The Mitford Scandal by Jessica Fellowes, was published last month in New York, following earlier publication in the UK. This is the third book in a series that places the Mitford sisters in the midst of fictional mysteries that occur around them. As noted in an earlier post, the first two volumes follow the story of the heroine Louisa Cannon from her working class adolescense to service in the Mitford family who give her support during a time of crisis.
In this book, she has been living in London with various unpromising jobs after failing to obtain an appointment in the Metropolitan Police. She reconnects with Nancy Mitford while working as a temporary at a reception for Diana Mitford and Bryan Guinness in connection with their marriage. They arrange for Louisa to be employed by Diana as her lady’s maid. She is happy to be back in employment with the Mitfords but would prefer police work.
This latest book advertises that Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford will be among the “coterie of friends” to appear in the story. This is less true of Waugh than it is of Nancy. The description of Waugh’s appearances would cover scarcely more than a page, if that. And he plays no role of importance in the plot.
The book covers the period 1928-1932. This time-frame brackets the engagement and marriage of Diana and Bryan and their impending break-up as Diana becomes acquainted and infatuated with Oswald Mosley. The book accurately but briefly mentions that Waugh and Diana became close friends during her pregnancy with her first child.
Waugh is first mentioned by name as accompanying Nancy on a visit to the Guinnesses, to whom he is already well known. Waugh’s book Vile Bodies had just appeared but he seems to think that Nancy’s career as an author is “as promising as his” (135). He may, however, also have appeared earlier (118) as an unidentified man seated next to Diana who is expostulating to her about Mussolini; that may, on the other hand, have been Oswald Mosley for all the reader is told.
Later Waugh is seen again at the home of the Guinnesses, once more with Nancy present. Louisa comments that he “practically trailed Diana’s every step these days, sitting on her bed as she read her morning letters and accompanying her to the shops…” (184). This sounds like it was during Waugh’s infatuation with Diana when she was pregnant, but nothing more is made of that in the novel. After this, Waugh disappears except for Louisa’s brief mention that she had herself read Vile Bodies “almost undercover, so darkly true was it of the life [Diana] led” (235).
After the book’s conclusion, there is an “Historical Note” in which it is explained, inter alia:
Evelyn Waugh, initially a good friend of Nancy’s, had become very close to Diana in the wake of his divorce. He dedicated his novel Vile Bodies to her and Bryan. Sadly, after her son Jonathan was born, she and Evelyn seemed to fall out and were never friends again in quite the same way.
That is an accurate, if rather abbreviated, description of their friendship. It hardly explains Waugh’s presence in the book, since he advances the plot not at all. There are other cultural celebrities who are given mentions. These include Cecil Beaton and John Betjeman, but their presence is even less felt than Waugh’s.
The mystery story is enough to keep the pages turning, but only just, and even then it helps to have a fairly keen interest in the Mitfords. The historical and literary allusions are also accurate and help support the story. Those eager to learn more about Evelyn Waugh and his relationship with the Mitfords will, however, likely be disappointed in what they will find in this book.