Is there anything left to say about Evelyn Waugh? Since his death in 1966 at the age of 62, a veritable industry has grown up around the great satirist. A somewhat cloying but immensely popular television miniseries of his novel Brideshead Revisited got the ball rolling in the early 1980s. Practically all his work has been reissued, and several biographies have been undertaken - - I can think of three off the top of my head, two fulllength jobs in the last few years alone. An 800-page selection from his diaries appeared in 1976, 650 pages of letters came out in 1980, and a fat collection of his reviews and essays in 1984. The biographer Humphrey Carpenter even wrote a book called The Brideshead Generation, thus elevating Waugh to totemic status.
The novelist and biographer Nancy Mitford has not enjoyed anything like the attention lavished on her friend. But she, too, has become something of a cottage industry. In 1985, twelve years after her death, Jonathan Guinness's The House of Mitford appeared, a "family portrait" detailing the exploits of Mitford's parents, Lord and Lady Redesdale, their son, and their six beautiful and -- in three cases, anyway -- notorious daughters.
The story it tells is by turns hilarious and appalling. In 1936, Diana, the Mitfords' third daughter, married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and spent the better part of the war in jail. Unity, the fourth daughter, was a friend and fanatical admirer of Hitler; in 1939, when the war began, she put a bullet in her head but lingered on, a damaged and deranged creature, until 1948. Jessica, the fifth daughter, rounded things out by joining the Communist party and marrying a Communist.
Nancy was the oldest of the Mitford sisters. Her best and funniest novel, The Pursuit of Love, contains as much family history as fiction. Her talent -- like Waugh's, only smaller in compass and not as lacerating -- was essentially comic. The sensibility of both writers was leavened by a generous dollop of acidulous snobbery, often delightful to witness, no doubt distinctly less amusing to experience firsthand. Both the comedy and the snobbery are on exuberant display in their letters, not least in some 500 items they wrote to each other.
Charlotte Mosley, Nancy's niece by marriage, has brought out a collection containing almost all of the correspondence between Waugh and Mitford, from the mid-forties until a month or two before Waugh's death. Some 40 percent of the letters by Waugh and 80 percent of those by Mitford were previously unpublished. Much that had to be left out of earlier collections because of the threat of libel has been restored here; consequently, tantalizing ellipses indicating excised material are gratifyingly rare in The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, recently published in Great Britain.
As in her edition of Nancy's letters, published in 1993, Mosley's intelligent and informative notes give this book a narrative coherence that such collections often lack. The result, quite simply, is one of the most entertaining epistolary conversations of the century. "Reading their correspondence," Mosley notes in her introduction, "is like overhearing a conversation between two quick-witted, provocative, very funny friends, who know the same people, read the same books, laugh at the same jokes and often share the same prejudices."
Waugh and Mitford first met in the summer of 1928. Nancy was a close friend of Waugh's first wife, Evelyn Gardner, whom he married that year. The marriage, alas, was a disaster from the word go. In 1930, She-Evelyn (as the first Mrs. Waugh was known) ran off with John Heygate, a news editor for the BBC. Shocked by her friend's defection, Mitford sided firmly with Waugh and never spoke to
In 1933, Nancy, on the rebound from an unrequited love, precipitously married Peter Rodd -- "Prodd" to his friends and many enemies. The marriage, she soon realized, was a serious mistake. Handsome, clever, and from a distinguished family, Rodd was also pompous, drunken, profligate, licentious, and otherwise disreputable. Waugh cordially disliked Rodd; indeed, Rodd is the model for the character Basil Seal, the seductive and sinister antihero of Black Mischief and other books.
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."
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.