Books: Love in a bold climate

THE LETTERS OF NANCY MITFORD & EVELYN WAUGH ed Charlotte Mosley, Hodder pounds 25
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There have been many easier people than Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, but I doubt there have been many funnier. Their correspondence, which ended only with Waugh's death in 1966, and which covers mutual friends, family, a loathing of the modern world, politics, literature, money, the question of happiness, and much more, can make you rock with helpless laughter. In each case, the comic performance is debonair and assured - the product of superb throwaway wit, yes, but bearing burnished nuggets which it must have entertained them, in between letters, to craft and keep for each other.

But what kind of comedy is this? Selina Hastings, in her book about Nancy Mitford, reflected brilliantly on Nancy's favourite word for laughter - "shrieks" - with all its connotations of distress and pain. Here too, just beneath the surface, lie a sadness and a savagery that each writer decided to mould into hilarity. This is what must have bound them together, and it was this that they exchanged, along with the giggling and silliness and delight in gossip and anecdote.

The two had met through Waugh's first wife, also called Evelyn; Nancy was living in their house at the time when She-Evelyn ran away with another man: it was the friendship with He-Evelyn that weathered the upheaval. When the surviving letters began in earnest, during the last two years of the war, Nancy was working in Heywood Hill's bookshop in London; Charlotte Mosley, in her Preface, describes her at this time as "desperately short of money, lonely and unhappy". Her marriage to Peter Rodd was stuttering towards its end, although Nancy loyally supported him for many more years; that an ectopic pregnancy had ended her chances of having children was a deep sadness.

As the letters progress - the correspondence is so well preserved that we can often read both sides of what sounds more than anything like a conversation - several themes emerge. Above all, the two strove to entertain each other: one of the things that most united them was their sheer love of a story, the more preposterous the better. Here is Nancy after a dinner with a young friend: "His stepmother went into the garden, blew 1/2 her head off with a shot gun (brains on all the shrubs) lay all night in pouring rain & and was fully conscious - rather spry in fact, when found in the morning. Puts one off suicide - well I've never been tempted by shot guns in any case." Waugh, on discovering the existence of personal alarms on a trip to New York, flies off at a wild tangent: "I gave Edith Sitwell a pocket air raid siren & she lets it off when people ask her whether free verse is more poetic than rhymed."

There is a running joke about Randolph Churchill's exuberant love-life; another about a Sergeant Preston; Cyril Connolly, known to them as Smarty or Smarty Boots, is a stock character: "The great excitement of the week," writes Nancy from Paris, "has been the death of Pierre Colle, aged 38, from overeating. He literally burst. I leave it to you to do what you think best about telling Smarty."

But being the people they are, they quickly convert the frippery into more serious, often barbed remarks. They were at odds on many important things, which became regular "teases" between them. "Death is not certain," writes Waugh, "but baldness and blindness are. Still it will save you from seeing Picasso...". When Nancy gets at him about his Catholic faith ("I live here next door to a Cardinal. There is a curious thumping noise ... can you explain?"), he retaliates with a semi-serious needle about her love of the French. Politics, and Nancy's youthful radicalism, is a constantly rich source of teasing: "I am afraid," he writes in 1948, "that when you fall into communist hands you must expect very little gratitude for all your services to the Party. ... I am so weary about having been so consistently right in all my political predictions ... For you & Duff [Cooper] and Randolph [Churchill] life must all be one lovely surprise after another."

As the years go by, they truly begin to sound like a couple, with their cosiness and small barbs and growing sadnesses and quasi-private language, but they were never romantically involved. Their love of literature is truly the tie that binds. They discuss books, reviews and writers, often in asides: "Goodness Proust is smutty - I'd forgotten" exclaims Nancy; some time later Waugh puts in: "I am reading Proust for the first time - in English of course - and am surprised to find him a mental defective. No one warned me of that."

More seriously, they criticise each other's work. Nancy writes to him about Brideshead Revisited, "dazzled with admiration" and reports authoritatively "One dreadful error. Diamond clips were only invented about 1930 - you wore a diamond arrow in your cloche." When Waugh reads the typescript of what became Love in a Cold Climate (this best of all titles was his suggestion, as The Pursuit of Love had been), he writes Nancy a remarkable letter of advice and criticism. It is tough but jokey ("Six months hard I am afraid without remission for good conduct. The manuscript was a delight to read, full of wit & fun & fantasy. Whole passages ... might be used verbatim in a book..."), and uncompromising "the book must be saved. So start again." He lightens this fierce injunction with characteristic little taunts (" The punctuation is pitiable but it never becomes unintelligible so I just shouldn't try. It is clearly not your subject - like theology") but ends "Well I suppose you will now hate me for the rest of our lives." She didn't. Although few could survive such honesty, theirs was no usual friendship. As we finish this exhilarating, sometimes saddening collection, we can't help feeling that these two exceptional people were lucky to have each other.

Charlotte Mosley is an exemplary editor of this treasury. Her prefaces and introductions are packed with information; she is completely knowledgeable yet completely unobtrusive, footnoting with great care (and sometimes wittily) but never excessively or tiresomely. It is a great achievement.