Dear Woo, My dear Nancy; a trove of letters comes to light

Rock 'n' roll and the Suez crisis were just round the corner. But in the fading days of Britain's empire letters written by two of the country's best-known novelists show high society refused to let the old ways and the old days go peacefully.

The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, to be published later this month, reveal an often unconscious hilarity in the pair's attitude to the changing post-war world. While the rest of Britain was struggling with the after-effects of six years of war, Waugh - the writer who cruelly satirised English society while at the same time being deeply in love with it - seemed to be struggling on pounds 10,000 a year and worrying that he may have to sack all his five servants.

The new volume - extracts of which are published in the latest issue of Harpers & Queen magazine - adds to the insights revealed in an earlier batch of published correspondence. Writing from his Gloucestershire home to Nancy Mitford in Paris in 1952 , he complains: "I am sacking all the servants (five does seems rather a lot to look after Laura and me in a house the size of a boot)." He bleats of a future life where he will "never wear a clean collar again or subscribe to the Royal Lifeboat fund".

Nancy Mitford, one of the six Mitford sisters who seemed to find an influential niche in every movement of the 20th century from fascism to communism, had just published her novel Love in a Cold Climate. Regarded as a socialist, these letters nevertheless reveal her fondness for the old regime and the fading comforts of the aristocracy. Whether in jest or reality she found a sadness in her correspondent's plight. "Darling Evelyn, life without servants is not worth living - better cut down in any other way."

For the best part of two decades the pair lived on opposite sides of the channel and exchanged more than 500 letters. Wit, gossip and a sharp wordsmith's knife stabbed into the heart of those they disliked, dominate the letters. The fashionable Paris contrasts with Waugh's flirtation with the English upper-class and his constant penurious complaining of not being able to keep up. The cast of the correspondence include Lady Diana Cooper, the critic Cyril Connolly, the novelist Graham Greene and the fertile arena of her family including her sisters Lady Mosley and the Duchess of Devonshire.

In one letter, just after Love in a Cold Climate had been greeted with critical acclaim, Waugh wrote "I was wrong in thinking publication would blight your career. Congratulations on your good sense at not being put by my ill-considered criticism."

In the early Fifties Waugh too was carving his literary reputation. In August 1951 he wrote to Nancy admitting what his son, Auberon, has always maintained, that his father was far from an ideal parent. "I have been at home pegging away at my novel and associating with my children whose interests I do not share." His cook is on holiday and his "manservant" had "taken to his bed". His house guests, he predicts, "will have poor entertainment". There is always room for complaint "My poverty is irksome". He confides that an American publisher is suing him for $3000 and he cannot pay. "So I must go to prison." He never went to prison.

In early 1952 their letters argue the merits of living in England or France. Nancy asks: "Is England really the England of Shakespeare. Is Germany that of Goethe?" By 1955, they were arguing over the merits of the upper class and the emerging middle classes. "My mother-in-law believes it middle-class to decant claret. Lord Beauchamp thought it m.c. not to decant champagne (into jugs)." Waugh is keen to ensure his children use bicycle instead of bike.

Despite her early literary success, Nancy would die in Paris, apparently dejected. Throughout the late Fifties and early Sixties, she wrote to Waugh, a Roman Catholic in his later life, about what happened after death. "If we go to heaven first, then have the resurrection of the body and then have the court martial and then go to hell, that seems awfully disappointing."

Waugh, seemingly confident about the nature of the after-life, still worries about pending financial matters. "I am having a grievous time with weddings. A daughter last week, a son at the end of the month. Most fatiguing and costly."

The Letters of Nancy Mitford Evelyn Waugh, edited by Charlotte Mosley; published by Hodder & Stoughton on 17 October

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk