Goodness, How Sad

Nancy Mitford: A Biography

by Selina Hastings
Dutton, 274 pp., $19.95

Noblesse Oblige: An enquiry into the identifiable characteristics of the English aristocracy

edited by Nancy Mitford, introduction by Russell Lynes
Atheneum, 156 pp., $6.95 (paper)

The Water Beetle

by Nancy Mitford
Atheneum, 150 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Nancy Mitford
Nancy Mitford; drawing by David Levine

In one of Evelyn Waugh’s short stories there is a debutante whose comment on almost everything that happens is: “Goodness how sad.” The exclamation would make an excellent title for Selina Hastings’s book: “Goodness How Sad: A Life of Nancy Mitford.” At any rate, that is how her biographer seems to see her. From the birth of her sister Pam, she explains, when Nancy was three and Nanny transferred her affections to the new baby, Nancy “came first with nobody.” And right at the end, when she is dying horribly slowly of leukemia, Selina Hastings quotes the third sister (Lady Mosley): “The awful thing is, she doesn’t come first with anybody.”

With the heartless cri de coeur “goodness how sad,” Waugh mimicked the debutante voice. It was the voice in which Nancy Mitford began to write her clear, direct, free-running prose. She sobered it up as time went on, but sensibly never quite stifled it. Even in the painstakingly researched biographies she wrote in middle age it still rings engagingly in the impetuous expression of her partis pris: “Louvois…that horrible man” or “the Abbé (Bernis), his dear little face puckered with worry.” When first heard, the voice was as original, fresh, and amusing as the gold digger voice of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and in her most successful novels Nancy Mitford cleverly used a first-person narrator. “The charm of your writing,” Evelyn Waugh teased her in 1955, when her fame was at its height, “depends on your refusal to recognise a distinction between girlish chatter and literary language.” Four years later he was re-reading Voltaire in Love (1957) and praising it unreservedly: “You write so deceptively frivolously that one races on chuckling from page to page without noticing the solid structure.”

The two were great friends, and after Nancy followed her lover to Paris in 1946 and settled there, she and Waugh became busy correspondents. Waugh tutored her in Catholic doctrine and theology, which she needed to work up for her biographies of Madame de Pompadour and Louis XIV; she helped him with his French; and he never stopped picking holes in her English spelling, punctuation, and diction—especially her diction, because, while she was always keen to try a new word, modern coinages turned him green.

What they were really arguing about, of course, was not so much writing as social usage—“U and non-U.” The now rather tired and tiresome controversy on that subject was originally collected and published in 1956 under the title of Nancy Mitford’s contribution, Noblesse Oblige. It has just been reissued in paper-back for the umpteenth time, and contains the scholarly paper on U and non-U speech by Professor Alan Ross which started the whole affair. Also included are Waugh’s avuncular “Open Letter to the Honble Mrs. Peter Rodd (NANCY MITFORD) on a Very Serious Subject,” and contributions by other arbiters, all anxious to put in their tuppence…

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