The Love, Nina and Man at the Helm author discusses the indomitable Mitford and shares the journey of their reader/writer relationship, as well as a tellingly emotional moment on the beach.
I sidestepped Nancy Mitford for years. To begin with, the wrong people seemed to like her and I just thought her novels wouldn’t really be my cup of tea. The fact that my grandmother was a fan – of Nancy the writer and Nancy the woman – might have put me off. She would use Mitfordisms in conversation – in all seriousness – and was quite Mitfordy in her assessment of the world.
And I think she was even a tiny bit like Nancy; her cleverness, stylishness, slimness, unpretty beauty and in her unsentimental carelessness. Thinking about it now, my grandmother was probably the kind of grandmother Nancy would have been (had she been one). Critical, unflinching, cool but ultimately caring (not that you’d ever know it). For instance, when she saw cigarettes in my school blazer pocket she said to the 14 year-old very thin me, ‘well, I suppose it’s better to be a smoker than a fatty.’
I think she may even have been implying that my slightly chubby sister should take it up to help with impending fatness.
Nancy reared her head again when I was at college. Fellow students seemed to be talking about her all the time. She was either a point of principle or a deal-breaker or a style icon and people seemed to be forever arguing quite furiously about her. Not about whether or not her novels were any good but about her and what she ‘stood’ for and whether it was good for us to be interested in what she had to say with all her poshness and her sisters’ connections to dubious organisations and funny condescending codes and slimness and so on. She was over-privileged (bad) and had lots of sisters (OK) was a woman writer (very good) and had links to dubious organisations (bad) but disapproved of them in public (admirable) but not private (hypocritical) and that she was smart (good) and so it went confusingly on.
Years went by and then this happened. One day, quite recently, I was with a big group of friends and their children on a Cornish beach when a bikini’d woman I hardly knew – who’d been lying on a rug reading – suddenly looked up from her book and burst into tears.
Not being one of this woman’s close friends I moved away awkwardly while her closest comforted her. She left the beach to make a phone call from her car.
I found out later that the woman had been having an affair with a married man for years and had read something in her book – a novel – which affected her so deeply she knew she had to end the affair that very day, even though she was besotted with the man.
The person telling me this after the event was sorry she couldn’t tell me who the married man was or whether her husband found out etc.
‘Never mind that,’ I said, ‘what was the book and what did it say?’
I can’t tell you which sentences from the book so affected the woman because: A) you might not have read it yet and B) we were never entirely sure which actual bit it was, because the book is packed with heartbreaking insights into love and life.
But I’m guessing it was Chapter 19.
Nina Stibbe is the award-winning author of Love, Nina and Man at the Helm. Follow her on Twitter here.
To keep up to speed with the stories, interviews, features and galleries we have in store for you this month, follow #onthepage on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. For monthly literary titbits straight from the Penguin’s beak, sign up to our monthly newsletter here.
You can find even more amazing content from some of our best loved authors, talking about their heroines, on the Five Dials page now.