NANCY MITFORD




The best thing about this cottage on the Castle Howard estate is that it contains all the letters I wrote to Mark Ogilvie-Grant. Oh, and the original copies of three very special books. Two of mine and the all-important novel of Evelyn's.

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Of course, a book that is not here is The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. That was edited by my niece in 1996, long after our deaths, and contains our correspondence from 1945 to 1966, in the course of which we discussed all our post-WW2 books. But I knew and loved Evelyn long before we started sending letters to each other in our restrained middle ages.

I was a friend of She-Evelyn, and knew He-Evelyn from about the time of the publication of
Decline and Fall in autumn, 1928. That book was an absolute sensation. It truly was. So funny, so surprising, and so about our peer group. Easily the funniest book that I'd ever read, and the one that would have most influence on my early novels as I'm about to show you.

In June, 1929, I moved into the spare room at their Canonbury Square flat, when Evelyn went out to the Oxfordshire pub to write
Vile Bodies. I moved out a month later when She-Evelyn confided to me that she'd never been in love with He-Evelyn, but had married him simply to escape her parents. This was something I could relate to, but not at the expense of Evelyn Waugh's marriage. So I got out of there fast.

Under the influence of
Decline and Fall, I began writing Highland Fling. Did I begin it while living at Canonbury Square? That would explain quite a lot. Anyway, by December 1929, I was writing to my friend, Mark: 'Have had to alter the book quite a lot as it is so like Evelyn's in little ways.'

The first line in the published book reads: 'Albert Gates came down from Oxford feeling that his life was behind him.' Of course,
Decline and Fall starts like that, only with a bang. But then Evelyn had the advantage of going to Oxford himself. I, being a Mitford girl, had to be content with being educated at home by governesses. The fact that my protagonist is a man is in itself an acknowledgement that it was a man's world back then.

When I flick through
Highland Fling I can no longer see the rich connections with Decline and Fall. That process I went through in erasing the connections must have been a thorough one. What a fool I was! But never mind, I gave myself a second chance.

At the beginning of 1930,
Vile Bodies appeared, the most eagerly awaited book of all time. And it was about then that Highland Fling went to my agents. On March 10, I wrote to Mark: 'What do you really think of Vile Bodies? I was frankly very much disappointed in it I must say but some people think it quite marvellous.'

Of course, I see now that the split with She-Evelyn means that the book could not be exuberantly happy, as Decline and Fall had been. But it seems that if Evelyn Waugh couldn't write a follow-up to Decline and Fall with all its joie de vivre, then I would. In December of 1931, I wrote to Mark: 'My new book is jolly good, all about Hamish at Eton. Betjeman is co-hero.'

Betjeman is co-hero! That must have been a little joke of mine. Because while Hamish Erskine was certainly the basis for Bobby Bobbins, my main protagonist was Paul Fotheringay. It is not a million miles from Paul Fotheringay to Paul Pennyfeather, and one only has to consult the first scene to see that I very much have Evelyn Waugh in mind. Actually, dear Mark illustrated the book, and his frontispiece is a masterpiece over which we spent hours laughing together.

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As Christmas Pudding opens, Paul Fotheringay has written a first novel called Crazy Capers, and he's come along to the Tate Gallery to think about the book's extraordinary reception. He's taken a seat in a gallery on copying day and is watching an elderly woman copying a painting by Rossetti of his wife and model, Lizzie. Do you see Paul/Evelyn/Paul in Mark's beautiful drawing? Of course, Evelyn's first book was a biography of Rossetti, and the drawing may suggest that it was somewhat crude in its conception and execution. Anyway, just bear in mind that possibility as we drill deeper into Mark's drawing. Oh, and bear in mind also that Evelyn provided six drawings in this style to Decline and Fall.

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I should say that at the time, Mark Ogilvie-Grant was living in Cairo with Alastair Graham. Alastair and Evelyn had been lovers in the early twenties, but Mark and Alastair got together when they were both working together in Athens in the late twenties and again when they moved to the English Embassy in Cairo. They were called the Embassy Girls. Quite sweet, really.

Anyway, there sits Paul on the bench, and he takes out of his pocket the sheaf of press cuttings that are troubling him so. You see, his book was supposed to be serious, but all the reviewers thought it was hilarious. I give space to three reviews of which this page contains the third:


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Evelyn said in the author's note to Decline and Fall: 'Please bear in mind throughout that IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY.' The joke here is that Paul Fotheringay, receiving the sort of reviews that Evelyn's book enjoyed, didn't like it one bit because his author's note (had it been written) would surely have read 'Please bear in mind throughout that IT IS MEANT TO BE SERIOUS.'

Do you know, I think it was Alastair Graham who insisted that Mark draw this scene in the Tate. I remember him telling us about how Evelyn did a lot of the research for
Rossetti while staying with him at Barford House, and that Evelyn took the writing of the biography so seriously.

Poor Paul/Evelyn/Paul. Everybody loves his book but everybody loves it for the wrong reason!

Gosh, what a great start to my second novel. And yet when Jamie at Hamish Hamilton wanted to republish it nearly twenty years later, I wrote to Evelyn:
'Xmas Pudding is pathetic, badly written, facetious and awful.' None of that is true. Christmas Pudding is noble in its ambition, well-written, facetious and brilliant.

This February day in 2020, I'm sharing space with the first edition. That's the only edition that was published in my lifetime and it features the lovely drawings of my lifelong friend, Mark Ogilvie-Grant. Lovers of tweed, feast your eyes…

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What happens in my novel? Amabelle Fortescue is a glamorous older woman, an organiser, along the lines of Margot Beste Chetwynde in Decline and Fall. Here she is portrayed with Bobby Bobbin near the beginning of Christmas Pudding. Bobby being somewhat similar to Peter Best Chetwynde in Decline and Fall, a scheming boy who is still at Eton but worldly-wise beyond his years.

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Paul decides he'll write a biography of Bobby's grandmother, Lady Maria Bobbin, in order to be taken seriously as a writer. But he can't get permission from Bobby's horse-riding mother to access the relevant journals and letters. So, using a false name, he goes to stay in their Gloucestershire family home as Bobby's personal tutor.

The main plot of
Christmas Pudding is provided by Bobby's sister Philadelphia, nicknamed Delphie. She has two suitors, Michael Lewes, who works for the British Embassy in Cairo. (Ho-ho.) And Paul, who soon falls in love with her.

However, first of all a home counties Christmas has got to be survived. And perhaps I put the plot on hold for a little too long as I try to show how boring it all is. How boring the older, riding-and-hunting generation can be.

The name 'Evelyn' is dropped in out of the blue. Bobby writes to him, giving thanks for sending cufflinks at Christmas. Evelyn is described simply as a rich person that Bobby is trying it on with. But then why shouldn't the author of the bestselling
Vile Bodies be thought of as someone to try and sponge off?

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On the adjoining page is an illustration by Mark Ogilvie-Grant. It shows Bobby about to put his letter with six identical ones. That's Paul lying on the sofa reading Bobby's grandmother's journal and telling Bobby that he wishes he had the bravura to pull off such schemes.

A bit bravura of me to slip that scene in my novel. I don't think anyone ever noticed!

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Bobby does have bravura. He reminds me of Captain Grimes in
Decline and Fall. So let's take a quick look at that.

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Actually, although I do my best with Hamish for inspiration - and Bobby is incorrigible - he is no Grimes. So let's pass on.

I should remind you (and myself) that in autumn 1931, when I was writing this book, I was aware that Evelyn was learning to ride with Captain Hance at his riding school near Madresdfield. Perhaps that accounts for the scene where Paul, who is supposed to be an experienced horseman, has to mount
a horse in front of Bobby's riding-mad mother. He very nearly comes a cropper, but Bobby is on hand to stop his horse and to assure him he's got away with it.

The climax of the horse theme takes place at a point-to-point where Walter and Sally, two characters retained from
Highland Fling, attend. Walter takes part in the race, but has to have a few quick drinks in order to have the courage to do so. Sally is terrified that he will be killed. The race goes well for Walter, and it even looks like he is going to win it. Until, at the final fence, he comes a cropper. How do I put it again? 'Six horses in rapid succession jumped onto the small of his back and passed on.'

That was a favourite line of Mark's and he captures the scene brilliantly.

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That's another drawing that is somehow similar to one of Evelyn Waugh's, in fact the second one involving Grimes.

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Oh, I know you want more research, but I never was one for that! Let's get on with the plot which is now going full gallop.

Michael Lewes is the first to propose. Then he falls ill, allowing Paul to move in on Delphie. Paul tells her that he's the author of
Crazy Capers and to his delight discovers that she both liked the book and took it seriously. They love each other!

"I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you," said Paul. "I love you. And if there were anything more to say I should say it, but there isn't, really."

However, Paul returns to London and soon falls into the clutches of an old girlfriend, and a hard-drinking party lifestyle.

When Michael is recovered, he goes out to Gloucestershire to renew his pursuit. Delphie doesn't know what to do about her two lovers. She is more attracted to Paul, but in his absence she realises she is likely to fall for Michael. So early in the morning, and in desperation, she drives all the way to London and calls in on Paul.

Paul is lying on the sofa, fully dressed. She keeps trying to rouse him until finally he says. "Go away darling, I'm drunk." This drives Delphie back to Gloucestershire and into the arms of sober Michael.

And that's that!

Actually, that ending is a lot better than I thought it was at the time. Girls don't understand men and their drinking! They shouldn't have to put up with it, and Delphie doesn't!

Here is the last page in the 1932 edition of Christmas Pudding:

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The illustration would do just as well on the last page of
Decline and Fall, the last para of which reads: 'So Peter went out, and Paul settled down again in his chair. So the ascetic Ebionites used to turn towards Jerusalem when they prayed. Paul made a note of it. Quite right to suppress them. Then he turned out the light and went into his bedroom to sleep.'

Actually, there's a lot more going on in that last paragraph than my own. Oh well, I didn't say
Christmas Pudding was as good as Decline and Fall, I just know that I had that brilliantly funny book at the forefront of my mind while I was writing my comic caper.

I must say, Mark did a superb job of illustrating
Christmas Pud. I dare say you want to know what he looked like. There are hardly any photos of him, but here are three. This is the best one, but hardly good quality.

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In the next photo he's older and sadder. I think his and Alastair's relationship had ended by this time and Alastair had come back to England. No, that's not right. Mark finished in Cairo in November 1932, Alastair a year later.

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And in this next one, Mark is in the foreground. You will want to know who that is making the face behind him. That's Camilla Russell, who became Camilla Sykes, wife of Christopher Sykes who went on to be Evelyn's first biographer. What a scream!

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That photo was taken at an Embassy dinner in Cairo in 1932. Alastair would have still been there then. Perhaps that's his cuffs, on the arms of the man sitting opposite Mark.

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Why did I not think to ask Mark to illustrate my first book? Perhaps because it wasn't until that came out that I was commissioned to write articles for various magazines. And
Vogue wanted illustrations, so that's when I thought of asking Mark. We'd published several things together by the time the second book was bought.

Actually, in March 1930, that's a whole year before
Highland Fling was published, I wrote to Mark saying: 'I'm making such a lot of money from articles - £22 since Xmas so I'm saving it up to be married but Evelyn says 'don't save it, dress better and catch a better man.' Evelyn is always so full of common sense. The family have read Vile Bodies and I'm not allowed to know him, so right I think.'

I knew Evelyn all right. Despite his difficulty with She-Evelyn he was part of the Bruno Hat art hoax of summer 1929. That provides the set-piece for the ending of
Highland Fling. My protagonist, Albert Memorial Gates, back down from a trip to the Highlands of Scotland which was rather tedious for all my Bright Young characters, puts on a show of new work in a Chelsea art gallery. It's work that he's executed over the last two years while living in Paris. The pictures are mostly bas reliefs, while various objects such as hair, beads, buttons and spectacles are stuck on to them.

So, yes, Bruno Hat. It was the idea of Brian Howard, who 'painted' the pictures. The exhibition was at Bryan Guinness's and my sister Diana's Buckingham Street house. My brother Tom was dressed up to be the painter and spoke with a German accent. And Evelyn wrote the catalogue essay. That hilarious day made such an impression on me that I had that whole scene in my mind from the day I began writing the book.

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How I love the feel of the cover. How I love the fleck and the fling of it!

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But now I am ready to go forth and mingle. I expect to bump into Alastair and Mark outside. My five sisters may have arrived. Brian Howard and Robert Byron, who I dedicated Highland Fling to. Yes, Robert's love of Victorian art was a forerunner of Evelyn's. Hamish who is the dedicatee of Christmas Pudding will be there, I expect. Oh no, I have that the wrong way around. Hamish got the dedication of Highland Fling and Robert got Christmas Pudding. Why is it that so many of my really close friends were gay? Evelyn tried to answer that question for me once as we sat together over tea at the Ritz.

That would have been in 1930, just couple of summer weeks before this, the only photo of Evelyn and me together, was taken. Pansy Pakenham and my Uncle Rupert are also in the photo, while the woman cut off at the waist is my dear sister, Diana.

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Woops! I don't seem to be able to resist adding captions to my precious historic images.

How about this one to finish off with?

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I've a feeling I'm trying to put off going out and mingling. Oh well, it's only February and the party doesn't officially start until the end of June. I might even have time to write a new novel. Could I be as inspired by
Brideshead Revisited as I was by Decline and Fall? Oh dear, wake up at the back - I have been already! It's called The Power of Love.

No, I'm not going out just yet. Let me read again the letter that came for me here. I don't know the couple who it's from, but I do know who Debo was. My youngest sister was fully fourteen years younger than me, which goes some way to explaining how she managed to live until 2014, forty years after my own demise. The letter reads:

'By chance, we were asked to take an old friend to the funeral of Debo, the last Mitford girl who was married to the Duke of Devonshire, and we felt highly privileged to attend such a historic event. The road up the hill from Chatsworth to the church was lined on both sides with workers from the Estate, all in their uniforms, the church was surrounded by outdoor seating and loudspeakers to accommodate the crowds, and afterwards we all had tea on the terrace accompanied by a local geriatric band playing rather sedate jazz. Later, we ventured back to the church and surprisingly found the grave still open, with the much-loved Debo’s wickerwork coffin covered in fruit and flowers from the Estate. Thought you might like to share that moment?'

You see I need to
process that information. And I don't see how I could do that while surrounded by hundreds of resurrected friends, however well-meaning.




Next essay: Nancy's good friend,
Robert Byron


Notes
1) In The Letters of Nancy Mitford, edited by Charlotte Mosley, Nancy refers to Vile Bodies as the book of Waugh's that showed too many little likenesses to Highland Fling which meant changes had to be made to the latter in manuscript. She States:

'The novel is similar to
Vile Bodies in that both are comedies dealing with the fashionable world of the Bright Young Things. Nancy's mother had suggested that the title be Our Vile Age, a pun on Mary Russell Mitford's Our Village (1824), but this was made impossible when Vile Bodies appeared.'

However,
Vile Bodies was published on 14 January, 1930. And it was on 30th December, 1929, that Nancy wrote to Mark Ogilvie-Grant about having to alter Highland Fling because of similarities to 'Evelyn's book'. I don't think Nancy would have seen the manuscript of Vile Bodies, which was always behind schedule and which went straight into production. Also, the timing of Nancy's put-down of Vile Bodies, in a letter to Mark Ogilvie-Grant of 10 March, 1930, suggests she read it after publication with everyone else. Both of Nancy's books have similarities to both of Evelyn's first two novels. But it's surely only Decline and Fall that had an influence on the writing of Highland Fling.

2) Nancy wrote to Hamish Erskine on 15 September 1932, telling him: 'Mark is going to
illeostrate my book with all the people - you, Betj. etc. drawn to the life.' Looking at it again, the drawing of Paul lying on the couch, while Bobby writes to 'Evelyn', could be said to look like John Betjeman rather than Evelyn Waugh. But the side view of Paul sitting in the Tate looking towards the Rossetti and with book reviews in his pocket is surely Evelyn Waugh. The sharp profile, the fact that Waugh had written a biography and a comic novel, all feed into the portrait of Paul Fotheringay. Ditto, the bird's eye view of Paul/Waugh at the end of Christmas Pudding. But it would seem that some aspects of the Paul character, including Paul in love, were suggested by John Betjeman.