Waugh and Mitford: Grave Problems

Waugh’s friend Nancy Mitford is in the news relating to the publication in the USA of her biography by Laura Thompson, Life in a Cold Climate. See previous posts. The Wall Street Journal (10 January 2020) has a favorable review by Elizabeth Lowry, opening with this: “There are excellent biographies of Nancy Mitford–Selina Hastings’s and Lisa Hilton’s among them–but Laura Thompson’s is the gold standard.”

After summarizing and commenting on Thompson’s discussions of Mitford’s life and works in the inter- and post-war periods, Lowry sums up with this:

Having made mincemeat of the interwar English elite [in her novels, Mitford] turned her attention to the ancien regime just as English readers were growing inimical to her kind. While her friend Evelyn Waugh was increasingly embittered and frightened  by England’s postwar class shifts, Nancy, working from Paris and later in Versailles, wrote about Madame de Pompadour and Louis XIV and Voltaire with the same ruthless candour she had brought to her fiction and journalism. Ms. Thompson suggests plausibly that Mitford’s affair with France, rather than with the reluctant [Gaston] Palewski, was the most significant of her life, not just because it brought her contentment, financial stability, and autonomy–all the things she failed to find in her connections with men–but because it allowed her to become the author she had it in her to be.

On the same day, the website LitHub.com posted an excerpt from Laura Thompson’s book about Mitford. This begins with a description of Thompson’s visit to Mitford’s grave in rural Oxfordshire:

The little grave at Swinbrook church is a sad sight now. One searches for many minutes, eyes wandering over the whiter tombstones, and the shock of finding it is considerable. Can this possibly be right? It is like a grave from two hundred years ago: the grave of a forgotten and anonymous person, of a poor serving girl who died alone and unlamented. It is covered with the thick damp lace of greenish moss, and there are no flowers. […]

Yet as one of England’s most devout Francophiles she had dreamed of a burial at Père-Lachaise cemetery, “parmi ce peuple”—as Napoleon put it—”que j’ai si bien aimé.” She called it the “Lachaise dump,” but that was just her Englishness coming out. She loved the place. What she no doubt imagined was lying in florid, elegant state between Molière, La Fontaine, Balzac and Proust: a comforting thought, as if death were merely a continuation of her glittering Parisian middle age. […]

Nancy dreamed of beauty around her in death. “I’ve left £4,000 for a tomb with angels and things,” she wrote to Evelyn Waugh ten years before she died. “Surely it’s an ancient instinct to want a pretty tomb?” [Mitford/Waugh Letters, 479-81] She also dreamed, in a way that would have amused, but irritated Waugh like a verruca, of a heaven that was really like fairyland, full of the people she had loved, along with sexy men such as Louis XV and Lord Byron—”I look forward greatly. Oh how lovely it will be”—and with The Lost Chord playing. “And an occasional nightingale.” […]

So here [in Swinbrook] is the grave in which she lies. Sombre, dilapidated, rotted in deep unchanging Oxfordshire. No brilliant Père-Lachaise neighbors, no sparkling subterranean potins, just poor brain-damaged Unity Mitford beside her, the sister who put a bullet in her head on the day that war was declared and died from its slow creep nine years later. Some way away from these two, close to Pamela, lie the Mitford parents, David and Sydney, whose only son, Tom is commemorated by a plaque inside the church. Around that dear little stone doll’s house are scattered most of the remains of that rampaging family mythology. Now birds sing above the stillness; rabbits hop softly between the tombs. It is intensely withdrawn, intensely English; a silent reminder of what lies beneath the fantastical cleverness, the Francophilia, the taste for Boucher and Boulle and les gens du monde.

Not so far away in rural west Somerset, Evelyn Waugh’s grave is not so much neglected but, as Cyril Connolly might have put it, unquiet. As noted previously, it is at risk of collapsing into the adjacent churchyard due to a dispute among the civil and religious authorities as to who is responsible for approving needed improvements which the Waugh Estate wants to make to the retaining wall separating it from the churchyard.


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