Mitford letters illuminate an elite world

January 19, 1994|By Victoria Glendinning | Victoria Glendinning,Los Angeles Times

"I can't do more than skate over surfaces, for one thing I am rather insensitive as you know, and for another not very clever." So why should anyone be interested in the letters of the English writer Nancy Mitford?

First, because they are very funny and sometimes very sad. She writes with wit, energy and an uninhibited malice. Entirely without self-pity, she makes jokes when her heart is breaking.

The second reason is that they give access to an exclusive milieu, and an exclusive mentality. We tend to use the term "middle class" to mean elitist and privileged. In these letters, middle class means dowdy and common. The Mitfords are upper class. The difference is, or was, almost one of caste.

Nancy's accent was so exaggeratedly cut-glass that she was unable to give radio talks; the listeners became enraged. If the shameless Mitford snobbery makes you want to throw up, approach the letters in a spirit of social anthropology. You will rapidly be seduced into reading for pleasure.

Nancy died only in 1973, yet her world could not be further removed from the modern experience, whether British or American, if she had lived in the 18th century. Louis XV, she said, was not so different in outlook from her own father. Nancy referred everything and everyone to her own circle. Her four historical biographies all read, according to one critic, like "further adventures of the Mitford family."

Her first love was Hamish Erskine, a rakish homosexual younger than herself, and a character in her novel "Christmas Pudding" was Hamish "to the life," as she confessed in a letter. No nonsense here about separating the work from the life: "I'm writing a book about us when we were little," she wrote to her sister, Jessica, about her novel "The Pursuit of Love" (1945), which sold 200,000 copies in the first year.

The Mitford family has become mythical to posterity, as its members were to themselves. Born in 1904, Nancy Mitford was the eldest of the seven children of an eccentric English peer and his almost equally eccentric wife. The only boy was killed in World War II.

The six girls, all good-looking, ran to extremes.

Diana married the leader of the British Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley, and shared his views. Unity became infatuated with Hitler and attempted suicide in Germany when hostilities broke out. Jessica went the other way and became a member of the Communist Party.

Deborah married into the purple and is the Duchess of Devonshire. Pamela, the least exotic, married the distinguished physicist Derek Jackson. All but Unity and Nancy are still living, and nearly all have written books, as did their friends. "How nice and clever we all are," Nancy wrote to the poet John Betjeman, with a characteristic mixture of pleasure and self-mockery.

Nancy candidly confessed her literary limitations in letters to her great friend Evelyn Waugh: "Not enough intellect, no education and no technique." Waugh wrote in a review of her novel "The Blessing" that she had achieved "a patchy light culture and a way of writing so light and personal that it can almost be called a 'style.' "

The same is true of her fluent, gossipy, teasing, outrageous letters. More than 8,000 have survived. This volume contains about 500, addressed to more than 100 different people. She fully expected them to be published one day, and began annotating her correspondence in her later years. "Won't the editor of my letters have a jolly time, I often think," she wrote to HTC her sister Diana.

The editor of Nancy's correspondence, Charlotte Mosley, is Nancy's nephew's wife. It was a sound plan to keep it in the family. Footnotes are needed to virtually every letter, explaining tribal jokes, nursery slang, coded abbreviations and the identities of the people referred to, usually by nicknames.

There are probably not enough footnotes for American readers, nor for younger British ones, for whom a phrase like "bronco not bromo" must be hermetic. It has to do with varieties of toilet paper -- not a term that Nancy herself would have used.

"Toilet" is grossly non-U, according to the half-joking analysis Nancy made of upper-class usage, which the general public fell upon with fascinated seriousness. In Nancy's circles, even toilet rolls were out of order, and soft or colored paper beyond all horror. Only interleaved sheets of old-fashioned prickly paper were socially acceptable. There is quite a bit of shrieking correspondence about this, as about other manifestations of the Modern Age. ("What are jeans?")

Like the complaints about servants and the unwarranted familiarity of waiters, it is all designed to amuse, but the nostalgia for an undemocratic lost world is genuine enough.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Letters of Nancy Mitford"

Editor: Charlotte Mosley

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Length, price: 527 pages, $35

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