The Pursuit Of Pain

This is another one of my book reviews so as you can see I’ve been doing lots of reading. Come to find out after careful tallying I read 60 books in 2011. That’s what happens when you don’t have a man, kids or cable.

What I want to talk about today is ‘The Horror of Love,’ by Lisa Hilton that just came out about the English novelist Nancy Mitford and her long time paramour, Colonel Gaston Palewski. 

I became acquainted with Ms Mitford a few years ago when my friend Bill gave me ‘The Pursuit of Love’ and ‘Love in a Cold Climate,’ 2 of her best novels both dedicated to Gaston, as Christmas presents. With the exception of Jane Austen and Hemingway, I’ve never been much of a novel lover. I’m grateful to Bill for introducing me to Nancy because both books reign as 2 of my favorites.

To give you a little back story, Nancy began writing to earn money without any formal education, a common circumstance for women growing up in England in the early 1900s. Her wit, that could be razor sharp, is present in all 8 of her novels. She also wrote bios on Voltaire, Madame de Pompador and Fredrick the Great to name a few that I’ve also read and enjoyed.

But back to ‘Horror of Love;’ I take umbrage at that title. Okay, Nancy and Col, as she called Gaston did have a tempestuous union but to describe their relationship that way left me disturbed.

Have you ever loved a man who more or less didn’t love you back? It’s hell and if you choose to pursue him regardless you need to have your head examined. That said, I still have great compassion for Nancy Mitford and the years she devoted to a man who pretty much promised her nothing.

When they met she was in a dead English marriage to a cold fish of a man named Peter Rodd who, after Nancy became a famous (and rich) writer, refused to divorce her, the little worm milking her as a perennial meal ticket. This of course in 1942 caused a “we can’t meet in public’ problem for her and Gaston even though everyone knew she and Peter were married in name and checkbook only. Gaston, whose big claim to fame was being President Charles de Gaulle’s Chief of Staff, was basically broke too but to his credit wouldn’t take anything from his flush and very funny mistress though he did let her cook for him. Seems the Colonel loved pudding.

I can certainly relate to her sense of humor that she was very renowned for. Gaston claimed this was one of the reasons he kept coming back, she made him laugh so much. Hear that girls? Of course in true Parisian fashion he was a colossal womanizer but we’ll get back to that.

Nancy, besotted down to her garter belt, moves to Paris from London to be near her man. Like any relationship in the onset, despite his lukewarm feelings that he never hid, it was great. I’m happy that despite what happened between them in the end, she bloomed in the throes of love, though one-sided, allowing it to fuel her prose.

Every event, good and bad, that happened in her life especially with Gaston shows up in minimal disguise on the page.

In ‘The Pursuit of Love,’ Gaston is written in as Fabrice de Sauveterre who’s an acceptable rat to her character Linda Radlett modeled after herself and a sister of which she had 5 which includes Deborah, the present Duchess of Devonshire. I like the term ‘recycled abuse,’ a more modern way of saying, ‘when you get lemons you make lemonade.’ As miserable as she eventually becomes she remains prolific and faithful to her craft.

(Another tip – keep your art going no matter what’s happening)

Okay, here’s where I’m weighing in. When you’re with a man and it’s clear he doesn’t feel too much ardor toward you it’s got to be painful; it’s a given. So I ask Ms Mitford from the grave (she died in 1973 at 68 while living in Versailles of Hodgkin’s Disease) what were you thinking Nance? If you’re crying 75% of the time don’t you think it’s a clue to go?

Now here’s a woman who truly had everything. She made a ton of money from her work that gave her the freedom to do and go anywhere she pleased. She had a social life that would make any Astor drool that included Evelyn Waugh who used to edit all of her work (that’s like me having David Sedaris on speed-dial) and on top of that was chic and funny. I hope one day someone describes me in this way.

So what possessed her to stay in an affair that hurt so, so much? We will never know but I can say, some women feel happiness is not their God given birthright. (not this one I’m happy to say)

The kicker is, after years of draining her financially, Peter Rodd finally asks for a divorce when he meets someone he wants to marry. This happens on the heels of Gaston moving to Italy to become Ambassador to Rome.

After Nancy moved to France to be near him she sees that following him to Italy would be out of the question.


She’s not wanted, that’s why.

However, she visits, puts on her shop-front as she called a brave face, but when Gaston after first fathering a child with one woman then decides to marry another by the name of Violette de Tallyrand-Perigert, the Duchesse de Sagan, her world goes dark.

You would think now that she was free Gaston would have opted to marry Nancy not some woman who could never order stationary with a name that long but, we know now he didn’t care for her that deeply so he should have left much sooner, right? I realize no one broke her arm to remain in his life but he broke her heart and could have acted more responsibly.

But he’s a man, how could I forget; they take what you offer and leave when they’ve had enough. (okay, not all of them, 2 out of 3)

And I’ll admit we can’t blame it all on him. When a man makes it that clear his affection is microscopic, you have to know when it’s time to leave. You can have fun but once it starts to shred your senses, you owe it to yourself to pack up your few belongings he allowed you to leave at his house and walk. You don’t wait till you require an IV and a ‘Last Will and Testament.’

How do I know she was that hurt?

This is taken from a letter she wrote to him in Italy;

‘I long for your voice so passionately. I can’t imagine today without you being here…Yesterday, I stayed shut in the house all day, expecting you to telephone. Oh Colonel, you see I’m in one of my states…Don’t abandon me.’

The myth of how it doesn’t matter if men cheat, that women especially if they’re European, understand and are basically groomed for a life of philandering is crap in the first degree.

I’ll do panel on this one.

It hurts goddammit, and when I think that Gaston Palewski was a little gnome of a man who sounds rather boring not to mention cruel I could just dig her up from St. Mary’s churchyard in Oxfordshire and smack her. We’re not talking Clooney here in the looks department. At least then you’d say, ‘who could blame her?’ but he was a toad with bad skin and rotten teeth.

I read in another book by Selina Hastings I highly recommend called ‘Nancy Mitford: A biography,’ that while she was sick and dying (and he was married to Miss too many names) he would visit her. He even saw her the day she died. It’s poignant actually.

‘On 30 June, Gaston was driving from Le Marais to Paris when he was struck by a premonition that he must see Nancy. He found Jessica and Diana (her sisters) at Versailles. He ran past them up the stairs to Nancy’s bedroom. She was unconscious and immobile, but when he spoke to her and held her hand, she smiled. An hour after his return to Rue Bonaparte, Nancy died.’

This little passage made me weep because it was apparent she loved him to the last as something divine interceded on her behalf.

Gaston lived for 11 more years dying in 1984. According to his friends his wife didn’t care for him while he was sick. You know what I’m about say don’t you?

Nancy would have. She would have never left his side.

I didn’t hate Lisa Hilton’s book entirely since she wrote a lot about World War II and Charles de Gaulle, 2 topics I’d like to know more about, but the rest left me ‘in a cold climate’ as it were. She machine guns her prose that lacks real warmth. It makes me wonder if our author has ever really been in love herself.

I try to be honest when I review a book and so wish she called this one something else.

The words ‘horror and love’ have no business in partnership.

Relationships, whatever shape they may take, deserve compassion and respect, even decades later.

Right Nancy?


About Susannah Bianchi

I'm just a girl who likes to write slightly on slant. I've had a career in fashion, dabbled in film and to be honest, I don't like talking about myself. Now my posts are another matter so I will let them speak for themselves. My eBooks, A New York Diary, Model Behavior: Friends For Life and Notes From A Working Cat can be found on Thanks.
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4 Responses to The Pursuit Of Pain

  1. D. D. Syrdal says:

    What is it with some people who just keep wanting what they can’t have? I suspect the same thing that drove Nancy to her obsession with Gaston is the same one that drove him into the arms of Violette. Nancy was too attainable; men like a challenge (some men, or even most of them). Violette was probably more exotic, something they also like. Anyway, that’s my theory. It’s tragic, really.


    • Have you ever read her? She’s truly wonderful. I get it I’m sorry or happy to say, depends how you look at it. Obsession is bigger than all of us. I feel badly though when I think she had so much yet opted for so little love wise though she did have her readers. It’s like any drug, if you abstain long enough you beat it but the withdrawal time is excruciating.

      I could lecture on the subject there Dame.



  2. Ted Jonathan says:

    Classic review, Susannah. Enlightening, and thoroughly engaging.


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