How a little Mayfair bookshop inspired Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love

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Heywood Hill bookshop in Mayfair
Heywood Hill bookshop in Mayfair

The year is 1936: Jesse Owens embarrasses the Third Reich at its own Olympics, Edward VIII ascends the throne and Heywood Hill, a little bookshop on Curzon Street in Mayfair, opens its doors for the first time. Named after the proprietor George Heywood Hill, an Old Etonian who married the daughter of the Earl of Cranbrook, the bookshop initially specialised in first and limited editions as well as Victorian toys, with most of its clientele aristocrats due to its affluent location.

These days, it is globally renowned for its library building services and highly personal yearly subscription. Holding a Royal Warrant, it is also beloved by the Queen, has an entire bookshelf dedicated to PG Wodehouse and in John Le Carre’s novels is George Smiley’s bookshop of choice.

When Heywood Hill opened his eponymous bookshop, Nancy Mitford was not known for her writing but for her eccentric family – a cause célèbre as a result of their fevered embracing of all things Hitler, with sister Diana marrying fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosely (and later imprisoned alongside him as a danger to the king's realm). The Thirties had been difficult for Nancy. She had released a number of books that received neither acclaim nor sales, but caused much controversy within her inner circle, particularly Wigs on the Green – a savage satire of her family’s enthusiasm for fascism.

Mitford’s early novels did not provide her with enough money with which to live securely, and much of her work served to further rip at the fraught threads of her family relationships. Following the poor reception of her early books and Britain once again entering a devastating war, Nancy became completely disillusioned with writing, and in the spring of 1942 took a job at a small bookshop that was a two and a half mile walk from her Maida Vale home.

George Heywood Hill had been summoned for military service and his wife, Anne, needed help keeping the shop afloat. For the tiny remuneration of £3.10 a week, Nancy started as a shop assistant. It proved a natural fit, with her sister Deborah saying she had “the best fun in the world” during her three years there. Situated on Curzon Street, which has its own literary history (featuring in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray) it was a fashionable place to be seen, especially with the author of several novels sitting behind the counter.

Nancy Mitford - Getty
Nancy Mitford - Getty

Much like the Parisian literary salons of the 1920s that played host to F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and were ruled over by the formidable Gertrude Stein, Heywood Hill became the place to be seen if you were a writer in London during the war years.

Nancy’s friend Evelyn Waugh would come from Oxford to see her, bringing with him an array of future literary stars such as Harold Acton and Anthony Powell, as well as more established names: editor of Horizon magazine Cyril Connolly and Henry Green, whose 1929 novel, Living, is one of the great interwar works of fiction. Waugh described the shop as “a centre for all that was left of fashionable and intellectual London” and even when the war sent him across Europe, Nancy continued to supply him with books by Caryl Brahms, SJ Simon and Max Beerbohm.

Located in a snug Georgian townhouse, Heywood Will was close to the St James’s Club, a private gentleman’s club mostly home to authors and diplomats (including one Ian Fleming) who were dazzled by Nancy's charm. She wrote that her customers loved standing “bosom to bosom” with her. Some would buy books, some would just want to flirt with a Mitford sister; either way it brought attention to the shop at a time where every sale mattered.

Heywood Hill (and Nancy) also proved incredibly popular with the exiled Free French Army. She was a French speaker and would converse with the soldiers in their native tongue. In her first year of working in the shop, Nancy fell in love with Colonel Gaston Palewski, a member of Charles de Gaulle’s cabinet and a feverish womaniser. Her love was never fully reciprocated even as she chased him across Europe following Germany’s defeat. Mitford used Palewski as an outline for The Pursuit of Love’s Fabrice, although the handsome character bore little resemblance to the thin-haired, heavy-set colonel.

The Mitford sisters in 1932 - Hulton Archive
The Mitford sisters in 1932 - Hulton Archive

After two years of working in the shop, Mitford finally picked up the pen once more. Inspired by working in London at Heywood Hill, her affair with Palewski, the swirling family trauma exacerbated by her sister Diana and Oswald Mosely’s release from prison in 1943, and the death of only brother Tom during the war, The Pursuit of Love (now adapted in a three-episode BBC series) began to take shape.

When the spring of 1945 came around, almost three years to the day since Nancy started work at the shop, she was granted three months leave to bunker down and finish the book. She disappeared to the estate of Lord Berners (played in the BBC series by Andrew Scott), not leaving her room until her daily word count was completed. By the time the three months was up, the book was finished and the war in Europe had been won. Mitford returned to the shop that summer and sold the book (against her expectations) to publishing house Hamish Hamilton. She was finally able to leave the daily grind of bookselling behind.

Her semi-autobiographical masterpiece came out in the December of that year with much changed in the country. Labour wrestled power from the Conservatives for only the second time in history, the world had finally found some semblance of peace and Nancy Mitford was a bestselling author. The Pursuit of Love was an immediate hit, selling 200,000 copies in its first year with readers connecting to Mitford’s witty tale of feisty sisters and peculiar parents navigating love and war.

Nancy Mitford's blue plaque outside Heywood Hill, unveiled by her sister Deborah Cavendish - Brian Smith
Nancy Mitford's blue plaque outside Heywood Hill, unveiled by her sister Deborah Cavendish - Brian Smith

With her new found success, Nancy moved to Paris, but remained connected with Heywood Hill. They exchanged hundreds of letters of correspondence, with Mitford constantly gossiping about the literary world she now commanded, while Heywood Hill kept her updated on the ups and downs of running a bookshop in post-war London. Until her death from lymphoma in 1973, Nancy would always make time to visit the shop whenever she came to the city.

Miraculously, the Mitford-Heywood Hill links did not die with Nancy. Her youngest sister Deborah married Andrew Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, and during the war Nancy would send him a selection of books wherever he was stationed. Once the war ended, he maintained his fondness for the bookshop, and eventually purchased it in 1991 before passing it to he and Deborah's son, Peregrine, upon his death in 2004.

So to this day, Nancy Mitford's nephew owns Heywood Hill, selling books to the people lucky enough to pass its iconic ink blue awning and walk through its door.

Watch all three episodes of Pursuit of Love on iPlayer