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First full-scale biography of Nancy Mitford -- and her sisters

Nancy Mitford: A Biography, by Selina Hastings. New York: Dutton. 274 pp. Illustrated. $19.95. ``The Mitford Girls,'' who provided the title and subject of a recent musical, have found a niche as minor mythological figures -- figurines, perhaps -- each one different, distinctively modeled, neatly labeled, curiously fascinating, but never more than peripheral.

Aside from Tom, the third child and only boy, there were six: Nancy, the wickedly witty femme de lettres and Francophile; quiet second sister Pam; the glamorous Diana, who applauded Nazism and embraced British fascism in the person of her second husband, Oswald Mosley; solemn-faced, fanatical Unity, who became Hitler's favorite ``groupie''; forthright Jessica (``Decca''), who joined the Communist Party and became a celebrated journalist and author in America; and Deborah (``Debo''), who actually grew up to realize her childhood goal of marrying ``The Duke of Right'' (the aristocratic version of ``Mr. Right'') and is now Duchess of Devonshire. In them, we glimpse the various strains of the century miniaturized, and because these strains do not lend themselves to whimsy, there is the added whiff of genuine scandal, as at a party where high spirits lead to disaster.

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The childhood world of the Mitfords -- ``shrieks and wails''; the ferocious, hilarious father ``hunting'' the children with his hounds; the vague, impenetrable mother with her odd notions of child-rearing; the endless teasing, games, elaborate private jokes; the labyrinth of nicknames -- has been colorfully evoked in two of Nancy's best novels, ``The Pursuit of Love'' and ``Love in a Cold Climate,'' and in Jessica's memoir ``Hons and Rebels.'' Other family members and their descendants have provided further material and further controversy.

Nancy, in many ways the brightest, has always seemed the most interesting to me. Although her four early novels -- ``Highland Fling'' (1931), ``Christmas Pudding'' (1932), ``Wigs on the Green'' (1935), and ``Pigeon Pie'' (1940) -- are very slight indeed (as she herself was first to admit), her four postwar novels, ``The Pursuit of Love'' (1945), ``Love in a Cold Climate'' (1949), ``The Blessing'' (1951), and ``Don't Tell Alfred'' (1960), are truly delightful.

Her biographies of Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire, Frederick the Great, and the Sun King are idiosyncratic, to say the least, but often entertaining. And her contributions to mapping the distinctions between ``U and non-U'' (upper class and non-upper class) speech have provided snobs and reverse-snobs of all backgrounds with hours of fun and argument.

This first full-scale biography of Nancy (Harold Acton's 1975 memoir ``Nancy Mitford'' has recently been reissued in paperback by Hamish Hamilton, distributed by David & Charles) is Selina Hastings's first book. She has written Nancy's life rather as Nancy herself might have written it. It's not that she assumes Nancy's viewpoint or takes her side throughout, but she manages to look at her as Nancy might have looked at one of the characters: with affection, insight, wit, admiration, pity, and a touch of disapprobation.

Like Nancy, Ms. Hastings prefers the quick, keen judgment to sustained analysis. Discussing Nancy's attitude toward Unity's Nazism, she tells us that Nancy ``tried to emphasize the ridiculous aspects of Unity's behavior, while . . . maintaining a fa,cade of good-natured, sisterly affection. She loved her sisters, but she loathed their politics. . . .'' Ms. Hasting's assessments strike me as shrewd and accurate, but, like Nancy, she is not inclined to probe complications -- literary or psychological.

Yet, Hastings conveys with innate understanding the insecurity and pain beneath Nancy's polished veneer. Like an indulgent novelist, she all but rushes in to warn her heroine of impending trouble: first, of the folly of her infatuations with unsuitable men, later, of the dangers of the great love of her life, the womanizing leader of the French Resistance leader Col. Gaston Palewski.

Of Nancy's precipitate marriage to Peter Rodd, she notes: ``Nancy rather liked pompous men, and she had that undiscriminating respect for intellect often felt by those themselves lacking a formal education.''

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She describes Nancy's growing love of France and things French with a teasing sympathy, yet also shows us Nancy's courage in the face of adversity, from the disruptions of life in war-torn London to the disappointments and sorrows of her personal life.

This is a graceful portrait, very much in the spirit of its subject.

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