A Witty Novelist's Life in Letters

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I HAVE come to the conclusion,'' confessed Nancy Mitford to her brother Tom in a letter penned in 1928 (her 24th year), ``that I am an entirely 2 dimensional person.... It depresses me.'' Apparently, it did not depress her very long.

Probably the wittiest and best-known - though certainly not the most notorious - of the seven Mitford siblings, Nancy Mitford (1904-1973) blithely transformed the peculiarities of her eccentric, aristocratic childhood and the hectic charms of her adult life as a perennial ``Bright Young Thing'' into a handful of sparkling novels that delighted readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Mitford, who began writing novels in the 1930s, really only hit her stride in the postwar years, with ``The Pursuit of Love'' (1945), ``Love in a Cold Climate'' (1949), ``The Blessing'' (1951), and ``Don't Tell Alfred'' (1960), not to mention a quartet of engagingly gossipy biographies of figures who struck her fancy: Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire, Louis XIV, and Frederick the Great.

Nancy's most notorious sister, Unity, a fervent follower and personal friend of Hitler's, shot herself when her native England and her beloved Nazi Germany went to war. Sister Diana married the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley; husband and wife were detained during the war as security risks. Sister Jessica, who gained fame as a writer in her own right, was a devout communist who further shocked her family by emigrating to America and marrying a Jew. Nancy, the eldest, considered herself a socialist, but her most visible passions were for people and places rather than politics. Her life, chronicled in a 1975 memoir by her friend Harold Acton and in a 1986 biography by Selina Hastings, was filled with disappointments and hardships, which she met with a determined, rather gallant insouciance.

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She was a voluminous letter-writer, especially in the latter part of her life, when she lived in France and kept up her English connections largely by means of the mails. Of some 8,000 surviving letters, Charlotte Mosley, the daughter-in-law of Oswald and Diana, has chosen roughly 500, more than enough to demonstrate Nancy's penchant for playful, sometimes malicious, mockery, or ``tease,'' as she liked to call it.

``By the way,'' she archly informs her friend Mark Ogilvie-Grant in 1935, just at the time her sister Unity was befriending the Fuhrer, ``I have discovered that we had a Jewish great grandmother ... a dear old lady with 14 brothers, all rabbis.... Don't forget to tell anyone who might feel interested - I am writing off to Hitler as I think he SHOULD KNOW.''

Yet, along with the light-hearted banter, Nancy's letters also reveal some of her most serious sentiments: ``If you could have a look, as I have, at some of the less agreeable results of fascism...,'' she mildly admonishes her Nazi-sympathizing mother in 1939, ``I think you would be less anxious for the swastika to become a flag on which the sun never sets.''

Nancy's love letters exhibit a certain desperation alongside the affection they express: Before her marriage to Peter Rodd in 1933, she fell in love with a young man of unsuitable (for her) orientation; as an unhappily married woman, she found the love of her life in Charles DeGaulle's right-hand man, Gaston Palewski. This worldly Frenchman did not quite reciprocate the degree of her ardor, but she remained attracted to him until the end of her days.

One of Nancy's favorite correspondents was fellow novelist Evelyn Waugh, who offered her valuable literary advice she didn't always take: ``I'm afraid that what you really criticize are my inherent limitations...,'' she protested. ``I can't do more really than skate over surfaces....'' Yet, below the surfaces of these letters, one discerns the spirit of a woman considerably more intelligent and more vulnerable than the bright, brittle facade she chose to present.

While few readers would wish for more than 500 of the 8,000 available letters (``tease'' loses piquancy in massive dosages), it is hard to judge how representative this particular selection may be. As a member-by-marriage of one branch of this politically polarized clan, Charlotte Mosley brings to her task an insider's familiarity, but also the suspicion of partisanship.

Mosley, who also edited a collection of Nancy's journalism, ``A Talent to Annoy'' (1986), provides useful, occasionally barbed, footnotes that are sometimes less informative and assiduous than one would like. Some references are not explained at all.

Whether or not this collection of Mitford's letters does full justice to its subject, however, it manages very well to convey the multifaceted charms of a character who was not really ``2 dimensional.''

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