'My great new friend is NoŽl Coward', Nancy Mitford confided to a correspondent in 1949. 'Bliss. He shakes like a jelly at one's jokes, I adore that.' It was laughs Nancy Mitford wanted, much more than grandeur. She longs to make people laugh, and sometimes, almost in the manner of a nervous stand-up comedienne, interrupts her letters to make sure that the audience is suitably convulsed. 'Are you shrieking?' she implores her sister Diana, in the middle of relaying some mildly amusing malice about a friend. To her lover Gaston Palewski ('Colonel'), she reports that Odette Massigli is having an affair with John Lehmann, who had never liked women before'. 'Are you shrieking, Colonel?' One hopes that he was. 'I have been screaming with laughter for several days on end,' Nancy reports, after reading a life of Queen Victoria. The French General Election of 1953? 'Oh, the election! Never has anything been so hysterically funny.' (Never?) In 1967, reading about the increased number of coloured immigrants to England, 'of course I screamed with laughter.' When a Spaniard suggests to her sister Lady Mosley mat Evelyn Waugh was only a Roman Catholic 'for a joke', 'we screamed with laughter.' And so on and so on. I am not being so puritanical as to deny that - at the time - all this must have been screamingly funny. On the printed page, I fear, it can seem dead and cold. I once asked Lady Mosley what she found so beguiling about Hitler's conversation. 'Oh, the jokes,' she said at once.
LRB 21 October 1993 | PDF Download