‘My great new friend is Noël Coward’, Nancy Mitford confided to a correspondent in 1949. ‘Bliss. He shakes like a jelly at one’s jokes, I adore that.’ It was laughs Nancy Mitford wanted, much more than grandeur. She longs to make people laugh, and sometimes, almost in the manner of a nervous stand-up comedienne, interrupts her letters to make sure that the audience is suitably convulsed. ‘Are you shrieking?’ she implores her sister Diana, in the middle of relaying some mildly amusing malice about a friend. To her lover Gaston Palewski (‘Colonel’), she reports that Odette Massigli is having an affair with John Lehmann, who had never liked women before’. ‘Are you shrieking, Colonel?’ One hopes that he was. ‘I have been screaming with laughter for several days on end,’ Nancy reports, after reading a life of Queen Victoria. The French General Election of 1953? ‘Oh, the election! Never has anything been so hysterically funny.’ (Never?) In 1967, reading about the increased number of coloured immigrants to England, ‘of course I screamed with laughter.’ When a Spaniard suggests to her sister Lady Mosley mat Evelyn Waugh was only a Roman Catholic ‘for a joke’, ‘we screamed with laughter.’ And so on and so on. I am not being so puritanical as to deny that – at the time – all this must have been screamingly funny. On the printed page, I fear, it can seem dead and cold. I once asked Lady Mosley what she found so beguiling about Hitler’s conversation. ‘Oh, the jokes,’ she said at once.
It is rather sad that these letters, read in bulk, might serve to confirm Harold Nicolson’s feline judgment on Nancy Mitford: ‘She is essentially not an intellectual and there is a sort of Roedean hoydenishness about her which I dislike.’ I did not dislike her by the end of the book, but it comes as a surprise to be writing a review which, in effect, tries to defend Nancy Mitford’s reputation not against her detractors but against her defenders. At the wish of her sister and literary executor the Duchess of Devonshire, many passages from the letters have been deleted. Fearful that posterity might judge Nancy to be cruel, her editor (a niece by marriage) has conveyed the much more dam aging impression that she could be boring.
At least two of Nancy Mitford’s novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, are as funny and as humane as anything written in the post-war period. Her later popular biographies of Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire and Frederick the Great are exemplary for their wit and elegance. And she was a consist ently good journalist. One of the best pranks ever played on the public was her U and Non-U joke, because it revealed the passionate seriousness with which the English regard class. She spotted the potential of this minefield when she read Professor Ross’s article ‘Linguistic Class-Indicators in Present-Day English’, published in 1954 in the Proceedings of La Société Néo-Philologiquc de Helsinki. The English, who had long realised that it was wrong to say ‘toilet’, were now supplied with lists of shibboleths with which to torment one another. (Addicts of the joke will be interested to observe that in per-Noblesse Oblige letters, there are many non-U usages, such as ‘notepaper’ and ‘mantelpiece’.)
The essence of Nancy Mitford’s humour is its preparedness to be cruel. The account in this volume of Alan Lennox-Boyd swelling to twice his normal size because a doctor had mistakenly injected him with elephantiasis would, indeed, make you scream. Here is an other letter which exemplifies her humour:
I must describe a visit to the Joneses – the angelic Enid [Bagnold] has just seen me onto the boat – while fresh in my memory. I did so think of you all the time.
First meal, a letter from a woman who had been assaulted by one of those vast dogs was read out. The dog, she said, appeared to be in charge of an amiable lunatic. On hearing these words the said A.L. burst into tears which streamed down his face mingled with blood, I don’t know what from. Enid mopped it all up, but not often enough. Pandora screamed from time to time and gave me expressive looks. The baby screamed throughout and kicked its chair and rattled a spoon.
I was then taken to the drawing room & shown a dying dog which had been tearfully bitten by the other dogs. Buckets of blood everywhere. Sir Roderick, outside, was scrubbing sick (don’t know whose) off a cushion.
This is what the true Nancy Mitford fans enjoy, and to judge from the snippets so tantalisingly quoted both in Harold Acton’s memoir and in Selina Hastings’s fuller biography, there were many more like this. ‘At every word a reputation dies.’ In this long volume one wants more, more, more of this, and less sisterly chit-chat about skirt lengths.
After all, as she herself admitted so freely, Nancy Mitford did not suffer from the virtue of loyalty to friends and loved ones, and anyone was fair game if she could make their antics sound sufficiently grotesque or amusing. ‘Is this disloyal of me when they’ve been so kind? I can’t resist it.’ When her poor sister Unity, brain-damaged from a bungled suicide attempt, came round from a trance in 1940, she stared at Nancy and said: ‘You are not one of those who would be cruel to somebody are you?’ Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. When her brother-in-law, Sir Oswald Mosley, was imprisoned without trial under the 18B regulations, she was gloatingly pleased. ‘I am thankful Sir Oswald Quisling has been jugged aren’t you but think it quite useless if Lady Q is still at large,’ she wrote to one of her ‘pansy’ friends. Lady Q was, of course, her sister Diana, a young woman with a small child and a not-yet-weaned baby. Nancy went in person to the Home Office to inform Gladwyn Jebb, then Under-Secretary of State, that she considered Lady Mosley to be ‘dangerous’. It is a wonder that, while she was about it, she did not try to get her parents put in prison as well – they were equal enthusiasts for the Nazi cause, though not equally patriotic, ‘Muv’ hoping for a Nazi victory, Uncle Matthew pining for the opportunity to murder Huns.
Nancy admits to a friend that her desire to have Lady Quisling imprisoned was ‘not very sisterly behaviour’. If Diana Mosley had been a spy, or even, like her mother, someone who hoped for a German victory, one could see some grounds for her being detained. But she was no such thing, and Nancy was in a position to know that she was no such thing. One of the most chilling moments in the book is when she writes to her sister, who has been languishing in Holloway without her babies for about a year.‘ Darling – I had no idea I was allowed to write – as I now hasten to do –& thank you for your kind present.’ While Diana Mosley was in prison she was allowed to send banker’s orders to buy presents for her family. But no grapes for her, such as she was able to send Nancy when she was recovering from an ectopic pregnancy. ‘I have had a horrible time,’ Nancy wrote, ‘so depressing because they had to take out both my tubes & therefore I know that I can never have a child.’
Miserably married to Peter Rodd and hopelessly in love with her French lover, Nancy Mitford could be viewed as a figure of pathos. One of the reasons one is grateful to Evelyn Waugh for being her best pen-pal (and perhaps her best friend) is because he never allows her to be anything but frivolous, cruel and on occasion scabrous. They are two brilliantly, diabolically gifted children, hatching mischief in the nursery, and any silly behaviour by the grown-ups will if necessary furnish them with the chance to be even naughtier. (‘Dear aged 9,’ as she wrote to the Duchess of Devonshire, ‘I’ve just had a letter from my Dutch translator saying will “the cave of the nobles” do for Hons’ cupboard.’) To Waugh she wrote on the interesting subject of ‘Masturbation. I used to masturbate whenever I thought of Lady Jane Grey, so of course I thought about her continually & even executed a fine water-colour of her on the scaffold, which my mother still has.’ She goes on to admit that ‘I still get quite excited when I think of Lady Jane.’
If masturbating at the thought of Lady Jane Grey verges on the odd, what are we to make of Nancy Mitford’s real perversities, such as her desire to live in Paris? Admittedly, Paris was the home of her beloved ‘Colonel’, but I have to confess to finding her uncritical Francophilia incomprehensible: many of the more eloquent passages in this volume sing the praises of French food, clothes, aristocrats and architecture. ‘Next time on this earth, I make for a French womb, straight, & no nonsense.’ After a visit to England in 1958, during which she has visited Evelyn Waugh. L.P. Hartley, David Cecil and others, she writes: ‘I find all these writers take themselves very seriously & Tony Powell speaks of Punch, of which he is literary editor, as though it were an important vehicle of intellectual opinion.’ This is probably very well said. But what a strange complaint to make when one has come back from London to, of all places, Paris. Self-importance is an occupational hazard in writers – which is one of the reasons one would prefer any amount of Nancy Mitford’s so-called Roedean hoydenishness to the self-importance of some of her middle-class contemporaries. But if Tony Powell took himself a bit seriously in 1958, what did she make of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Bcauvoir, Barthes? Her absurd Francophilia was undiminished even by the événements of 1968, which she ‘covered’ for the Spectator.
Everyone pays tribute to her pluck when, for the last four years of her life, she was suffering from Hodgkin’s disease. Her stoicism in the letters is impressive, and even when writing from hospitals where she has suffered ‘AGONY’, the relentless desire to make people laugh survives. Her sister Pamela (‘Woman’) stayed in London to be with her when she was undergoing one such course of treatment in the Fitzroy Nuffield Hospital. ‘This morning she took me to have irrigation for a lump I had in the colon. Figs, the gilt of Woman. Good God, said the nurse here comes a whole fig. Your fault, I said to Woo – picture the screams.’ When her sister Jessica (Decca) published her version of the famous Mitford childhood – Hons and Rebels – Nancy was dismayed by its chilliness. ‘A slightly cold wind to the heart perhaps,’ she wrote to Decca: ‘you don’t seem very fond of anybody.’ One might be tempted by some of these letters to apply this judgment to Nancy herself, but by the end of the book one realises that she was, for all her malice, passionately fond of her family, and of her friends and above all of her tire-some-sounding Colonel. That is what makes her malice so complicated and child-like, and the letters something rather more enduring than a mere ‘hoydenish’ romp. The paradoxical tale they tell is that she was not devoid of those decent human instincts which her letter-writing persona laboured so hard to conceal. Had she not already used it, ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ would have been a good title for the book.