10 December, 2020
The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford’s wickedly funny novel, was published on 10 December 1945, seventy-five years ago today.
To mark the occasion Heywood Hill, the bookshop where she worked whilst writing the book, is launching A Mitford Year in Books, a new subscription service introducing readers to not only Nancy Mitford’s works but also the very best of contemporary women’s fiction.
Subscribers will receive a monthly parcel from Heywood Hill during 2021 including five of Nancy Mitford’s novels in paperback – and an exclusive handsome slipcase in which to house them – and seven contemporary novels in hardback.
Nancy Mitford did a great deal to put Heywood Hill’s bookshop on the social and literary map during the three years that she worked there, 1942-45. Her charisma and love of good books attracted a wide circle of friends and customers, including Cecil Beaton, the photographer, and Evelyn Waugh, the writer.
On becoming a bookseller her friends sent encouragement. In May 1942, she posted some books to Evelyn Waugh, who wrote back, ‘What a very nice parcel….I will say these were the books chosen at the height of the Great-great War by a great novelist and an eminent critic.’
She wrote the first 10,000 words of The Pursuit of Love in her spare time, then took a three month sabbatical from the shop in early 1945 to complete the book. Perhaps her time at Heywood Hill in the intense wartime atmosphere in Mayfair helped to sharpen her prose. The book was well timed and even better received. It became an instant hit among Britain’s amusement-starved reading public, selling 200,000 copies within a year.
Nicky Dunne of Heywood Hill says, “The Pursuit of Love remains one of the wittiest novels ever written, not least because it pokes fun at the pompous, revels in the absurdities and joys of family life, whilst remaining true to the realities of its title.”
Camille Van de Velde, Head of Subscriptions at Heywood Hill, says, “We want to introduce a new generation of readers to Nancy Mitford but also the best in contemporary fiction by women writers. We hope mixing the two will provide a very satisfying reading experience. Today is a golden age of new fiction writing with many diverse and hugely talented voices coming to the fore. Our team of experienced booksellers know contemporary women’s fiction inside out. Together we read a huge amount of new writing and can’t wait to share our choices with new subscribers to A Mitford Year in Books.”
Nancy Mitford transformed the fortunes of Heywood Hill. Good bookselling involves listening and talking to people, sometimes about books. Magnetic types can repel as well as attract, but Nancy’s wit and positive energy drew many people to Heywood Hill.
By November 1942 Nancy reported, ‘The shop is very gay now, full of people all day, & I am installed in the gas fire so manage to keep fairly warm.’
Nancy worked in the shop until 1945 whilst V1s and V2s were falling on London, she wrote, ‘It’s like the most frightening dream you ever had’. One evening she forgot to lock the bookshop’s door and the next morning overslept, leaving bemused customers to try and buy books from each other.
After Nancy left London for Paris – where she still worked for Heywood Hill – Evelyn Waugh wrote to her in 1946, ‘No one departure has left such a yawning (literally) hole in London as yours.’