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EVELYN AND NANCY

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 brisk retort suggests her annoyance: "Don't start My dear Nancy I don't like it. I can't agree that I must be debarred from ever mentioning anything to do with your creator. Try & remember that he also created me." Waugh was once asked how he could behave so brutally and still call himself a Christian. He famously replied that, were it not for his faith, he would barely be human.


There is a fair amount of literary shop talk in these letters -- the merits of so-and-so's latest book, the defects of some fashionable author. "I am reading Proust for the first time," Waugh writes in 1948, "and am surprised to find him a mental defective. No one warned me of that."


By the mid-'40s, Waugh was a renowned figure in the literary world, Nancy still a fledgling. Although she did not always take his advice, she clearly considered him her chief authority on literary matters and submitted to numerous letters criticizing everything from her plots to her grammar and punctuation. ("The punctuation," Waugh wrote about Love in a Cold Climate, "is pitiable but it never becomes unintelligible so I just shouldn't try. It is clearly not your subject -- like theology.")


Like most writers, Waugh and Mitford were obsessed by money, and their letters are full of sums made, promised, taxed, and spent. Protestations of poverty are frequent. "I have been doing sums for weeks & find I am hopelessly mined," Waugh wrote in 1952. He promised to economize by, among other things, sacking his brood of servants. Nancy shot back that "life without servants is not worth living-better cut down in any other way."


They could be merciless about their friends and acquaintances. Waugh wrote to tell Nancy that Cyril Connolly had been commissioned by Time magazine to do a profile of him. "I said 'On the day the article appears I shall horse whip you on the steps of White's.' He turned green white yellow & grey and then said: 'what will you pay me not to write it?'"


Winston Churchill's hapless son Randolph was the butt of many anecdotes. Waugh recounted Randolph's standing for Parliament and, nervously awaiting the election results, asking the town clerk how he was doing:


"Thirty something thousand and something." "Isn't that rather good?" Ah yes you're quite safe. We've only a few more to count and they can't affect the result." Dazed with joy [Randolph] rushed out & told his committee. All embraced. Two minutes later the town clerk padded out; "Oh Mr. Churchill I made such a silly mistake, I gave you Mr. Foot's figures."


Randolph inspired some of Waugh's most famous barbs. Writing in his diary after Randolph had been operated on for a lung tumor that turned out to be benign, Waugh observed that "it was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it."


There are some unpleasantnesses in this book: Waugh's blimpish anti- Semitism, Mitford's hysterical anti-Americanism. "I hate them so much now," Nancy wrote in 1953 about Americans, "that I ALMOST (I don't say quite) don't care to touch their beastly money." But such snobberies and crudities seem somehow beside the point. What these masters of epistolary wit have given us is not something to be analyzed and judged but something to delight and amuse and beguile.




Roger Kimball is managing editor of the New Criterion.