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.
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. 290pp, Weidenfeld & Nicolson t £18 (PLUS £1.25 p&p) Buy now from Telegraph Books (RRP £20, ebook £10.99)