BOOK REVIEW - THE HORROR OF LOVE: NANCY MITFORD AND GASTON PALEWSKI IN PARIS AND LONDON
By Duncan Fallowell in Express.co.uk, Friday November 11,2011
This is an account of Nancy Mitford’s only real love affair and its title is taken from an exclamation she made to her sister Diana Mosley. Her choice of men, never good, began with gay Scotsman Hamish St Clair Erskine.
They were engaged but his cosmetics, alcoholic giggles and nervous collapses should have been a warning. Her second was Peter Rodd, another
drunken party-goer, and she went as far as to marry him. Peter was sacked from jobs but realised it was easier to live off the money Nancy scraped from writing and part-time work. No children; and eventually a hysterectomy.
Peter was sometimes sober during the Second World War and while stationed in Ethiopia he met one of de Gaulle’s aides, Gaston Palewski, who was trying to galvanise the Free French cause in north Africa.
De Gaulle had fled to London after the fall of France in 1940 and when Palewski rejoined de Gaulle there he also brought news of her husband to Mrs Rodd. They met at the Allies Club in Park Lane and that was that. He was an experienced seducer and she, after a life of frustrations, was longing to be switched on.
In the Mitfordian pantheon, Gaston is presented as a bit of a joke and Nancy as rather duped by him. For the first time Hilton emphasises the positive aspects of the relationship and he emerges as a major figure.
He was born in Paris in 1901 into a family of Polish Jews. His father was an engineer and during the First World War Gaston was sent to Brighton College and had an exchange period at Oxford while at the Sorbonne.
Not quite diplomat, not quite politician, Gaston’s ambiguities were suited to war and by the time Nancy met him in 1942 he was de Gaulle’s chief assistant. Their early romance lasted eight months after which her lover had to leave for Algiers.
Gaston’s ridiculousness is largely attributable to his snobbery – he confessed to being addicted to duchesses and high ceilings – but he transformed Nancy’s life, not least as a writer.
Up to this point her work had been a pale shadow of Evelyn Waugh’s. Suddenly her elegant and amusing tone is in the service of an emotional core.
While being bombed and waiting for the war to end, Nancy produces The Pursuit Of Love and dedicates it to him.
It makes her reputation, somewhat compromises his, but on the proceeds she is able to move to Paris in 1947.
Gaston doesn’t ditch her but he has other things to do – such as helping to reconstruct post-war France – and more women to oblige. He and Nancy are never officially a couple and when a previous love reveals Gaston is the father of a nine-year-old boy, Nancy is at a loss and moves to Versailles.
Then in 1969 the awful news: he marries the rich daughter of Anna Gould and a Talleyrand prince. Nancy dies of Hodgkin’s disease in 1973. Gaston, lonely but en luxe, follows in 1984.
Although the book is marred by numerous small errors it is a story with a delicious mix of drama, melancholy and enchantment and Hilton is to be welcomed for rebalancing it sympathetically.
The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London by Lisa Hilton: review
Was Gaston Palewski’s love for Nancy Mitford anything more than a wartime romance? Jane Shilling remains unswayed by Lisa Hilton's The Horror of Love.
By Jane Shilling11:46AM GMT 28 Nov 2011 in The Telegraph
This book is, or aims to be, the biography of a love affair,” writes Lisa Hilton. “It is not a ‘Mitford’ book, nor a history of General de Gaulle’s role in the Second World War.”
Certainly it is not the latter, but not a “Mitford” book? As Hilton herself remarks, “Nancy and Gaston were two middle-aged, not particularly attractive people.” It is hard to imagine a publisher feeling much enthusiasm for a book about their protracted but inconclusive love affair, were it not for the fact that one of them bore that magical surname.
Still, it is true that, although endlessly anatomised by Nancy Mitford’s biographers, the story has so far been told only from her perspective, with Gaston generally caricatured as a lecherous buffoon.
Lisa Hilton seeks to rescue their affair from its habitual description as a triumph of self-delusion on Mitford’s part, and bad faith on Palewski’s, and restore to it the dignity of a civilised transaction between two clear-sighted people who cared for each other deeply, in their unconventional way.
Mitford met Gaston Palewski during the Second World War. Their first encounter, in 1942, was a coup de foudre. She later fictionalised their affair in her novel The Pursuit of Love, in which Gaston, its dedicatee, is transformed into a “short, stocky” French duke, Fabrice de Sauveterre.
In real life Gaston was an unlikely seducer, with acne-pitted skin and a method of pursuit more relentless than refined. Still, it was mysteriously effective. And he was, apparently, very good in bed.
Born in Paris to Polish-Jewish parents, he became a fashionable boulevardier and friend of Proust. He took a job with the politician Paul Reynaud, and through him met Charles de Gaulle. When France fell in 1940, he followed de Gaulle to London.
Wartime love affairs were notoriously short-lived, but having met the love of her life, Mitford was disinclined to let him go, and he remained her great passion until her death in 1973.
The attachment on Gaston’s part was of a different order. He pursued other women, claiming to be unable to marry her because she was divorced and Protestant – and then, in 1969, he married the extremely rich Protestant divorcee Violette de Pourtales. Mitford, scrupulously good at hiding her feelings, pretended not to mind, though the story persists that her death four years later, from Hodgkin’s disease, was the result of a broken heart.
Lisa Hilton makes gallant efforts to portray the affair as something unconventional but nevertheless real, solid and emotionally rewarding, pointing out that Nancy’s sister, Diana Mosley, and friend, Diana Cooper, were both married to habitual seducers.
“Nancy’s love for a faithless man has been seen as pathetic, deluded, humiliating,” she writes, while the tolerance of the two Dianas for their philandering husbands is portrayed as “noble and intelligent… Had Gaston married Nancy, then no one would have pitied her at all.”
Perhaps not. But this is an impossibly big conjecture. W H Auden wrote that “any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate”. Does Lisa Hilton succeed in persuading us that Auden was wrong? Not quite.
* Jane Shilling’s memoir The Stranger in the Mirror (Vintage) will be out in paperback in January
The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London
by Lisa Hilton
290pp, Weidenfeld & Nicolson t £18
Lisa HiltonThe Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London
| Tuesday 27 March 2012 in Oxford Literary Festival 2012 /http://oxfordliteraryfestival.org
Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love was inspired by her intense and agonising love affair with the Free French commander Gaston Palewski. Author and biographer Lisa Hilton tells the story of the relationship and of the extraordinary post-war times during which it was conducted. Hilton has written a number of biographical works and a novel, The House with Blue Shutters. Her second novel, Wolves in Winter, will be published in April.
‘Nancy Mitford was elegant, clever, witty and exceptionally beady-eyed about the world. So why did she have such awful taste in men? This is the subject of the historian Lisa Hilton’s entertainingly caustic The Horror of Love . . . Her book is not just a crisply written account of their relationship but also something of a manifesto for a more pragmatic, Gallic approach to human relations.’ Daisy Goodwin The Sunday Times