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Corresponding talents

Peter Parker examines a friendship that thrived on separation; The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh edited by Charlotte Mosley, Hodder, pounds 25
It is surprising that Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh were friends at all. In 1929, within a year of their meeting, Mitford was closely involved in the first major crisis of Waugh's life when her chaperonage of his first wife proved insufficiently vigilant to prevent She-Evelyn embarking on an affair while He-Evelyn was in the country writing Vile Bodies. Their friendship received another setback in 1933, when Mitford married Peter Rodd, a charming but incorrigibly adulterous wastrel, whom Waugh looked upon with profound distaste. Apparently unable to profit by experience, Mitford fell out of this disastrous marriage into the arms of another energetic womaniser, Colonel Gaston Palewski, whom, to Waugh's incredulous dismay, she followed back to his native France at the end of the war. But the Waugh-Mitford friendship worked best when they were apart. It resulted in some 500 letters, almost every one of which is published in this volume.

As correspondents they have two distinct advantages: they had a great many friends in common, and they held widely divergent beliefs. When Waugh, who had settled in Gloucestershire, asked Cyril Connolly to supply him with London gossip, Connolly replied stiffly that he "did not regard the sufferings of his fellow men as the subject of humour". The same could not be said of either Waugh or Mitford, and many of the funniest letters describe (with baroque embellishment) the misfortunes of mutual acquaintances - notably Connolly himself, whose amorous adventures, and the strain they put upon his health and finances, are an unceasing source of merriment. Similar exaggeration is seen in the adversarial positions each took up on opposite sides of the Channel. Mitford adored France and constantly harped on its superiority in every way to England. The anglomaniac Waugh insisted that he loathed the place. A would-be Tory squire, he affected to believe that Mitford was a rabid communist, or at the very least someone who had worked for the triumph of socialism in England only to flee its consequences. (Even Diana Mosley, who had been interned during the war as a fascist, refused to regard her sister's politics as anything other than "synthetic cochineal".) Much of the energy of the correspondence is generated by these differing views.

Mitford's letters outnumber Waugh's by about one third. Her style is almost identical with (could it have suggested?) that of the "young lady of leisure" whose excitedly semi-literate letters form the narrative of Waugh's 1932 story "Cruise". Charlotte Mosley has added apostrophes, correctedspelling and tidied up punctuation "where necessary to the sense", and while this detracts somewhat from the reader's sense of Mitford's pell-mell reportage, one can still see why Waugh spent so much time playing the schoolmaster. "The punctuation is pitiable," he wrote of a manuscript she had submitted to his scrutiny, "but it never becomes unintelligible so I just shouldn't try. It is clearly not your subject - like theology." Mitford did her best to get religion right, but this proved difficult with someone as finicking as Waugh. His letter of rebuke over an article in which she innocently misrepresented the cause of a priest's departure from the church opened "My dear Nancy" rather than the customary "Darling Nancy", continued with a lecture on Catholic procedure, and concluded by warning her off writing about the church at all: "Your intrusions into this strange world are always fatuous." Mitford was quite capable of standing up to this sort of bullying nonsense. "Don't start My Dear Nancy I don't like it," she replied by return (an example, incidentally, of the creative power of bad punctuation). "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." She concluded. "I don't defend my inaccuracies but it's your TONE that nettles me." And no wonder.

Her next communication wickedly informed Waugh that two priests had written to her on the subject and she was "Surprised by the illiterate look of these postcards - you would say an electrician, or seed merchant". In one celebrated article for the Sunday Times she compared Rome with "a village, with its one post office, one railway station and life centred round the vicarage.'' These were so clearly teases that not even the cantankerous Waugh could take offence.

There is plenty in these letters to cause apoplexy amongst the serious minded. Frivolity, snobbery and schadenfreude abound along with disparaging references to all races and creeds (including the English). Much of this is for effect and, as Mosley notes, these letters "were written to amuse, distract or tease".

"Are you shrieking?" Mitford would ask Waugh after relaying some particularly choice anecdote. Well, not exactly - though the book is certainly enjoyable and in places very funny indeed. One senses, however, that Waugh and Mitford were shrieking. These are the letters of people who were not terribly happy. Although Mitford made light of it, her one-sided romance with Palewski caused her considerable unhappiness, while Waugh's disillusionment with the world, though comically exaggerated, was genuine enough. "You still have the gift of seeing people as funny which I lost somewhere in the highlands of Scotland circa 1943," he wrote despondently towards the end of 1950. This book provides substantial evidence to the contrary, but one's final impression is of two people caring for each other's entertainment on the edge of an abyss.