Wednesday, August 06, 2008

"I'm jolly near being mad," or, Letters Week, Part III!

Continuing with Letters Week here at I've Been Reading Lately, today we turn to two of my favorite writers of chatty, catty, caustic letters: Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. I've drawn many a time before from the collection of their letters that Nancy's niece Charlotte Mosley edited back in 1996, but it's a nearly inexhaustible volume--fans of either writer should unquestionably have this book at hand.

No real organization or plan today: just a grab-bag of good stuff, gleanings from my most recent perusal of the correspondence.

First, an exchange that, while being a bit too minor to qualify for my Consigned to the Flames series, at least reminds us of the difficulties confronting those who undertake the relatively thankless task of editing literary letters. We begin with a request in a letter from Evelyn to Nancy, dated September 29, 1952
I believe you keep my letters. A month or so ago I wrote a nasty one about Clarissa [Churchill]. Will you be very kind & burn it?
Nancy, looking ahead, speaks for us all in her response the next day:
What a very rum request. I specially treasure your nasty letters, posterity will love them so.
But as a writer of the occasional scathing letter herself, she understands, and instantly gives in, continuing with, "However just as you say."

Next, a lament from Nancy that will be familiar to all the writers out there, opening a letter of November 25, 1951:
I've been struggling with my article all the afternoon--must relax (Oh I loathe work--do you think I'm rich enough now to stop?)
It seems right to move from that into a chiding from Evelyn, dated March 31st of that year, to a casual complaint from Nancy about having to revise the manuscript of her novel The Blessing:
Now none of this. No complaints about headaches. Revision is just as important as any other part of writing and must be done con amore.
But as anyone who has read any of Waugh's travel writing knows, Waugh is no stranger to the form of the complaint--the more specifically and absurdly articulated the better. In a letter sent from La Baule, France, on August 18, 1949, he begins by reclaiming a word, "ineffable," that is all too often left to chillmasters like M. R. James, and he only gets better from there:
I am in a town of ineffable horror. You might have warned me. There i a strip of sand, a row of hotels and sand-dunes & pines at the back. This is the worst of the many hotels. I came here with my boy Auberon in an aeroplane on Monday to join your great new friend Pamela. I came to the hotel and was told she was too ill to see me & that there was no room for me in the hotel. I assumed adultery but investigations there seem to prove that there was no politician or journalist concealed in her room. The rooms are too small for one. Mine has a "bathroom"--a sandy trough behind a curtain, a broken bidet & no lulu which is all one really needs. The public lulus are balkan.
I love the way the very English second-person "one" in that next-to-last sentence half-dodges the real problem: that the rooms are too small for him.

Evelyn seems to have particularly enjoyed appraising and diagnosing Nancy's emotional state from afar, a practice of which she was apparently surprisingly tolerant. In this letter of January 27, 1952, for example, he succinctly (and amusingly) links her to her sister Deborah, known in the family as Honks:
I have long recognized your euphoria as a pathological condition as morbid as Honks's melancholy. You each choose minor exterior conditions to explain yours states--oddly enough the same one--France.
Perhaps what made Evelyn's appraisals--and even occasional lectures--tolerable was that he was also willing to turn a relatively exacting eye on himself on occasion, as in this letter of December 5, 1949, in which you can still, sixty years later, feel the throb of his hangover:
I have been an invalid for a week recuperating from a brief visit to London. I get so painfully drunk whenever I go there. (Champagne, the shortest road out of Welfaria) and nowadays it is not a matter of a headache and an aspirin but of complete collapse, with some clear indications of incipient lunacy. I think I am jolly near being mad & need very careful treatment if I am to survive another decade without the strait straight? jacket.
While we're on the subject of melancholy, here's Nancy with an only half-joking lament from September 21, 1949--which also takes care of today's obligatory Cyril Connolly reference:
I am appalled to find that in this week's Horizon there is not one single article I can understand. It's not a question of "I don't quite see what you're getting at" I simply do not understand it, it's like a foreign language. (Except for one fragment which is too sad to read--yes & why is everything always sad fragments now? You might say of modern books sadly fragmented instead of well documented.) What does it mean--ought I to commit suicide? I don't dare ask Cyril he is so touchy & he might think I imply a reproach.
Finally, I'll close with a straight-up joke. Evelyn had written to Nancy an aside about an old woman who refused to use the WC--West City--postal code because of the unpleasant associations of those initials. On November 23, 1955, Nancy with the verve of the true comedian, fired back a response--and a one-up:
Even Winston always puts in the Spencer to avoid W. C. I always think it's rather common of him--his American blood no doubt. But even I wouldn't care for the initials of an old neighbour of ours V. D.
Well played, Nancy, well played.

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