The Mayfair Bookshop by Eliza Knight – Nancy Mitford and the search for happiness then and now

The Mayfair Bookshop by Eliza Knight

This cleverly written book makes the most of the existing letters and information regarding the novelist Nancy Mitford and adds a fictional layer to tell an intimate and fascinating story of the woman who wrote “In Pursuit of Love”. It is a dual time period book with the creation of a contemporary book curator, Lucy St. Clair, who is sent to London for a short time to work in the famous Heywood Hill bookshop in Mayfair. Lucy is recovering from the loss of her mother, especially as the two of them were fascinated by Nancy, and determined to discover who was the friend called Iris who Nancy left a book for in the shop. Meanwhile Nancy progresses from the ultimate Bright Young Thing through several relationships, including an unhappy marriage. As the eldest Mitford sister, she gets drawn into the family scandals, including Diana’s obsession with fascist Oswald Mosley and Unity’s attraction to Hitler among other worries. As war approaches, Nancy is struggling to make ends meet financially, cope with her errant husband and dealing with her notorious family. Letters are added to her narrative which express her feelings, and her despair when she seems unable to have a child. When war is declared, she becomes determined to play her part, but when some of her family are openly hoping for a different outcome to hostilities, many friends are absent and in danger and even her writing seems to be impossible; how will she survive?

This is a well constructed story of two women trying to find answers, as Lucy tries to discover what really happened to her heroine and her special friend. The Nancy sections are desperately personal, helped along by letters that the author has created to encapsulate the situation that the author found herself in. While this is a fictional treatment, it is a very powerful way of conveying the struggles Nancy had which went beyond the partly autobiographical Pursuit of Love among her other work.From my reading of some of the biographies which Knight lists in her bibliographies in the back of this edition, it is a powerful novel based on solid research and an understanding of the main characters. Knowing that so many of her family’s actions would be poured over by newspaper journalists and readers would have been challenging for Nancy, especially against the background of her unsatisfactory marriage and other disappointments.  Her highs and lows, her decisions and struggles are so well represented in this book in a well balanced narrative which I found a compelling read.

The strand of the book set in the twenty-first century also makes an impact, its overall theme being the wonders of being in the heart of the city which Nancy knew so well at a difficult time, as Lucy discovers the magic of the memories that still linger of Nancy’s life and times.  It lightens the book considerably to witness her enjoyment of a visit to Chatsworth where youngest sister Deborah lived for many years,and to discover the special atmosphere of a bookshop which Nancy breathed life into which survives so many years later. Lucy’s search for the elusive Iris is well depicted as a challenge which gives depth to her story and links her to her much loved mother. 

I really enjoyed this book which kept moving and drawing me on through a well known story of a favourite author. I found it difficult to put down, as it was so well written with all the details of the clothes of the time, the danger of being in London during the Blitz and the everyday struggles of rationing. It combined the two time periods with a great deal of skill, while managing to convey two enthralling stories of women meeting challenges. I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review this fascinating book, and recommend it to those who love books and the story of the eldest Mitford daughter.