Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. I. Copyright of Jeffrey Manley/The Mitford Society
Evelyn Waugh was a close friend of two of the Mitford sisters (Nancy and Diana), and an acquaintance of a third (Deborah). Waugh met Nancy in the late 1920s in connection with his courtship of, and marriage to, Evelyn Gardner (“She-Evelyn”). Nancy was, at the time, a close friend of She-Evelyn and was present at the 1927 party in She-Evelyn’s flat to which Alec Waugh (by then a successful novelist) brought his younger brother (“He-Evelyn”). It was there that He-Evelyn met his future wife for the first time. Nancy was also She-Evelyn’s companion during the periods in 1929 when He-Evelyn left their marital flat in Islington for extended periods to write Vile Bodies. It was in these absences that She-Evelyn started her affair with John Heygate, which resulted in the dissolution of her marriage. Nancy was said to have been unaware of the affair prior to the break-up. Nancy ended her friendship with She-Evelyn after the separation but remained on friendly terms with Waugh.
It has been suggested that it was Waugh who encouraged Nancy to write, and many of her early novels resemble Waugh’s own early comic works. Some literary scholars have also described two of Nancy’s post-war novels (Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love) as having been inspired to some extent by the success of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It is also widely accepted that Nancy’s husband Peter Rodd, to whom she was unhappily married for over 20 years, contributed heavily to the character of Basil Seal, who appears in several of Waugh’s novels. In addition, Waugh’s 1948 novel The Loved One is dedicated to Nancy and she was godmother to Waugh’s daughter, Harriet. Nancy dedicated her 1951 novel, The Blessing, to Waugh.
Nancy and Waugh engaged in an extended correspondence which began after they had both established themselves as writers. Their regular correspondence dates from the last years of the war and concludes with Waugh’s death in 1966. During this period they commented on each others work, sometimes seeking and offering advice on works-in-progress. Waugh’s friend, novelist Anthony Powell, commented that Waugh “got more from Nancy about upper-class life than he would probably have cared to admit.” (Anthony Powell, Journals: 1900-1992, London, 1997, p. 98) Most of their correspondence has survived and was published in 1996 where it is described by editor Charlotte Mosley in her preface as, “like overhearing a conversation between two quick-witted, provocative, very funny friends, who know the same people, read the same books, laugh at the same jokes and often share the same prejudices.”
Waugh was also, but more briefly, a close friend of Diana Mitford, whom he met in 1929. Waugh knew her first husband Bryan Guinness from Oxford. After the break-up of his marriage, Waugh lived for extended periods during 1929-30 with the Guinnesses. He wrote the last part of his novel Vile Bodies while visiting them, and most of his travel book Labels was written while he stayed by himself in their summer house in Sussex. Both of those books are dedicated to them, and he gave them the original typescript of Vile Bodies when it was published in January 1930. (This typescript was sold by their son, Jonathan, in 1984 for £55,000.)
Waugh also seems to have become infatuated with Diana while visiting with them in their Paris residence during the confinement for her first pregnancy. After the child (Jonathan) was born, she resumed a more active social life, and Waugh felt neglected. He was godfather to Jonathan, but after the baptism they maintained a more distant friendship, meeting infrequently. They each were married a second time, he to Laura Herbert and she to Oswald Mosley.
Just before Waugh’s death, their correspondence resumed, and they effectively sought each other’s forgiveness for the rupture that had occurred in 1930. In this late correspondence, they also acknowledged indirectly that Diana to some extent contributed to the character of Lucy in Waugh’s novel fragment Work Suspended. Waugh’s last published letter was on this subject. It was sent to Diana on 30 March 1966, and he died a little over a week later.
Waugh met the youngest Mitford sister, Deborah, at a drunken Christmas party in Wiltshire near where her husband, Andrew Devonshire, was stationed during the war. The first impression was not a favorable one, as Waugh’s debauched behaviour rather shocked Deborah, who seems to have shared her negative impression with her sisters. In her memoirs (p. 116), Deborah recalled that at one point Waugh “poured a bottle of Green Chartreuse over his head and, rubbing it into his hair, intoned, ‘My hair is covered in gum, my hair is covered in gum,’ while the sticky mess ran down his neck.” When Waugh learned of her discomposure, he made an effort to repair his reputation by sending her a hat from Paris shortly after the war.
Waugh’s standing was sufficiently restored to merit an invitation several years later to Chatsworth House, but he again put his foot in it by complaining that a chamber pot in his room had remained un-emptied. This was probably intended as a joke but engendered more correspondence among the Mitford sisters in which Deborah expressed her chagrin at his behaviour. On this occasion, Waugh seems to have restored himself by sending Deborah a presentation copy of his biography of the Roman Catholic theologian Ronald Knox. It was accompanied by a letter assuring Deborah that nothing in the book “would offend her Protestant persuasion.” When she later opened the book, she found that the copy she had been sent consisted of blank pages. In this instance, she got the joke.
Jeffrey Manley is a retired lawyer and member of the Evelyn Waugh Society. He lives in Austin, Texas. Visit the Evelyn Waugh Society at evelynwaughsociety.org