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

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