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Archive for the ‘Nancy Mitford’ Category

I shall be rather sad to see 2018 go.  While the world had its problems, for me 2018 was a wonderful year.  I spent lots of time with loved ones, travelled to some beautiful places, and started a new job that makes me happy every day to go to work.  Everyone I love is well and content and I am being supplied with almost daily photos of my one-year old niece – life is good.

My busy year cut into my reading time but I still managed to read (if not always review) some wonderful books this year.  Here are my ten favourites:

10. Green Money (1939) – D.E. Stevenson
After reading more than three dozen books by Stevenson, I thought I’d read everything worth reading.  Happily, I was wrong.  I loved this Heyer-esque comedy about a young man suddenly saddled with a beautiful and dangerously ignorant ward.  This is Stevenson at her most sparkling and confident, full of humour and warmth.

9. Anne of Green Gables (1908) – L.M. Montgomery
Is it fair to put a book I’ve read twenty or more times on this list?  Possibly not (and sorry to Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes, which almost made my top ten but was bumped in order to include this) but I’ll do it regardless.  Anne of Green Gables is perfect.

8. A Positively Final Appearance (1999) – Alec Guinness
Who knew an actor could write so well?  This was Guinness’ third book but it is the first I have read (though certainly not that last).  Covering the period from 1996 to 1998, his diaries are marvellously free of celebrity gossip and are filled instead with sharp observations about the world around him, a fond portrait of his family, and, best of all, insightful comments on the books he is reading.

7. Lands of Lost Borders (2018) – Kate Harris
After overdosing on travel memoirs last year, I restricted my intake in 2018 but thankfully still made room to enjoy this beautifully-told tale of a great adventure.  Harris’s memoir of cycling along the Silk Road, from Istanbul to India, was a wonderful reminder of the joy of exploration.

6. Bookworm (2018) – Lucy Mangan
Mangan’s memoir of childhood reading was warm, funny, and stirred up wonderful memories of my own early reading.  Intriguingly, there was very little overlap between the books Mangan loved and the ones I read as a child but that made no difference to my enjoyment.  Mangan captures how it feels to be a child who makes sense of the world through what she can find in the pages of books and that is definitely something I can understand (as I suspect can most of you).

5. When I Was a Little Boy (1957) – Erich Kästner
A beautifully written – and illustrated – memoir of growing up in Dresden before the First World War, I adored this Slightly Foxed reissue.

4. The Fear and the Freedom (2017) – Keith Lowe
A superb look at how the legacies of the Second World War shaped the second half of the twentieth century.  Lowe looks at so many things, including the inventions and institutions that were created as a result of the war, but I was most fascinated by the less tangible changes it wrought, the mythological, philosophical, and psychological shifts across the countries impacted.  I found the chapter on Israel especially memorable, where the Holocaust survivors were initially treated harshly since their victim-status did not fit with the young country’s view of itself as a nation of heroes and fighters.  The way the nation’s identity changed as survivors began telling their stories in the 1960s, from a nation of heroes to “a nation of martyrs”, is fascinating.

3. The Flowering Thorn (1933) – Margery Sharp
After a few hit-or-miss encounters with Sharp, this was the year she became one of my favourite authors.  And that all started with this tale of a sharp young society woman whose life changes when she adopts a small boy and goes to live in the country.  In another author’s hands, this could have turned into something unbearably twee.  Instead, it is sharp and marvellously unsentimental yet still full of warmth.  I adored it and am already looking forward to rereading it.

2. The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (1996) – edited by Charlotte Mosley
Great wits and writers, Mitford and Waugh’s letters cover decades of occasionally hostile friendship, stretching from World War Two until Waugh’s death in 1966.  Both rather competitive by nature, they saved some of their best material for this correspondence – sloppiness (like bad spelling) was called out.  Full of fascinating tidbits about their own books as well as their famous friends, I was utterly absorbed by this book (and by Waugh’s awfulness).

1. The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) – Svetlana Alexievich
Without question, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of Soviet women’s experiences of the Second World War was my book of the year.  More than one million Soviet women served in the military during the war (half of them in active combat roles) and Alexievich captures the full and fascinating range of their experiences in their own words.  It is a powerful and upsetting book and one I will not soon forget.

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The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh edited by Charlotte Mosley is a doorstopper of a book.  And the five-hundred plus pages (first published in 1996 but since reissued as a Penguin Classic) become even more daunting when you realise they cover less than thirty years of correspondence between the two novelists.  But rarely are any of the pages wasted.  Mitford and Waugh write to entertain one another and, it must be said, show off.  They want to share the best gossip, make the cleverest comment, and score points in the ongoing competition that is their friendship.  The results are fabulous.

Approximately the same age (Waugh was born in 1903, Mitford in 1904), the collection begins during the Second World War.  They had become friends during the 1920s when both were dashing about London as “Bright Young Things” and the friendship had endured.  It flourished though at a distance.  As Charlotte Mosley, the book’s editor (and Mitford’s niece by marriage), states:

Concealing their feelings behind a barrage of banter, they found it easier to conduct a friendship on paper rather than in person.  When they did meet, Evelyn’s bad temper and Nancy’s sharp tongue – qualities which enhance their correspondence – often led to quarrels.

It is easy to imagine.

Waugh is plagued by a hatred for mankind but is generally sort-of kind to Mitford.  There are very few people he admits to loving and even those, like Mitford’s sister Debo, future Duchess of Devonshire, are not immune from his criticisms:

I saw Debo at the ball & took up a great deal of her time.  She was in fine looks but lacking in elegance.  The same dress she wore at her own party last year and all her friends look like recently demobilized G.I.s.  Should not a girl with her beauty, wit and high position make a bit more of herself?  (6 August 1947)

And if he really didn’t like you, watch out.  He bullied Cecil Beaton all through their school days and continued loathing him all his life.  Hamish Hamilton, poor man, was also the target of Waugh’s ire – but for absolutely no reason, as Waugh admits: “Why do I dislike him?  I don’t know him at all & he has done me no injury, but I wish him boiled in oil” (25 May 1950).  Randolph Churchill is continually derided but, to be honest, Randolph always deserves at least a bit of it.  He was quite a mess of a human being.  However, he also provides some excellent comic highlights for Waugh’s wartime letters, when the two men worked closely together:

In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy & I have bet Randolph £20 that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight.  It would have been worth it at the price.  Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped.  He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud ‘I say I bet you didn’t know this came in the Bible “bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave”’ or merely slapping his side & chortling ‘God, isn’t God a shit!’ (12 November 1944)

And, speaking of a book he’d been reading:

The last [book] I had was an attempt to whitewash Bryan Guinness called Belchamber which I enjoyed enormously.  I lent it to Randolph who was so much moved that he said he could never commit adultery again – at any rate not with the same innocent delight. (25 December 1944)

Oh Randolph.

Waugh is also not terribly keen on his children (of which he had six living – a danger of Catholicism) and constantly complained about them in his letters to Mitford.  Mitford, having suffered several miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy that necessitated a hysterectomy, would have loved children of her own but generally cloaked her sadness in her letters to Waugh with blithe dismissals:

Don’t be depressed about your children.  Childhood is a hateful age – no trailing clouds of glory – & children are generally either prigs or gangsters & always dull & generally ugly. (7 January 1946)

The letters cover the most productive years of both authors careers and cover their great successes:  both Brideshead Revisited and The Pursuit of Love were released in 1945.  And it is around this time that they pick very different paths.  Mitford, long estranged from her husband and in love with a French colonel, moves to France and begins to make a delightful life for herself:

I wish you were here.  The food is utterly delicious, all cooked in butter, & such meat that has never seen a Frigidaire, I’d forgotten the taste.  I go for huge walks, see beautiful dream houses to buy & have seldom been more contented.  Only I must write another book, to support life, & can’t think of one.  Trollope’s Autobiography is too much to bear – how could he write all those hours every day?  (21 August 1946)

Waugh, on the other hand, remains in bleak post-war England becoming more and more cantankerous as the years go by:

I’m bored here by lack of company.  If only country neighbours would talk like Jane Austen’s characters about gossip & hobbies.  Instead they all want to know about Molotov & de Gaulle. (16 October 1946)

The geographical separation was probably a very good thing for their relationship.  They are able to gossip continually about mutual friends (especially Diana and Duff Cooper and the extended members of Mitford’s family) and, in Waugh’s case at least, provide critical feedback on the other’s writings.  What they don’t do much of is share their souls or even updates on the meaningful things going on in their own lives.  Mitford keeps her hurt over her French colonel’s disinterest in commitment to herself and Waugh just becomes a misanthrope who wants to complain about everything:

Jolly decent of you to write.  No, I am not at all busy – just senile.  Since we last met (when?) I have become an old man, not diseased but enfeebled.  I read my letters & work at The Times crossword & never set foot out of doors.  I was mildly ill in Menton in February & so spoiled Laura’s hols.  I am making up for it by taking her to Spain in October.  I don’t like the food & can’t speak the lingo & don’t much look forward to it, especially as I must write an article at the end. (6 August 1964)

Yes, he’s a funny misanthrope but such a contrast from Mitford.  She manages to remain optimistic, to find happiness in a new dress she can’t afford or something terribly Parisian she’s just encountered or a ridiculous thing a member of her family has just done (so many to choose from).  She manages to continue living and taking pleasure in that long after Waugh has given up.  It does not come as much of a surprise then when the letters end with his death in 1966, age 62.

This was my first encounter with Waugh and I can’t say it did anything to make me warm to him.  But Mitford, on the other hand, her I love even more than before.  She could write devastatingly cruel things with incredible wit but these letters show what lay on the other side of that: the warmth and optimism that sustained her.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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