For all those readers who can’t get enough of the Mitford clan, with their pet names and jokes, shrieks of laughter and shafts of barbed wit, here’s yet more fodder. Readers of Nancy Mitford’s books know about her Francophile tastes and her heroines’ bliss — a favorite Mitford word — in the discovery of an aristocratic French lover. As soon as sister Jessica read “The Pursuit of Love” in 1945, she knew that its author had fallen for a Frenchman.
Its dedication revealed that the gentleman in question was Gaston Palewski and all the subsequent biographies and studies of the Mitfords have enlightened us about this Free French officer whom she met in wartime London and followed back to Paris, where he was Charles de Gaulle’s right-hand man. However, as someone who has read just about everything written about these folks, who draw you in as much with revulsion as attraction, I think it is fair to say that Lisa Hilton’s “The Horror of Love” really does give a much fuller, fleshed-out portrait of Palewski than any other.
In her book, he is far more than the ridiculous lothario familiar to Mitford aficionados, just as Nancy is revealed to be a woman of firmly held political principles and opinions, as patriotic and devoted to liberty as her notorious siblings were to Fascism, Nazism or Communism. She was, however, rabidly anti-American, in person and in her books, although she never crossed the Atlantic or had American friends. “Her loathing for America,” writes Ms. Hilton, “was entirely serious.”
Despite the seriousness of her enterprise, readers need not fear that Ms. Hilton shortchanges them of all the delightful gossip and schadenfreude that we have come to expect when encountering these colorful figures. We hear about Palewski’s acne and his halitosis, among a host of less-than-attractive traits and his modus operandi as a seducer: “Gaston operated on a principle of maximum returns, making passes at practically every woman he came across, enjoying an astonishing (and to his peers quite infuriating) degree of success.”
She even manages to come up with a story about him that is new even to me. While serving as French ambassador in Rome, “Gaston offered an attractive girl a lift home in the ambassadorial car, to which she replied ‘No thank you, I’m much too tired this evening. I’d rather walk.’ “
Of course, as readers of Mitford’s fiction know so well, she found everything about her lover amusing and, to use a word she never would have, cute. She had a preternatural capacity to make a joke out of anything, yet managed to preserve a sting in its telling — hence, the anecdote that gives this book its title. Surprising her lover in a tryst with another woman, as the English heroine of her novel, “The Blessing” does with her French husband, Mitford explained “that what she couldn’t bear was that he had looked happy, ‘so dreadful to prefer the loved one to be unhappy. Oh, the HORROR of love.’ “
Ms. Hilton is delicate and judicious in her understanding of the complexities of the dynamic between the lovers. While not glossing over the painful aspects, she emphasizes the positive as well, the sexual chemistry and the delight in each other’s company that were just as real. Best of all, she refrains from facile judgments based on today’s standards of social and political correctness, showing instead a real understanding of the mores and customs prevalent in the circles in which Mitford moved back then, putting her in salutary context of her time and place.
Ms. Hilton shines just as much in her illumination of Palewski. In contrast to the aristocratic background of Mitford’s fictional transformations of him, his own was decidedly bourgeois and Jewish to boot. His decades as a leading Gaullist involved many important government positions, including a pivotal role in France’s nuclear development. In political matters, he was as faithful to de Gaulle as he was faithless to the myriad of women in his life. Seeing him here as a consequential figure of sterling character and loyalty in the public domain rescues him forever from the comic opera figure so prominent in the well-worn Mitford tapestry.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.