Posted in Random Things Tours

The Mayfair Bookshop by Eliza Knight

1938: She was one of the six sparkling Mitford sisters, known for her stinging quips, stylish dress, and bright green eyes. But Nancy Mitford’s seemingly dazzling life was really one of turmoil: with a perpetually unfaithful and broke husband, two Nazi sympathizer sisters, and her hopes of motherhood dashed forever. With war imminent, Nancy finds respite by taking a job at the Heywood Hill Bookshop in Mayfair, hoping to make ends meet, and discovers a new life.

Present Day: When book curator Lucy St. Clair lands a gig working at Heywood Hill she can’t get on the plane fast enough. Not only can she start the healing process from the loss of her mother, it’s a dream come true to set foot in the legendary store. Doubly exciting: she brings with her a first edition of Nancy’s work, one with a somewhat mysterious inscription from the author. Soon, she discovers her life and Nancy’s are intertwined, and it all comes back to the little London bookshop—a place that changes the lives of two women from different eras in the most surprising ways.

I have always held a fascination for the Mitford sisters, sparked mainly by childhood visits to Chatsworth when Deborah Mitford was the Duchess of Devonshire. Over the years I read more about these fascinating sisters, and I saw Debo (as she was known) as a formidable woman with great ideas for diversifying the estate. I acquired several books about Chatsworth and it’s resident women over the years, then several years ago I purchased a copy of the Mitford sister’s letters and met the then Dowager Duchess at a book signing. She was gracious, but there was a fierce intelligence there and a barely disguised lack of patience for fools. I had never been sure what the phrase ‘gimlet eyed’ actually meant until I observed her that day. More recently, the appearance of the glamorous, but dangerous Diana Mitford in the final series of Peaky Blinders seemed to open a few people’s eyes to the rise of fascism in Britain and turned the spotlight once again on this extraordinary family. While it probably wasn’t a realistic portrayal of her, it was certainly compelling. So I jumped at the chance to delve into the Mitford’s world once more in this book, perfect for a bibliophile as we spend time with both book curators, sellers and writers.

Nancy is a witty companion and rather poignant too, which is a very endearing combination. We meet her as one of the Bright Young Things, careering round London drinking cocktails and following treasure hunts, all the while looking absolutely fabulous. She is in love with a young man called Hamish who she fully expects to marry. However, when the story returns to her, she’s been disappointed in love and is married to someone else altogether, who she nicknames Prod. She and her husband have a rather sad marriage and underneath the sparkle I felt we were seeing something of Nancy’s more vulnerable side. The author skilfully weaves fact and fiction, thoroughly researching Nancy’s writings and letters, then creating a full inner world for her character. Of course we can’t know for sure how Nancy was truly feeling and to me she seemed one of those people who didn’t let them show easily. However, it rang true for her to be disappointed in her marriage, to resent Prod’s quite visible affairs and to be sad at her lack of a baby, especially as her younger sisters became mums before her. The journey she took as a woman was moving, especially the acceptance of things she would never be – a happily married woman and a mother. She also struggles with a bad case of imposter syndrome, common in writers, calling herself a bad novelist when all her work needs is experience, maturity and honesty of feeling.

Her WWII friend, the Iris that our modern heroine Lucy is searching for, helps her a great deal. With this friend she doesn’t have to be entertaining, witty Nancy, always ready to solve a problem and keep a brave face on things. She allows herself to be vulnerable in someone else’s presence and it feels like a huge psychological breakthrough. She can just be herself. On a bookish note, Lucy was fascinating because I had no idea there was such a profession as a book curator – where do I train and when I can start? I found her research really interesting, because I’ve always wanted to go into the library in Chatsworth and finding out they have a secret staircase was rather thrilling. Her research is inspired by the book her family acquired, inscribed to a friend called Iris from Nancy. Left for Iris at the Heywood Hill Bookshop, it was clearly never collected. Though there is no other mention of Iris that Lucy can find, it’s clear she had a huge effect on Nancy from the inscription alone. While working from this very bookshop, the same place Nancy worked during WWII, she hopes to find more references to Iris and her role in Nancy’s life. I wanted to Lucy to have an adventure of her own while in London and perhaps be inspired by some of Nancy’s spirit. As the book moves along we can see the women are on a similar journey, in terms of making the life they want to have, instead of waiting for it to happen.

Through their letters, it’s clear that the Mitford sisters had a rather awkward and contrary relationship. Despite often being completely at odds with each other, they continue to write, use terms of endearment and their family’s own language and share their news. Despite the scandalous relationship between Diana and Mosley, for whom she left a husband and two children, and Unity’s transformation into a Hitler fan girl, the other sisters continue to write to them. It has to be said that many in the aristocracy had fascist views, but Nancy didn’t share her sister’s politics. As WWII really took hold, Nancy’s huge social circle and fluent French meant she was useful to the government, but would this stretch to discussing her own family? I was fascinated to see this dynamic play out and wondered whether the women could repair their connections afterwards, remembering they are sisters first and foremost. The period detail was brilliant and the complete change between the London of the partying 1920’s and the more somber run up to WWII was done so well. I loved the nostalgic feel of the novel and those lovely little bits only bibliophiles like me can appreciate, such as a part library part menagerie with bird cages and tree branches. If you love bookish chat and the idea of working in a bookshop or have a similar fascination with the Mitfords you’ll love this one. Even if you’ve not come across the family before, there’s so much to love here and it won’t take many pages for Nancy’s wit and engaging narrative will draw you in. However, underneath the charm of the novel is a gripping story of a woman growing into herself, learning what makes her content and realising that she can, as a woman, make choices to pursue her own happiness.

Meet The Author

Eliza Knight is an award-winning and USA Today bestselling author. Her love of history began as a young girl when she traipsed the halls of Versailles. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and Novelists, Inc., and the creator of the popular historical blog, History Undressed. Knight lives in Maryland with her husband, three daughters, two dogs and a turtle