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Charlotte Mosley, The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, Hadder and Stoughten

11:00 PM, Dec 29, 1996 • By ROGER KIMBALL
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Nancy's marriage, as Mosley puts it, "limped through the years leading up to the war." By 1939 it was over in all but name (they were not divorced until 18 years later). In 1941 she began working at Heywood Hill's bookshop on Curzon Street -- then as much a literary salon as a store, and still one of the best and most charming booksellers in London. In 1942 she met Gaston Palewski, a Free French colonel on de Gaulle's staff in London. For Palewski, the affair was little more than a charming jeu d'esprit; for Nancy, it was the central love affair of her life. In 1946, after the war ended, she moved -- permanently, as it turned out -- to Paris to be near "the Colonel." Her lifelong devotion survived everything, from his numerous affairs and long absences to the final devastating blow of his marriage to another woman in 1969.

Soon after Nancy moved to Paris, Waugh wrote her that "no one departure has left such a yawning (literally) hole in London as yours." In fact, though, theirs was a relationship that blossomed most fully long distance, through the medium of pen and ink. As Waugh's best biographer, Selina Hastings, notes, "their friendship became consolidated by letter. Both were at their best on paper . . . hilariously witty, sometimes cruel, frequently childish; they both drew on deep wells of anger and disappointment; they were both prejudiced, provocative, arrogant, and essentially kind-hearted."

But if certain shared traits encouraged their epistolary intimacy, deep and abiding differences lent it piquancy and edges. Waugh and Mitford were from the same social set, but in other respects they were a study in contrasts, and temperamentally they were opposites. Mitford was sanguine, Waugh melancholic. At the end of the decade, Nancy wrote that she "enjoyed every moment of the 1940s," adding that "what is so nice & so unexpected about life is the way it improves as it goes along." For Waugh, such cheeriness was infuriating: "Of course I am cross with you for being happy," he wrote, only partly teasing. "It is entirely indecent." Waugh became increasingly bitter, isolated, and -- one of his favorite words about himself in later life -- " enfeebled" as he got older: "I am quite deaf now," he wrote in 1953. "Such a comfort." In one revealing passage, he admitted, "I can only bear intimacy really & after that formality or servility. The horrible thing is familiarity. " Despite an increasing battery of travails, physical as well as emotional, Nancy waxed ever more serene. "How I shrieked[" is a giddy refrain in her letters.

Waugh and Mitford were also separated by politics. Nancy never entertained the extreme views that seduced some of her sisters, but she was, as she put it, "a milk and water socialist." Mosley is quite right to describe Waugh as " a born reactionary who regarded it as his duty to oppose the encroachment of the modern world in any form." This made for some amusing clashes. "Nancy," Waugh wrote in an article in 1951, "having voted socialist and done her best to make England uninhabitable, broke from her chrysalis, took wing and settled lightly in the heart of Paris."

"I must beg you with all earnestness," he wrote her in 1946, "if we are to continue friends, never use the word 'progressive' in writing to me. . . . It makes me sick and agitated for hours to read it." For her part, Nancy gave as good as she got: She was, indeed, one of the few people who consistently stood up to Waugh's bullying. "I know you can't tell the difference between Lloyd George & Stalin," she retorted, "but other people can." In 1951 she asked, "I often wonder what sort of world you would like to live in? Berlin under Hitler seems to come the nearest." Responding to a draft of an article that Waugh was writing about her, she insisted: "You MUST modify your statement that I'm a communist agent. . . . Think of me as a Christian," she suggested, "early, if you like."

Religion divided them as well. Always intolerant, after his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930, Waugh extended his intolerance to spiritual matters. "It is not that I think your soul in danger," he wrote Nancy in 1949, "but that I doubt if you have a soul at all." Religious questions pop up often in his correspondence, and sometimes the discussion is serious, sometimes merely sarcastic. "My dear Nancy," Waugh began in 1951, "Would it not be best always to avoid any reference to the Church or to your Creator? Your intrusions into this strange world are always fatuous. With love, E."