Wounding Nonsenses

E.S. Turner

  • The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh edited by Charlotte Mosley
    Hodder, 531 pp, £25.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 340 63804 4

The letters exchanged by Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh over twenty years were written, we are told, ‘to amuse, distract or tease’, a welcome function no doubt in times of bogged-down creativity. But it is clear they were also written to amuse, distract and tease posterity, since both correspondents were confident their dispatches would end up in the public domain, a consideration which did nothing to inhibit the flow of malice. Quite early in the correspondence Darling Nancy tells Darling Evelyn: ‘I’ve left you [in her will] all the letters I’ve kept. Your daughter Harriet might edit them.’ Asked by Waugh to burn a recent letter which was unfair to a friend, she replies: ‘What a rum request. I specially treasure your nasty letters, posterity will love them so. However just as you say.’ On a later occasion, tidying up his letters in a drawer, she muses: ‘I must ask Randolph [Churchill] how much he will give me for them.’ Literary jackals abound. Waugh warns that Cyril Connolly is ‘up to something rather fishy in collecting letters, I think for sale in America. Be wary! There is a nice nest egg for us all in our senility in our correspondence. American Universities are buying them at extravagant prices.’

It is an odd world, by peasant standards. Here is the misanthropic squire of Stinch-combe, blessed with a well-born wife to look after the cows, dividing his time between the local cinema and his study in Piers Court, where he corresponds with wealthy, witty ladies (Mitford takes turns with Ann Fleming and Diana Cooper) who keep him au fait with the doings of vile bodies in the world from which he has withdrawn. The postal service is so good that a letter from Mitford in postwar Paris telling of the latest liaison dangereuse can be on his desk the next day. She is not too lost in pursuit of her French colonel to ignore a domestic request from Waugh: ‘Can you get rubber corsets in Paris, Laura asks. It is very important to have them after having a baby.’ All good friends together, it seems; yet we are told that on the infrequent occasions when Mitford and Waugh met in the flesh they were apt to quarrel, thanks to her sharp tongue and his bad temper.

Charlotte Mosley, who married Mitford’s nephew, is a sharp-eyed editor who knows a thing or two (as, for instance, that une tante intégrale is a raging queen). She has already edited a volume of Nancy Mitford’s letters, Love from Nancy. Others who have been at the nest eggs include Mark Amory, who edited The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, and Artemis Cooper, who gave us the Waugh-Cooper correspondence in Mr Wu and Mrs Stitch. So what is left? We are assured that 80 per cent of the Mitford letters and 40 per cent of Waugh’s in this volume have not previously been published. Those who have grown up with the Waugh industry will find no major surprises: it is the familiar tale with black sauce. The editor’s warning that the letters should be read for entertainment not truth is perhaps superfluous. In this feast of irresponsibility she is ready to puncture with a neat footnote the more wounding nonsenses. She cannot let Mitford get away with imputing ‘intense cowardice’ to Lady Derby for not trying to strangle a crazed footman who murdered her butler and under-butter; seemingly, she was in no state to strangle anybody since, as the first to be attacked, she was already lying in a pool of blood. Other nonsenses are not worth puncturing, but inevitably many a lie must be left on its own wings to fly. Although the record is treacherous, it will be endlessly quarried for examples of class attitudes, popular prejudices, sexual mores, ghastly manners, period slang (blissikins, blissipots), evidence of anti-semitism, sidelights on the servant problem, glimpses of the literary underworld and aspects of life under the Attlee Terror. Even in its more rancid moments it is very funny.

The correspondence gets under way just after the war. Despite the paper shortage both writers have achieved spectacular bestsellers: Brideshead Revisited and The Pursuit of Love. Income tax, as one remembers with pain, was ten shillings in the pound; but the worst thing, according to Waugh, was to have a wife with £2000 a year in trust funds, which left one ‘literally out of pocket’. Both Mitford and Waugh are reduced to taking on pot-boilers. Waugh struggles with the history of a wine firm and Mitford produces letters about life in France, at two guineas a time, for Randolph Churchill to use in America. Nevertheless, as early as 1946, Waugh is contemplating the purchase of Gormanston Castle in County Meath as his future seat, pulling out when he hears that a Butlin’s camp is to be setup nearby. In Stinchcombe, which is menaced by a leaky ‘prison without bars’, he dreams of installing a private chapel and a ‘twelve-bedder’ vault.

The running joke in the letters is that Mitford, having voted socialist and helped to wreck her homeland, has thrown in her lot with the degenerate traitors of France, whence she radiates a ‘vile and frivolous panglossisme’. Waugh has already suffered a terrible postwar holiday at La Baule, ‘a town of ineffable horror’. All that he has foreseen is now happening in Britain. The reign of George VI ‘will go into history as the most disastrous my unhappy country has known since Matilda and Stephen’. The new Queen has already been seen in slacks. And the French revenge themselves on their liberators by sending camembert made from United Nations milk powder which turns to chalk and moss without ever ripening. (Does not some of it still slip through?)

The French upper classes, according to Mitford, are either very dull or very vicious. A strong whiff of pourriture seems to haunt the circles in which she moves and shrieks. Lesbians, pederasts and ‘terrific pansies’ are constantly sighted. Her colonel – Gaston Palewski – is an admirer of the Tatler, which he finds ‘refreshingly free from homosexual influences’. Perhaps, says Mitford, she ought to take it. What sort of titbits, then, does she send the recluse of Stinchcombe? Well, there is this grand seductress, a countess, who after dinner enters a bedroom where two young women, one of them ‘a roaring Liz’, are brushing their hair, and exclaims: ‘This is just what I like, two pretty women. Get into bed, girls, and we’ll have a ménage à trois.’ At Hyères, Mitford has a vicomtesse neighbour with a Spanish lover who knocks her about and sleeps with her butler. She dines with a baron whose male lover ‘has given him a yacht with 24 English sailors’. Having been invited on a cruise by a society hostess, she is ‘chucked’ out in Majorca along with a Spanish grandee, not the marrying kind, so that her hostess may the more easily entertain her newly arrived lover, an English lord. Rumours? There’s a duke’s daughter who may be turning into a man, and there’s somebody who is ‘marrying a man with no legs and two wives’. It beats the afternoon cinema in Dursley any day. Waugh is not always able to envisage the excesses hinted at in this rolling Satyricon and asks for further information. He also seeks details of an erotic Boucher in the bedroom of the Duchess of Windsor, showing two lesbians at work.

Not that Mitford always keeps bad company. She is chums with a pious old-world countess of eighty who confesses the tiniest sins every day. She is invited to dine on the warship of the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean. At his Fontainebleau headquarters, Field-Marshal Montgomery has taken a shine to her. Waugh enquires how she knows that the great soldier, whom she describes as bliss and ‘so pretty’, keeps all her books at his bedside, and that he washes his own shirts at night. There must, he thinks, be some secret and disgusting reason fur this.

How much to believe is ever the problem. There is great excitement in Paris one week over the death of an unpopular art dealer, aged 38, from over-eating – ‘He literally burst ... I gather even Whispering Glades wouldn’t have made much of him and in fact they hurried him underground the very next day.’ Compare this with an earlier Mitford flight of fancy: when writing from London she tells how an already corpulent Conservative MP was seen to have expanded to twice his size while sitting on a Parliamentary committee, his doctor ‘having given him elephantiasis by mistake’ (for the rest of the Grand Guignol details, see page 12). Or compare, again, with Waugh’s own report of the dire disorder which overtook Graham Greene in a New York hotel, when his lap began filling with blood. Had he, too, burst? Well, not exactly; there’s an explanation of sorts on page 106.

At one point, the two teases fall out. Mitford, who is writing pieces about France for Ian Fleming at the Sunday Times (at a surprisingly modest fee of £30), has failed to grasp the niceties involved in the administration of last rites to an excommunicated priest. Waugh pounces. This time she has gone too far; she has committed a beastly error for one who ‘sets herself up as the mediating logos between France and England’; her intrusions into such matters are ‘always fatuous’. What upsets Mitford is the altered salutation on his letter. ‘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 and remember he also created me.’ The ‘popish heat’ sparked by his faithful allumease is slow to subside. Strangely, Mitford never takes exception to the things Waugh says about her work in print – that ‘she can write but not think’ and is ‘entirely oblivious of all moral and spiritual judgments’. These merely make her shriek with laughter.

As a study of two hard-driven, high-flying writers in uneasy collaboration the book is at its best. At the start Waugh is in debt to Mitford for looking after his accumulated francs from royalties, for use when he crosses the Channel. He helps her with punctuation and the use of the subjunctive, of which she knows no more than she does of theology, and also with plot construction. In return she assists with ‘frog dialogue’; even the Colonel is called in to advise on how a French-speaking Dakar sentry would challenge a stranger. At one point, in her role as Mrs Peter Rodd, she writes to her absentee husband to dissuade him from suing Waugh for libel, telling him that this is the lowest way of making money. Waugh, of course, has no scruples about picking up libel damages, looking on the Daily Express as a milch cow. Never one for consistency, Mitford exclaims: ‘You are lucky to be libelled.’ When Randolph Churchill collects £5000 for being called a ‘hack’, Waugh’s comment is: ‘Very encouraging for litigants.’

Waugh is dissatisfied with his Men at Arms, calling it ‘slogging, inelegant, boring’, and tries to dissuade Mitford from reading it. ‘Goodness it’s good,’ she insists, praising the bits she likes, but adding, ‘You see women through a glass darkly, don’t you?’ In her evaluation of Sword of Honour she expresses surely the distilled essence of Mitfordism in saying it was a mistake to have his character Victoria killed by a flying bomb: ‘In fact people one knew were never killed in raids – I mean no human being of any sort that I ever knew was, except Myrtle ...’ Also he has failed to bring out ‘the amusingness of buzz bombs’.

In 1963 we find Mitford setting aside £4000 for a tomb with ‘angels and things’, only to learn that angels are out of clerical favour. ‘People are AMAZED ... Surely it’s an ancient instinct to want a pretty tomb?’ This was going it a bit, even for a Mitford. Charlotte Mosley tells us that in an open letter in Encounter Waugh took the opportunity to remind Mitford that she would never have become a ‘hon’, at the age of 12, if her uncle had not been killed in the Great War, and might have been reared on a Canadian ranch or a New Zealand sheep run. The pretty tomb did not materialise and she was buried under a simple stone at Swinbrook. Among her virtues was that she was a conscientious godmother to Waugh’s daughter Harriet; there are 21 index references to her presents (failure of children and adults to say thank you for presents is a recurring theme).

Outstanding among the literary butts in these pages is Cyril Connolly (Boots, Smarty Boots, Bootikins, Bonny Boots, Spruciboots), who was caricatured by both writers in their fiction. Time magazine offered him $1000 to write a profile of Waugh, with searching psychological questions suggested, and he could have taken a pretty revenge. When Waugh said he would horsewhip Boots on the steps of White’s if the profile appeared, the reply was: ‘What will you give me not to write it?’ He was paid by the magazine but the piece was never published. A more mysterious butt is the American Sergeant Preston, who also found his way into Waugh’s novels (and even gets his photograph in this book). An art historian by profession, he was welcomed everywhere in wartime London, but his military function remains obscure. Waugh seems to have finally lost patience with him and wished he would enter a Trappist monastery. If any British noncommissioned officer succeeded in cutting a swathe through wartime society in the capital, facing down provosts-marshal and snooty maîtres d’hôtel, we have yet to hear of him.

In 1956, when the U and non-U silliness was at its height, Waugh learned that Anthony Powell had accepted a ‘degrading decoration’, namely a CBE. ‘I think it very WRONG,’ he wrote to Mitford, ‘that politicians should treat writers as second-grade civil servants. I trust you will stand out for CH or Dame.’ She replied that she could never accept Dame-‘nothing could be more non-U.’ Six years after Waugh’s death she settled for a CBE. Currently, the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire appears to be held in the highest regard in literary circles. Two minutes with a pocket calculator and the last annual report of the Society of Authors shows that among the sixty-odd corps d’élite listed on the front cover there are four DBEs, 18 CBEs, seven OBEs and one MBE (with a topping up of three OMs, two CHs and a CVO).