Voltaire in Love still stands as a portrait of the French Enlightenment as it really was, with intrigue and idealism in strange but fizzy solution.Why did Nancy Mitford have the insight into the nature of French intellectual life denied to so many others? Many English people live for a long time in France, and though they often love it, they rarely ‘get it’ in quite this way. It may be significant that all of the Mitford girls had to go elsewhere to find an identity. Aristocrats raised aristocratically, they ‘took’ better elsewhere than in England: Unity pitifully and horribly in Germany, Jessica in America. France saved Nancy, much the best pure writer of the sisters. She grasped, and sets out here in exquisite detail, the other side of the constant vendettas and intrigues of Parisian life. She saw the workings of a society rooted in a set of manners designed, at whatever cost in truthfulness, on making other people feel comfortable and valued, a set of manners based on compliments and what the English call ‘affectations.’
—Adam Gopnik, from his introduction to Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love, which went on sale on November 6th. Mitford was born on this day in 1904 at 1 Graham Place, Belgravia, London, and was the eldest of the notorious Mitford sisters.