A New Chapter, Nancy Mitford at Heywood Hill Bookshop

10 Curzon Street Mayfair London

This letter is the first of a correspondence between Nancy and the bookseller Heywood Hill that continued until her death twenty-one years later. Nancy had just started working at his bookshop.

I had a smart set to with Evelyn [Waugh] about the marmalade cat having gone up to 6/s; however in the end he took it…A terrific tart has just been in to ask if you are Mr Hill from Valparaiso – well, really Heywood…Please tell me how much are the new shell (china) plate ornaments on the mantle piece in the lit room? Mrs Macleod wants them. (Hope you don’t mind this flow of dirt. If it ruins your hol just tell me and I’ll stop.)

Heywood Hill

Nancy Mitford began as an assistant at Heywood Hill bookshop in March 1942, at a modest salary of £3.10s a week, of which she needed every penny.

Named after its owner, the Heywood Hill bookshop can still be found at 10 Curzon Street Mayfair. Back then it specialised in rare prints, Victorian toys, embroidered pictures and first editions, as well as a good range of new publications. The bookshop was a favourite among the fashionable set and intelligentsia, being just a short walk from the clubs of St James’s and next door to the gentlemen’s barber Trumper’s. According to one patron, ‘All the literary beau monde and half the Free French Army were there.’ One of Nancy’s best friends, Evelyn Waugh, was a regular. He described the shop as ‘a centre for all that was left of fashionable and intellectual London.’ His fellow students from Oxford also came: Harold Acton, Brian Howard (both models for the character of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited), critic and writer Cyril Connolly and novelists Henry Yorke and Anthony Powell. Most of these men were contemporaries of Heywood Hill, who was an old Etonian.

The shop became even more popular once the new assistant arrived, snappily dressed in her uniform of a black velvet top over a black woollen skirt. With Nancy’s laugh trilling above everyone else, the bookshop buzzed with gaiety, humour and gossip. She would tease in a high-pitched drawl, always ready with a quick one liner. In response to a rival bookseller’s surprise at the smallness of the premises, Nancy quipped that her customers ‘love being pressed bosom to bosom.’

Many would come in pretending to look for a book, for the sheer pleasure of seeing Nancy. Her friend and biographer Harold Acton said she had the ‘gaiety of girlhood’ and a beauty that:

did not belong entirely to this age. Her clear smooth skin and clear quizzical eyes under a high forehead with chestnut hair like a wavy turban above it would have been portrayed to perfection by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Nancy had favourites. She loved the Free French and they loved her back, beguiled as they were by her French, spoken with a languid English accent. But Americans wandering in from the hostel next door might be given short shrift. They called the shop ‘The Ministry of Fear’. The quick-witted would be welcomed with big smiles but the ‘dull ones had hell’. Although she attracted many new customers, she frightened some with a glassy stare and frosty manner and they fled. One customer waiting to be served while Nancy finished a long conversation on the phone famously snarled: ‘A little less DARLING and a little more ATTENTION please’.

Heywood Hill was a delightfully charming man, funny and gentle. He called his bookshop a ‘tiny first-class kennel for underdogs’. When at the end of 1942 he was called up to war, Nancy ran the business with his wife Anne. She became a natural at bookselling, remembering titles, prices and the names of publishers, quoting reviewers’ comments, relishing the selling and willing to do the heavy lifting. And during the darkest hours of the war her gaiety was deeply appreciated.

Living in Maida Vale at the time, Nancy would walk the two and a half miles to the shop every morning from Blomfield Road, along Edgware Road, crossing Oxford Street at Marble Arch, then down Park Lane. To save the bus fare she would often walk back in the evenings too, regardless of blackouts, air raids, bad weather and the odd drunken sailor.

She and Anne took it in turns to open the shop and lock it at night but it was not a fool-proof system. ‘What do you think I did?’ asked a mortified Nancy in her letter to her mother (Muv).

I decided not to come here Sat: morning as I was really tired, & forgot to lock the door on Friday so the shop was full of wandering people trying to buy books from each other. Wasn’t it a nightmare. By the mercy of Providence Heywood was passing through London & happened to look in HE WASN’T BEST PLEASED. And I don’t blame him.

Troubles of Her Own

Nancy kept her troubles to herself but she experienced her share of suffering. Just before the war her sister Unity had sustained severe brain damage after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, and was being cared for by their mother. Her brother Tom was killed in Burma. And Diana, the sister to whom she felt closest, was branded (along with her Fascist husband Oswald Mosley) a public danger and imprisoned in Holloway for more than three years. When Diana was released at the end of 1943, the shop was bombarded with telephone calls from journalists seeking Nancy’s reaction. Although opposed to fascism she was one of the only members of their large family to stay in touch with Diana and provide her with support during her incarceration.

In the last  years of the war, the bookshop might have failed without Nancy, who was working for long stretches without a break. As part of the war effort, she also took on rooftop fire watching at night during the bombing raids. Should incendiary bombs land on a building, there had to be someone to raise the alarm. She used to sally forth into the blackout wearing a tin hat and armed with a stirrup pump. Once she and a friend put out some fire bombs near Berkeley Square with her pump and a few buckets of water. In her matter of fact way she described these nights as either ‘frightening’ or ‘tedious’. But never physically strong, she confided in a letter to Diana: ‘I feel very old, going grey & bald & look terrible. I’ve been doing far too much & need a week in bed.’ (She was nearly forty.)

Towards the end of the war, Nancy felt increasingly ready to leave the shop; she was exhausted, her salary was meagre, and she was longing to start writing a book. She had already made a half-hearted offer to the publisher Hamish Hamilton: ‘I expect your list is enormous, & you may not want it’. She was half surprised to discover that he was interested despite the fact that none of her previous novels had caught on. For the time being, though, Nancy was stuck at the shop, having neither the money to support herself nor the permission required in wartime Britain for a leave of absence from the Ministry of Labour. There was also the Christmas rush at the shop to contend with, ‘complicated this year by the fact that there are no other presents to be given but books’, she wrote to Evelyn Waugh.

Today two quite separate people came in & asked me to think of a book for the Duke of Beaufort “he never reads you know”. If somebody could write a book for people who never read they would make a fortune.

Writing The Pursuit of Love

Evelyn Waugh had asked Nancy to read the proofs of his novel Brideshead Revisited. ‘A great English classic in my humble opinion’, she told him. It made an impression on her because some months later she wrote to him:

I am writing a book, also in the 1st person. (Only now has it occurred to me everybody will say what a copy cat – never mind that won’t hurt you only me) It’s about my family, a very different cup of tea, not grand & far madder. Did I begin it before reading B.head or after I can’t remember. I’ve done about 10 000 words & asked Dearest (Heywood Hill) for a 3 month holiday to write it which I believe I shall get – I’m awfully excited my fingers itch for a pen.

‘Lord Merlin’s’

In March Heywood Hill granted Nancy her three months off, and she went to stay with her eccentric aristocratic friend Gerald Berners. Full of glee, she wrote to her sister Diana, ‘You can’t imagine the heaven of hols, after a 3 year solid grind in that shop.’

Nancy had met Lord Berners, a painter, composer and aesthete, through Diana. They immediately struck up a friendship as they had quite a bit in common. They were fond of a ‘tease’ which involved a great deal of amusement and a touch of cruelty. Dressed as often as she could in Dior, Nancy was Lord Berner’s personification of an elegant woman. And both preferred to keep life at surface level, summed up by Nancy’s description of herself as a water-beetle ‘gliding on the water’s face with ease, celerity and grace’.

Faringdon, Berner’s eighteenth-century house in Berkshire, was luxurious. She described how the front door would open to a ‘scented warmth’, and a ‘river of witty chat’. There were huge arrangements of tropical flowers in all the rooms, paintings by Dali, Corot, Matisse and Durer on the walls and from its honeysuckled terraces, unhindered views of patchwork fields and ancient elm trees. Every Easter Sunday Berner’s pigeons were dyed in shades of turquoise, pink and gold, then ‘set free to flutter, like a cloud of confetti, between church and house, to astonish the students of bird-life in Berkshire.’

In spite of wartime austerities Berners managed to find all sorts of delicacies, supplemented by produce from Faringdon’s kitchen garden and hothouses. According to Nancy, ‘the poor Londoner, starved or sated with Spam, would see sights and taste tastes he had long ago forgotten to believe in.’ Farringdon was a ‘paradise’, a ‘double relief from discomfort and boredom’. And on those freezing nights spent fire-watching on the roof of Crewe House in wartime London its red bedroom was the place she had most longed to be,

with its crackling fire, its Bessarabian carpet of bunchy flowers, and, above all, its four-post bed, when, from beneath a huge fat fluffy old fashioned quilt one could gaze out at the view, head still on pillow.

Crucially for Nancy, Berners understood the need of discipline for a creative artist, and he refused to let her out of her room until she had completed her required word count for each day. In return, Nancy wrote Lord Berners into her book, The Pursuit of Love, as Lord Merlin:

He was an artist and a musician himself, and the patron of all the young…Modern music streamed perpetually from {his estate} Merlinford…his astonished neighbours were sometimes invited to attend such puzzlers as Cocteau plays, the opera ‘Mahagonny’, or the latest Dada extravagances from Paris…As Lord Merlin was a famous practical joker, it was sometimes difficult to know where the jokes ended and culture began. I think that he was not always perfectly certain himself. 

Nancy’s fictional portrait of the wildly flamboyant and sophisticated aristocrat was not wide of the mark. Osbert Sitwell said of him that:

in the years between the wars, Berners did more to civilize the wealthy than anyone in England. Through London’s darkest drawing rooms…he moved…a sort of missionary of the arts.

His tendency to spread himself thinly was commented on by Harold Acton: ‘Had he been less versatile he would have been less charming but more profound.’ Yet Nancy makes it clear that for all his jokes, her fictional character Lord Merlin was a sensible, kind and generous friend, as Lord Berners most certainly was. After his death she wrote, ‘Nobody knows what he meant to me, I can still say that. Really in the war Farringdon was more like my home than anywhere.’

In those three months Nancy completed the manuscript, the writing coming effortlessly in a way that would never happen for her again. Perhaps the fact that she was wildly in love helped her to untap a new creative source.

Falling in Love

Nancy’s marriage to Peter Rodd had limped along for years and his escapades had become increasingly painful for her. He was serially unfaithful, could not hold down a job, and spent Nancy’s money (Waugh used him as the model for the morally corrupt Basil Seal in Black Mischief). When he was in England he would often stay out all night, returning maudlin drunk and expecting Nancy to cover the cost of his expensive taxi fare. Nancy shrugged it off and tried to forget it at Heywood Hill amongst her friends, but the marriage was over bar appearance.

In 1942, the year she joined the bookshop, she had met Gaston Palewski, a Free French colonel who was General de Gaulle’s directeur de cabinet in London. The Colonel, as she called him, was not handsome but he was high spirited, cultivated and witty. He loved women and was charming to a devastating degree. The Colonel captured Nancy’s heart and was to exert an enormous influence on her for the rest of her life. In The Pursuit of Love she describes his effect on her through the relationship between Linda and the short, stocky Frenchman Fabrice: ‘Linda was feeling, what she had never so far felt for any man, an overwhelming physical attraction. It made her quite giddy, it terrified her.’ At the prospect of an imminent visit from Fabrice, Linda lay back on her bed,

…and all was light and warmth. Life, she thought, is sometimes sad and often dull, but there are currants in the cake and here is one of them. The early morning sun shone past her window onto the river, her ceiling danced with water-reflections…Sun, silence and happiness.

In June 1945 she returned to Heywood Hill, her book completed. The war was over and restrictions were beginning to lift. Friends were arriving from overseas, some from prison camps. Nancy described the appearance of one to Muv: ‘He looks like a horror photograph, his knees are enormous lumps & his arms like sticks’.

An advance on her book had brought her a little money that she spent on clothes. Always stylish, she had been pained acutely by the make do and mend wartime policy on clothing.

Publication

The Pursuit of Love (the title coined by Evelyn Waugh) was published on December 10 that year. With Nancy’s first attempt at describing her own eccentric family life, her genius emerged. The heroine, Linda Radlett, is one of a feisty bunch of beautiful siblings being raised by a vague mother, and a frequently terrifying, occasionally tender father, who had whacked to death eight Germans during the First World War and has taken to hunting his own children instead of foxes. This upperclass family live in a drafty house in the Cotswolds between the wars. The girls are chaperoned and presented at court. Linda and her cousin Fanny (the narrator) long for love and yearn for the day when dashing and romantic men will sweep them off their feet. But their lives don’t turn out quite as planned.

The novel’s light-hearted, funny and romantic tone was a perfectly timed foil to the greyness of war. Harold Acton called it a ‘gloom dispersing rocket’. Beyond its bright brittleness was a combative, edgy intelligence and an underlying pessimism about the whole business of love and its pursuit. The novel was well received by critics: ‘More truth, more sincerity, and more laughter than in a year’s output of novels’. Readers pounced on it and 200,000 copies sold in the first year. Hamish Hamilton had led Nancy to expect the novel might earn her as much as £750 but she made over £7,000 in six months. She now had her much-desired financial independence and more than enough money to launch a new life in Paris, near her beloved Colonel.

Continued Links with Heywood Hill

Like many expatriate patrons of the bookshop, Nancy kept in touch with Heywood Hill and his colleagues, writing over three hundred letters that still survive. Some of them are featured in The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill, 1952 – 73, selected by John Saumarez Smith who worked at Heywood Hill all his life. They are full of her trademark wit, humour and gossip. In 1952 she gave her account of a ‘terrible dinner’ with the novelist Margaret Yourcenaar. ‘All but me were drugged to the eyes & clearly orgies were about to take place – prim & English, I fled…’

Heywood Hill kept her up to date with the running of the bookshop. In 1964 he wrote of a customer who had brought back a book complaining of missing plates (one of a phallic fungus called STINKNG MORRELL). ‘This made us all shriek for several hours because the Lesbian dressmaker over the way who treats us as a library, never failing to return everything, is called Mrs Morell.’

Nancy eagerly awaited his letters, writing to a friend that they ‘beat all for funniness’. Having become a partner in the shop at the end of the war, she would recommend to him books that had done well in Paris, and bought old and new editions for herself. She always visited the shop when she came to London and encouraged Heywood Hill to visit her in Paris. The move to Paris was one she never regretted. Shortly after arriving she wrote to Evelyn Waugh:

The day one sets foot in France, you can take it from me, PURE happiness begins…every minute of every day here is bliss & when I wake up in the morning, I feel as excited as if it were my birthday.

Music

Lord Berners, Les Sirènes (1946)

While Nancy was writing The Pursuit of Love as a guest in his house, her friend Gerald Berners was composing the music for the ballet Les Sirènes for Sadler’s Wells at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House. The ballet was choreographed by Frederick Ashton, Cecil Beaton designed the costumes, and Margot Fonteyn was the prima ballerina.

Despite writing six novels and being a fairly prolific painter, Lord Berners was best known as a composer. He composed about thirty highly original pieces, including works for the piano, five ballets, an opera, even songs and film scores, (most famously the 1947 film of Nicholas Nickleby). Berners was involved in the development of ballet in Britain with his colleague Constant Lambert and they were the only English composers to be commissioned by Diaghilev to produce work for the Ballets Russes. His work was widely admired throughout Europe, including by his friend Igor Stravinsky.

Connection

John le Carré set a scene from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in the shop. In chapter 2, George Smiley sets off ‘for Heywood Hill’s bookshop in Curzon street…he approached Heywood Hill with a merry heart.’ He was merry because Smiley loved the bookshop’s selection of obscure German texts. In his starring role in the BBC’s version of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the late Sir Alec Guiness actually visits Heywood Hill, as he did in real life. Le Carré has also been a customer.

Notes

This delightful bookshop on two floors of a Georgian townhouse in a discreet corner of Mayfair is still flourishing and selling a mix of old, new and antiquarian books as well as select objects and curios. Geo. F. Trumper’s Gentleman’s Barbers & Perfumes (est. 1875) is also still open next door. The books continue to be displayed on tables in the chandeliered rooms, still giving it the air of a living room rather than a bookshop. I was welcomed by two young women cheerfully bundling up brown paper packages of books, finished with their trademark blue ribbon, for mailing to their customers. They told me things were always going missing and they were sure it was Nancy’s ghost.

The shop has a connection with the Mitfords that continues to this day. Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, was married to Nancy’s youngest sister Deborah. He was a bibliophile and was introduced to the shop in Nancy’s time – it was handy to their London home just around the corner. During the war, Nancy used to ship books to her brother-in-law wherever he was stationed.

In 1991 Andrew became the majority shareholder of the bookshop and after his death in 2004 this passed to his son Peregrine ‘Stoker’ Cavendish, 12th Duke of Devonshire. In 2013 Stoker became the sole owner of the shop. The family have supported and maintained the shop’s very special ethos, its welcoming, club-like atmosphere and in its role linking generations of readers and writers all over the world who share an enjoyment of books.

When I returned just before Christmas in 2019 they had obviously been busy because the shelves were looking bare. Their specialty is introducing readers to new books on the basis of those they have enjoyed in the past. I was looking for short stories by Mavis Gallant (I can’t find any of her books in stock). ‘Ah yes, she’s good’, said the bookseller at the desk, but they had no stock either. On that basis he recommended the Collected Stories of Lydia Davis but it is a brick of a book and was too heavy to travel with. There was a lot of hilarity about their forthcoming Instagram post and a fair bit of teasing, Nancy-style.

Weblinks

The trailer for the BBC series adapted from Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.

A recording of Nancy Mitford telling a story about the air raids during the war.

The Heywood Hill website.

A Vanity Fair article about the Heywood Hill bookshop.

Gavin Bryars writes about Lord Berners in The Guardian.

Nancy Mitford wrote about Lord Berner’s Faringdon House for House and Garden.

And how the house looks today care of Sofka Zinovieff, who inherited Faringdon from Berner’s Lover.

An article about John Saumarez Smith, editor of The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952 – 73, who worked for so many years at what many consider the best bookshop in the speaking world.

 

Sources:

Acton, Harold. Nancy Mitford, Gibson Square Books, 2002

Amory, Mark. Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric, Chatto & Windus, 1998

Bryars, Gavin. ‘The Versatile Peer’, The Guardian, 22 February, 2003

Hastings, Selina. Nancy Mitford: A Biography, Vintage, 2012

Mitford, Nancy. The Pursuit of Love, Penguin 2018

Mitford, Nancy. ‘From the Archive: Nancy Mitford Writes about Faringdon House (1950)’ House & Garden Magazine

Mitford, Nancy and Waugh, Evelyn. The letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, Mosley, Charlotte, Ed. Penguin, 2012

Mitford, Nancy and Hill, Heywood. The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952 – 73, Saumarez Smith, John, Ed. Frances Lincoln, 2004

Add a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Comments from others

  1. Tina on

    Good Lord! How do you find all these singularly fascinating details? What a fabulous feast of little tales, anecdotes, yarns and sagas even. What marvellous characters! Beautifully constructed and composed. I sooo totally need to pop out immediately and buy a copy of The Pursuit of Love. And, goodness me, Oswald Mosley…. now that’s some brother-in-law, what a thing! Indeed. So, … did Nancy sit in the chair? (#8). I wonder who else may have….. Loved it, (in case that wasn’t clearly communicated).

    Reply
  2. Jo Wing on

    I do wonder about that chair too – should have asked! Yes. Everyone seemed larger than life. They were living in dire times and I think there was a sense that it could all end tomorrow so life needed to be lived intensely. The Pursuit of Love is an incredibly funny and perceptive book, Tina. Highly recommend it!

    Reply