I have been a bit of a Nancy Mitford fan for a long time now. There was a time when I got a tiny bit obsessed by books by or about the Mitford sisters (though Nancy was always my favourite Mitford). Nancy was a famous wit, her sisters were often on the receiving end of her sharp tongue, and she injected a great deal of humour into her most famous novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Those novels of course famously autobiographical, with Nancy disguising her own family in her bunch of hilariously eccentric and often endearing characters. As well as a number of novels, Nancy Mitford also wrote several non-fiction works mainly biographies of French historical figures but she also published two collections of essays.
While mooching around a second hand bookshop on a National Trust property in Devon, I came across The Water Beetle – a 1960’s volume of Mitford essays. As I had just finished a book that morning, I took the opportunity to read it right away.
This essay collection concerns a wide variety of subjects-including portrayals of historical figures, arctic explorers, and pieces inspired by Mitford’s own travels. For me the most engaging pieces were those that concerned Nancy herself. The opening essay – entitled Blor – was pure Mitford joy – anyone who has read Mitford biographies or letter collections will be familiar with that name. Blor was the Mitford nanny – and Nancy’s affectionate portrayal of her here brought back all those childhood stories from those wonderful biographies. The piece entitled Diary of a Visit to Russia 1954 – was fascinating too – and quite hilarious in a very typical Mitford way, saying so very much in this seemingly innocent recount:
(4th June 1954)
I asked to meet some soviet writers, but a message came from the Ministry of culture that the soviet writers had gone to the country, on the 28th May, to write. It seems they are picked up in buses, in alphabetical order (as it were Mauriac, Maurois, Mitford, Mithois) and carted off to a dacha, where they are obliged to show up 2000 words a day during the whole summer”
(from Diary of a Visit to Russia 1954)
I was surprised just how enthralling and poignant I found Mitford’ essay A Bad Time, about the men involved in Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. The recount of preparations, personalities and exploration are given a typical Mitford makeover – but for me made for great reading.
“Life during the first winter was very pleasant. Before turning in for good they had done several gruelling marches, laying stores in depots along the route of the Polar journey; they felt they needed and had earned a rest. Their only complaint was there were too many lectures; Scott insisted on at least three a week and they seem to have bored the others considerably – except for Ponting’s magic lantern slides of Japan. A gramophone and a pianola provided background music and there was a constant flow of witticisms which one assumes to have been unprintable until one learns that Dr Wilson would leave the company if a coarse word was spoken.”
(from A Bad time – 1962)
Among other things, included in this collection, are Mitford’s thoughts on reading, descriptions of French country life, tourists in Torcello and a memorable portrait of Augustus Hare who as a young boy had been teased and tortured by cruel relations, had ended up a writer of travel books, a snob and toady of a wealthy old woman. Overall this is a lovely little collection that will appeal to Mitford fans, a couple of the later pieces rather bored me if I am honest, but the collection is very definitely worth reading for three or four really superb pieces alone. This edition comes with some rather nice illustrations by Osbert Lancaster, which I really would have liked more of.