A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
One of the things I like most about Nancy Mitford’s writing is her cheerful willingness to set down in print her transitory moments of vitriol. Things that you or I might say in a cross or exasperated moment, and thereafter hope that nobody heard us, she will record for posterity. Her fondness for the sweeping generalisation is all over her novels. Exaggeration is how her characters live; they shriek when other writers might have them exclaiming. She probably did not expect her letters to be available in print, with all her insouciant bitchiness laid bare to the world. I am quite sure that she did not expect anyone except her family to look at her diaries after her death, so full are they of cutting remarks about friends and famous people. But even in her ‘Paris Letters’, essays and book reviews, commissioned and paid for by the likes of the Sunday Times and The Spectator, Nancy is flamboyantly, casually, resplendently rude. [It seems odd to refer to one of the most class-conscious commentators of the twentieth century as ‘Mitford’, especially as, by her own standards, one ought to refer to her as Mrs Rodd. We can’t say ‘Miss Mitford’, since that name was bagged by the Victorian novelist before NM was born. Her admirers call her Nancy, so I’ll use that.] Her standards of behaviour and good manners, especially from the 1950s, gave her much to complain about when encountering successive younger generations and their diminishing concepts of politeness, or economic vagaries that affected whether she could get butter locally or would have to walk to a different market. In this new and expanded edition (oh joy!) of her non-fiction: A Talent to Annoy, Essays, Journalism and Reviews, 1929-71, she writes of a failed luncheon engagement:
20 May The Canfields were to have come for luncheon. I waited until two. They must have forgotten or they would have telephoned. Oh well, never mind.
[still in the same diary entry]
22 May I’m still living on the Canfields’ pot au feu at every meal.
This was part of a long Diary essay for The Spectator on the events of May 1968, when Paris (where Mitford had been living since the mid-1940s), was convulsed with revolution and rumour. Can you imagine the shame of the Canfields, had they or their friends read The Spectator, for not only realising that they had forgotten a lunch invitation, but that the carefully cooked meal had had to be eaten up solo in perpetuum by their elderly and not particularly well-off host, for two days solid, because in France one does not waste food?
In these essays Nancy doesn’t often present the peculiarities of private friends to the world: she is much more likely to bitch about well-known figures and society names. They too were her friends and acquaintances in whose circles she moved, and her readers wanted to hear about her social connections, especially if she was going to be waspish. There are 49 essays in this new Capuchin edition, 10 of them newly reproduced. The new ones (for those of you who have the older 1986 edition) include the heartbreaking story of Augustus Hare, who had had the most awful Victorian upbringing, Nancy’s diary of a visit to Russia in 1954, which she promised not to publish until the current British Ambassador had been reposted elsewhere, and a new essay on Evelyn Waugh and U. They begin with the frothiness of a 1920s society wedding (of her own sister Diana to Bryan Guinness), and end with a review of the letters of Madame de la Tour du Pin. Nancy was an authority on the social life, art and history of the French aristocracy from Louis XV to the nineteenth century, so there are many reviews and essays on this subject. But you don’t have to be particularly well read on these – I certainly am not – to enjoy them, because Nancy has a cunning way of offering up eyebrow-raising anecdotes to secure the reader’s attention, and before you know it you’re deep in the history and hardly think to wonder whether it’s true or not.
Did you know that Frederick the Great’s father had a regiment of giants, and that the Tsar sent him a hundred men of seven or eight feet tall every year? Nancy wrote a biography of Frederick the Great, so perhaps this one might be true. When a certain lady wished to attend a very much sought after costume ball in Venice as the Spanish Infanta, and needed a dwarf to complete her ensemble, she advertised, and next morning found her salle d’attente full of rich dwarfs of her acquaintance who had not been invited. Perhaps we can detect the Mitford hyperbole here, just a little. But it doesn’t affect the colossal entertainment value.
You might need to already know something of the Mitford story to understand some of the references. Who, for instance, is ‘Bodley’, to whom Nancy writes several of her later letters? (I think it must be Diana Mosley, her sister.) ‘Blor’, the title of the essay, and the name of the chief character, is a mystery until about halfway through when we realise that she was the Mitford family’s beloved Nurse, preserved with exaggerations in Nancy’s novel The Blessing. But these are quibbles. I thoroughly enjoyed rereading these letters, essays, diary entries and book reviews, if only to hear again the voice of the immortal Nancy Mitford, without whom our world is less scrupulous and less well written.
Kate has podcasted on The Pursuit of Love in Why I Really Like This Book, on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.