Contradictory Woman Paperback – 5 Apr 2004
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[Laura Thompson] writes like a dream (Nicholas Lezard)
Thompson, like Mitford, writes in a witty, humorous and touchingly personal manner (Express)
A sparkling and deliciously readable biography (Mail on Sunday)
One of the most insightful biographies I've ever read (Elizabeth Buchan)
Nancy's life was a puzzling set of contradictions, which have been sensitively unravelled by Thompson's detailed research into the life and work of the English novelist... Thompson, like Mitford, writes in a witty, humorous and touchingly personal manner (Daily Express)
Despite Thompson's passionate enthusiasm for Mitford, she offers a balanced and vivacious appraisal of a fascinating if mildly off-putting woman (Observer)
The force of her identification with her subject means that the books and the life's crises are inspected with unprecedented intensity and intelligence (Guardian)
A biography informed by so much love can't be carped at (Independent on Sunday)
The first full, new biography of the perenially fascinating Nancy Mitford since 1985See all Product description
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I find Ms Thompson's writing rather like eating your way through a box of the most amazing continental chocolates, every sentence surprising you with a new flavour.
She is however a writer with an agenda, and she doesn't mince words, which is great if you happen to agree with her. I found the swipes at the more humourless type of feminist very funny, but her dismissal of Rosamond Lehmann's spiritualism as "lunacy" frankly annoying [because it is the usual emotive dismissal-without-examination which calls itself rationalism]. Meanwhile a friend of mine probably agreed with Ms Thompson on Lehmann, but hated the book because of the fun at the expense of what Laura Thompson calls the "Crouch End Sisterhood".
Don't read this book until you have become fairly intimate with the Mitford story, or you will be quite lost. The book is discursive rather than factual, and anyone who has not read Selina Hastings' beautiful biography, Nancy's "The Pursuit of Love" and Jessica Mitford's "Hons and Rebels" will be wondering what the hell the author is going on about.
The pyschological insights are quite wonderful; even the book's detractors would have to admit this. One falls in love with so many of the protagonists, perhaps David Mitford above all.
And the final chapter is almost too painful to bear.
If I could award 'Life in a Cold Climate' more than five stars out of five, I wouldn't hesitate. As it is, this book takes its place on my list of all-time favourites. A simply superb book, which is an absolute must for all Mitford fans.
Thompson is good at giving the childhood among a bevy of extraordinary siblings (including beloved Tom, who died young in the war). She strips away the mythology that obscured her eccentric parents (not least because of Nancy's caricatures of them in her novels), and does good sketch portraits of the five sisters and how they related to Nancy throughout her life. She gives us the three difficult love affairs that spanned Nancy's adult life in all their difficult detail: the five-year crush on Hamish, the failed marriage with Peter (who for many years refused to divorce her), and the long affair with Gaston, de Gaulle's right-hand man, who gave her so much pain as well as joy. We see her trying to scrape two pennies together during her twenties, writing four light pre-war novels, working in a London bookshop, living in dingy lodgings on next to nothing. We see her doggedly staying on in war-torn London despite the risks and privations.
And then we come to the great turning point in her life, when she met Gaston, moved to her beloved Paris to be nearer to him and wrote her two bestsellers which gave her pots of money and celebrity. She became a sought-after journalist and author, going on to write four historical biographies and more novels. She learnt to live alone, separated from her husband, neglected by her philandering lover; at heart, some thought, she was 'a natural bachelor'. Here too are the great friendships - the circle of women intimates, the coterie of famous writers (many of them gay), chief among them Evelyn Waugh, who brought out the best in her correspondence.
Her last pitiful years were quite a contrast to this. They were played out in an ugly little villa she bought in Versailles, where over a number of near-intolerable years, she suffered the painful cancer that killed her.
Strongly as Thompson identifies with her subject, this is not a hagiography: criticism is given where it's due; and Nancy's one great moral lapse - her betrayal of her sister Diana, Mosley's wife, at the beginning of the war, leading to her imprisonment - is not glossed over. Without making great claims for her books or her literary standing, Thompson makes you want to re-read and re-evaluate the best of them. Above all, she sweeps away the assumptions, myths and caricatures that obscures a just appreciation of her subject, revealing a woman who was complex, original, cool, passionate in her enthusiasms, intelligent, a tolerant snob, full of laughter, a woman who glossed everything with bright illusion so that she could get the best from life, an aristocratic writer with the common touch. In short, a woman you'd love to know.
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