Nancy Mitford: Lessons for Historians from a Best-Selling Author
Few eighteenth-century scholars have heard of Nancy Mitford, the English writer and socialite. Yet, in the 1950s and 1960s she wrote two best-selling biographies: the first, about Madame de Pompadour (1954); and the second, about the philosophe Emilie Du Châtelet, also famous as Voltaire’s companion (thus, Mitford’s title, Voltaire in Love, 1957). This essay describes how this self-educated, lively novelist turned to biography, and offers lessons for scholars in the tone, pace, and humor characteristic of her writing. The essay concludes with discussion of the lingering appeal of Mitford’s portrayal of Du Châtelet as “always something of the whore.” Tragically, Mitford, a woman with an exciting, incisive mind, thus perpetuated this common historical trope, denigrating women of intellect.