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
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.