“I want to write a sad story of a man who gave up drink and hated all his chums. It is me.” — Evelyn Waugh, 12 November 1944.
Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh were two of the most popular and respected authors of the early and mid-20th century; they were also lifelong friends who kept up a correspondence lasting more than two decades. This book is a collection of their letters to each other, which are full of jokes, literary allusions, and most of all gossip. They each had a very pointed, satirical sense of humor that was frequently directed at members of their own social set — and quite often at each other. In many ways they couldn’t be more different: Waugh was very conservative, old-fashioned, and staunchly Roman Catholic, while Mitford was a spiritually indifferent socialist living as an expatriate in Paris. But their correspondence reveals that they understood one another and shared a deep, affectionate friendship. Through their discussions of current events, important people, and of course books (both their own and other people’s), Mitford and Waugh’s letters provide a unique window into their age.
It’s taken me a long time to write this review, because how can one “review” a collection of letters that weren’t (necessarily) meant to be public? All I can say is that I enjoyed reading them. I’ve read a few books by each of these authors — Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and A Handful of Dust — but otherwise I didn’t know much about either of them. I do think some level of familiarity with their work is helpful, but you definitely don’t have to be an expert in order to enjoy these letters. They’re often hilarious (how I shrieked, as Nancy would say) and also have some interesting discussions about literature. I want to read more of their books now! Of course, their chatter about mutual friends and acquaintances was hard to follow, although the editor did a fairly good job of identifying people in footnotes; but I still enjoyed this collection overall. If you’re interested in early- and mid-20th-century literature, this might be a good book to seek out.